The year 1816 was an unusual weather year all around the world. So unusual was the weather, that in many places, there was no summer weather. Some places in the northern hemisphere had freezing frosts in June, some snow in July, and many places had damaging storms. What we know about the weather in 1816 comes from journals and letters written by everyday people. There were no government agencies tracking the weather and making forecasts in the early 1800’s. Scientists now tell us that this summer of snow and freezing frosts was caused by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815. The resulting volcanic ash entered the upper atmosphere, moved through the jet stream, covering the globe and reflecting the sun’s rays back into space. Temperatures worldwide plunged lower overall, and in Vermont snow fell in June and frost covered crops in July and August in Europe.
Pennsylvania seems to have missed the very extremes of the cold weather that summer from what can be found in newspapers of that summer. The Gleaner newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, PA reported “At Chemung on 20th of July, the frost was so great it could be taken up by handful’s from the grass.”1 The Gleaner also reported that on July 2nd the town of West Chester “was visited with a severe hail storm; and that among the hail stones, there actually fell numbers of stones the size of walnuts. Some were of fel spars, some of quartz and some of white flint. It is added that the earth affords NO FEL SPAR within several miles of Westchester.” (Original emphasis, spelling and punctuation)
The Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette shared an article on August 20th ,1816 based on a personal letter posted in the Baltimore Sun, to show “that the unusual weather lately experienced in this part of the world is not confined to America, but has, as we may presume, been generally felt in the north and east part of Europe.” 2The article noted “that the people of England particularly northward of the capital make complaints about the lateness of the season…In the first week of June the crops of every sort were as backward as in the first week of May last year.” Snow and frost were reported in late May, and 9,000 sheep perished, one can assume from the lack of spring and summer grasses to eat as well as from being sheared in March and not being able to stay warm.
The Gettysburg Adams Centinel newspaper shared a local account of a hail storm in the Buffalo Valley of Pennsylvania which runs between Mifflinburg and Lewisburg. Homes and barns were leveled, and crops destroyed as hail and shards of ice fell from the sky.3
It’s worth pondering what the effect the weather that summer of 1816 would have had on your ancestors, no matter where they lived at the time. Did it cause anyone to starve that summer or be weaken so much that they died later that year? Did it make the family move to what seemed like better climate? Really put yourself in the place of someone living in 1816 and think about what you would you do. What was it like to live through a year without a summer?
1 The Gleaner, 19 July 1816, column 2, page 3; image copy, Newspapers.com edition (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/28679854/the_gleaner_wilkes_barre_pa_19_july/ : accessed 21 February 2019),
2 The Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, 20 August 1816, column 2, page 2; image copy, Newspapers.com edition (https://www.newspapers.com/search/#lnd=1&ymd=1816-08-20&t=895 : accessed 21 February 2019),
3 Gettysburg Adams Centinel , 3 July 1816, NewspapersArchive.com edition (https://access.newspaperarchive.com/us/pennsylvania/gettysburg/gettysburg-adams-centinel/1816/07-03/page-3 : accessed 21 February 2019, column 2, page 3