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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Great (and Terrible) Snowstorms of 1717



After such a cruel winter in much of the country this year, it seemed like a logical time to search the Colonial American era to see if they had any memorable winters on record. Indeed, I quickly discovered a terrible blizzard dubbed, “The Great Snow of 1717.”

Although there were not official weather records kept at the time, there were sufficient diaries of the day describing a winter that began in December of 1716 with five feet of snow, then climaxed in the Great Snow from February 27 through March, 7, 1717. The areas blanketed by the frigid white flakes were the colony of New York and the New England colonies.  It was certainly possible the snow was more widespread but white populations had not spread much further west at that point.

In “Historic Storms of New England” written in 1891, author Sidney Perley noted that even the oldest Native Americans of that day said that their ancestors had never seen such a storm.


Beginning on February 27, the Great Snow was actually four snowstorms that began with a typical, New England nor-easter, dropping a mixture of rain, sleet and snow. But by March 1, the major snowstorm hit. Then another storm on March 4. Then the worst of the three hit on March 7.

The cold colonists huddled in their homes, no doubt praying for relief. Many single story homes were completely buried by the additional five-feet of snow, plus drifts of up to 20 feet.

In Hampton, Massachusetts, some residents could only escape the confines of their homes through a window on the second floor. The chimneys in some dwellings were even covered with snow.

One widow in Medford, Massachusetts was trapped in her single story home. Her residence could not be found for many days until, finally, an eager rescuer observed a small plume of smoke. Neighbors brought their shovels to dig a pathway to the widow’s window. They discovered her supply of firewood had been depleted so she’d resorted to burning furniture to keep her children warm.

Postal delivery was temporarily halted but resumed after several days with post boys travelling on snowshoes. One New England carrier found the snow in the woods to be five feet deep while in some places, six to fourteen feet.


Not only were the humans impacted by these storms, animals both domestic and wild suffered tremendous losses. Even weeks after the storm, cattle were found dead, some still standing in their frozen state.

The greatest loss in wildlife appeared to be the deer that became victims of the hungry bears and wolves. Estimates cited that nineteen out of every twenty deer were killed that winter. It was such a huge loss that towns elected officials known as deer reeves to protect the survivors and allow for the forest population to increase.


Deer reeves had the authority within their jurisdiction to inspect private homes for the presence of fresh venison or deer hides. Fines were levied for those who broke the law.

The Great Snow damaged many orchards. Crusty ice broke branches, while surviving cows, wandering along the frozen crust of snow that stood many feet tall, munched on the tops of tender fruit trees. The bovines suddenly had access to choice morsels on the upper branches, thus injuring the future crop.

The storm, however, did not stop romance. Young Abraham Adams of Newbury, Massachusetts was homebound for a week when he could take no more: He missed the object of his affection, Miss Abigail Pierce, who lived some three miles away. Undaunted by the prolific snow outside his door, Mr. Adams donned his snowshoes and walked outside through an upstairs window onto the snow.  He found his way to the home of his love, entering through an upstairs window in Abigail’s house. He was the first visitor the family had received since the storm.


The Great Snow may have delayed the mail delivery that week—but it could not halt the delivery of love. J







20 comments:

  1. I loved this post, Elaine. Though we're expecting a whopper of a storm Wednesday into Thursday here in NY, I hope it isn't quite on this scale. My, how hardy people were then. And how unfortuneate that most homes these days have no fireplace. . ..

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  2. Thank you, Kathleen. And yes, fireplaces can be a lifesaver at such a time—literally! I sincerely hope your upcoming storm is nowhere NEAR as terrible as the Great Snow of 1717! Stay warm and thanks for stopping by. :)

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  3. What a wonderful article, Elaine! Even considering that we've had snow on the ground since Thanksgiving and it's pouring down again today, that's a whopper. Oh, my goodness! I guess I shouldn't be complaining. lol!

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    1. LOL, Joan! I feel the same way. :) Stay warm!!

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  4. Thank you! This post is perfect for today in particular. I am sitting here watching the snow come down in buckets here in Michigan. Today may be the day that we break the record, although after reading this post, I can imagine that it might not have been the very snowiest winter in history after all.

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    1. Jenny, I was amazed when I researched this. It was comforting to me after such an AWFUL season of snow and cold. History can be wonderful in its perspective of the big picture. Thanks for commenting!

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  5. Elaine! I'm SO excited that you posted on this. Abraham and Abigail are my grandparents!!! I love their story and have been writing about it. That book on New England weather by Sidney Pearley is one of my Favorites which I have a copy of. It has so many fascinating true life tales, and often mentions other ancestors of mine.

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    1. Carla, that is AWESOME! I had no idea that I was mentioning your ancestors!! So cool. :) I must say, I hope you have a book planned for this sweet couple—dare I hope? ;-)

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  6. Perspective...Great piece of historical perspective to douse our whining and complaining. I've experienced some ugly snowstorms and long winters, but nothing like this one. Praise God for our modern conveniences (weather warnings, insulated walls, double & triple pane windows, generators, snow blowers, telephones...)

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    1. ...not to mention snowplows! I completely agree with you, Merrie, and can relate to your complaining. It has been a long winter. But it gives me a sense of relief that there HAVE been worse. :) Thanks for stopping by.

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  7. Such an interesting article! That time period fascinates me. How much more difficult a big storm like that must have been to survive without the modern conveniences we have today! Thanks for enlightening me with a little history today!

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    1. Colonials were hardy folk, Angela. They had to be to survive SO much. And yes, it IS a fascinating time in our history, which is why so many of us love to learn about it. :) Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  8. A great post, Elaine. Our ancestors were surely hearty folk. We are blessed not only to have so many improvements that shelter us from freezing conditions, we also have the benefit of weather forecasters. Since I live in an area that is also impacted occasionally by hurricanes, I've often imagined the shock experienced by people who had to deal with that particular weather condition. The weather is usually delightful right before it hits, which would in no way prepare them for what was coming next.

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    1. Thanks, Janet. I've often thought about the sudden shock weather would bring in Colonial America. A gorgeous day suddenly turning dark and storms brewing overhead. It's difficult to imagine no weather forecasters or radar to track the atmosphere. Frightening. I suppose that's why many relied on the Farmer's Almanac and its occasionally correct forecasts. Something was better than nothing, I suppose!

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  9. Fascinating post, Elaine! How shocking that must have been, especially for those new from England, where they'd not have seen such snow accumulations and storms. Love the romance! Even snowstorms can't stop love. So did they later marry?

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    1. Apparently so, Carrie. Carla Olson Gade told me that Abraham and Abigail are her ancestors!!! Isn't that awesome?? I had no idea when I wrote this post. :)

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  10. Awesome post ! I am not looking outside until morning !!! It was snowing , Blowing and when I can see the sheet on the door between my washroom and kitchen blowing in the wind, well you know its windy out there. lol They say gusts to 50 and reg wind 20 to 35. We had over 8 inches earlier today and I am ok with snow but its not a day to go play in it that is for sure.
    Hugs
    Linda

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    1. Oh , we have a wood furnance and I do have oil lamps and a propane stove , so were golden even if the power goes out.
      Linda

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    2. Stay safe and warm, Linda. So glad you have a wood furnace!

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