2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
The Great Snow of 1717: Settler Landscapes, Deep Snow
Cover, and Winter’s Environmental History
Abstract - This essay explores how New England settlers documented and interpreted the
Great Snow of 1717, a series of 4 snowstorms over 11 days followed by 6 weeks of deep
snow cover. The Great Snow is the best-known snow event from the colonial period, and it
has been extensively studied by historians of meteorology; however, it has received less attention
from environmental historians. This paper relies on numerous unpublished almanac
diaries, diaries, and letters; newspaper reports and sermons; and the well-known accounts
by John Winthrop and Cotton Mather. Together, these writings from throughout New England
show how colonists shared insights about the formation of snow cover and snowdrifts
in urban, coastal, and agricultural settings. The documents reveal patterns of winterkill
and survival in a landscape that had been altered profoundly by English colonists. Colonists’
descriptions of local devastation implied ambivalence about the idea of improving
the landscape and suggested that early 18th-century writers increasingly approached deep
snow cover as something they would have to live with and understand. Several consecutive
decades of severe winter weather, the recent adoption of snowshoes by English colonists,
the founding of the Boston News-Letter, a fragile peace after the 3rd Anglo–Wabanaki War
(1703–1713), and the innovative adaptation of religious forms to the study of winter landscapes
all contributed to a more sustained discussion of deep snow cover in 1716–1717 than
ever before. Some popular writers have trivialized the Great Snow of 1717, imagining it
apolitically and even ahistorically; this essay restores the broader political, historical, and
environmental contexts for this iconic winter event.
In late February 1717, four large snowstorms occurred in coastal New England
within a period of 11 days. Benjamin Webb of Braintree, Massachusetts, recorded
weather observations in a personal almanac diary:
February 18: “Snowy, a great Snow above mid legg”
February 21: “a Terible Storm of Snow”
February 24: “another Extraord: Storm Snow – heaps upon heaps”
February 28: “Snowd all day”
The combined snowfall created a deep snowpack that measured 3–5 ft (1–1.5 m)1
deep at different places from Connecticut to New Hampshire. Reports of snowdrifts
above that base snowpack ranged from 10 to 16 ft (3–5 m) in height, and
laborers removing the snow subsequently constructed artificial snow banks even
higher. The snowpack, snowdrifts, and snowbanks hardened over time and endured
*History Department, Program in American Studies, Trinity College, 300 Summit Street,
Hartford, CT 06106. Corresponding author - firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manuscript Editor: Matthew Mulcahy
Winter Ecology: Insights from Biology and History
2017 Northeastern Naturalist 24(Special Issue 7):H81–H114
Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
through the month of March. In mid-March, Webb (1717) observed “vast banks of
Snow as hard allmost as Ice, & a vast body in ye woods”. Even at the end of March,
he complained of “Snow banks sevl. foot deep yet remaining”. Settlers writing in
1717 used Old Style dates corresponding to the Julian Calendar; thus, when their
records are converted to New Style, or Gregorian Calendar, by adding 11 days,
their reports of snow cover in late March correspond to our early April. Little snow
fell in March, but the cold weather, winds, strong sunshine, and occasional rains
hardened the snowpack, prolonged human inconveniences, impeded the movements
of hoofed animals, and made it difficult for livestock to find forage. What came to
be known as the Great Snow of 1717 was not a single meteorological event but a
slowly forming ecological event, consisting of 4 snowstorms and then 6 weeks of
deep and relatively stable snowpack. Weather historians have written about the meteorology
of the snowstorms (Ludlum 1966:42–46, 242–244; Perley 1891:24–29).
Until recently, though, environmental historians have shown little interest in winter
environments, in part because of what I have called a “vernal bias” in the scholarship
on early North America (Adcock 2016; Coates and Morrison 2001; Mancall
2010:360; Wickman 2015a, 2015b). A close study of the Great Snow of 1717
shows the promise of examining winter’s environmental history. Documenting and
interpreting punctuated winter disasters, long periods of cold, and prosaic winter
ecologies will be essential to a fuller understanding of year-round colonialism in
the Northeast (Shoemaker 2015).
The Great Snow of 1717 was a distinctly colonial event, likely unprecedented
in pre-settlement times. Ebenezer Billings (1717) “inquired of Indians about 80
years old”, and learned “their fathers never told them of such a storme”. Climate
historians might dispute observers’ claims that the snow depths were “unparalleled”
(Billings 1717), given that Little Ice Age conditions had prevailed in the
Northeast with varying severity since at least the 1590s (Fagan 2000; Kupperman
1984; White, in press; Wickman 2015a). The findings of environmental historians
and winter ecologists, however, support the claim that by the turn of the 18th century,
newly created conditions produced winter events without precedent. During
the previous century, English colonists along the coast had cleared forests, built
towns, and introduced livestock in ways that made humans and non-humans more
vulnerable to deep snow. The snow load in Februrary–March 1717 struck densely
populated colonial cities particularly hard, especially Boston (Meyer 2009, Whitehill
and Kennedy 2000). The cumulative colonial modifications to the landscape,
especially in port cities and on pasture islands, inadvertently created new kinds of
New England winter landscapes. By clearing entire forests, rather than using fire
to clear only the undergrowth as Native Americans had done, settlers opened the
land to winter winds, leading to colder wind chills and deeper snowdrifts (Cronon
1983:122–123). Odocoileus virgianus (Zimmerman) (White-tailed Deer, hereafter
Deer) and Ovis aries L. (Domestic Sheep, herafter Sheep) died at staggering rates,
and sources suggest widespread damage to orchards and disturbances in the populations
of Equus ferus caballus L. (Domestic Horse, hereafter Horse) and Bos Taurus
L. (Domestic Cow, hereafter Cow, Bovine, Ox, or Cattle). Dire accounts of ecoNortheastern
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
nomic losses came disproportionately from areas where settlers had removed forest
cover to expand Indian planting grounds into broad English-style fields, widened
Native paths into colonial roads, bounded their properties with fences, and erected
2-story houses and other flat-sided structures in permanent clusters (Cronon 1983).
In other words, the Great Snow affected plants and animals most dramatically
where English influence was greatest. The methodologies of environmental history
are crucial in revealing the significance of the snows for human and non-human
residents of the Northeast, whose lives had become deeply intertwined by 1717.
At the same time, neither these colonial landscapes nor deep and lasting snow
cover were brand new in 1717. Colonists had documented prior severe winters, such
as 1641–1642, 1680–1681, and 1697–1698 (Kupperman 1984, Ludlum 1966). The
winter of 1697–1698, when settlers reported 30 snowfalls and widespread losses
of livestock, was a notable precursor to 1716–1717 (Kupperman 1984, Wickman
2015a). Indeed, the accumulation of experience through several consecutive decades
of severe winter weather, from the 1680s to the 1710s, contributed to the readiness
of colonists to try to explain the Great Snow of 1717. Even the term “great snow”
was not new in 1717. In Stonington, CT, Thomas Minor classified a storm as a “great
snow” in 15 different diary entries between 1653 and 1680 (Minor 1899:6–7, 11,
37, 43, 61, 66, 72, 77–78, 126, 152, 163). His son Manasseh Minor memorialized
“a great snow” 8 times between 1697 and 1705 (Minor 1915:27, 31, 33, 64, 73–74).
In Boston, Samuel Sewall designated at least 8 storms as “great snows” in his diary
in the 3 decades before 1717 (Sewall 1973, 1:90, 316, 328, 363, 389; 2:701, 706,
806). No one defined the term, “great snow”, which was a local alternative to the
more common fascination in England with great frosts, and which predated modern
terms like nor’easter and blizzard.
Numerous other factors led colonists to communicate more about the snow in
1716–1717 than in previous severe winters. The founding of the Boston News-
Letter in 1704, a noticeable increase in the practice of snowshoeing at the turn of
the 18th century (Wickman 2015a), a fragile peace after the Third Anglo–Wabanaki
War (1703–1713), and the innovative adaptation of religious forms to the study of
winter landscapes contributed to more sustained discussion of deep snow cover in
February–March 1717 than ever before. In almanac diaries, diaries, letters, newspaper
reports, and sermons, colonists shared insights about the formation of snow
cover and snowdrifts in urban, coastal, and agricultural settings. Few colonial
naturalists, if any, went out on snowshoes with the purpose of studying winter’s
nature, but a small number of couriers and other travelers on snowshoes transmitted
knowledge about the Great Snow in the weeks after the storms.
The snowstorms of late February 1717 were well documented in part due
to a number of happenstances that caused dozens of hyper-literate New England
ministers to take special notice, because they had converged in Cambridge
and Boston for the respective funerals of Reverends Ebenezer Pemberton and
William Brattle. Pemberton, minister for Boston’s South Church, died on 13
February, and Brattle, minister in Cambridge, passed away on 15 February, before
the snows began. The first 2 of the 4 major snowstorms affected services for
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Pemberton and Brattle, and consequently ministers became stranded in the storm
tracks of the 3rd and 4th snowstorms. Outside of Massachusetts Bay, the 4 snowstorms
and their lasting effects caused church services to be cancelled for multiple
weeks, which ministers took as a foreboding sign. As Eliphalet Adams later put it,
“God was Awfully Preaching to us” by the snow (Adams 1717b:28, 30).
Believers in divine providence, ministers were attentive to special events that
required interpretation, which they called meteors, prodigies, portents, judgments,
and remarkable providences (Hall 1989, Jankovic 2000, Kupperman 1984, Winship
1996). Writers called the Great Snow of 1717 terrible, prodigious, violent, excessive,
extraordinary, severe, furious, and mighty (Adams 1717a; BNL 1717e; Homes
1715–1747; Mather 1957 2:439; Mather, I. 1717; Paine 1717; Sewall 1886 2:69;
Sewall 1973 2:848–849; Webb 1717; Winthrop 1717a, 1717b). Winthrop (1717a)
remarked on the “Unusuall & Unheard of Snows”. Cotton Mather (1717) titled
his report, “An Horrid Snow”. Others detected “Tokens of [God’s] Displeasure”
(BNL 1717e), felt “much Rebuke from Heaven” (Mather 1957:440), and claimed
that “such judgments” had “not been known in the days of old men nor in ye days
of their fathers” (Billings 1717). When Eliphalet Adams (1717b:7–8) preached a
special sermon on 3 March in response to the snows, he noted that the snowstorms
might “seem wild and furious unto us, yet are they perfectly under the Divine
Government”. Colonial leaders eventually organized public fasts in response to the
snows, framing the weather as a collective punishment or warning (BNL 1717e;
Love 1895:316–319, 488–89).
In another sense, however, settlers’ writings were logistical, practical, and
grounded in everyday knowledge. Colonists expressed concerns about shortages of
food and fuel, and some writers suggested that poor settlers suffered most. Property-
owning colonists sustained financial losses when ships were cast away, orchards
were damaged, or livestock died. Much of the destruction resulting from the snow
was deferred. Animals survived for days and weeks in the snow, only succumbing
to hunger or cold when settlers failed to reach them. The snowstorms in 1716–1717
occurred during peacetime, diminishing their potential political import and making
settlers more willing to look for providential blessings along with judgments.
Moreover, heavy snowstorms physically obscured signs in the skies, causing people
to study the mundane, snowy world below, where they gathered together numerous
minor insights about plant and animal survival and mortality in the snow.
The snowstorms aroused attention among literate observers because the storm
tracks traced a line along the interconnected coastal settlements of New England
where the majority of settlers lived, from New London, CT, to Portsmouth, NH.
Extreme weather affected settlers’ distinctions between “improved” and wild space,
covering up fences and other markers of property, blocking roads, killing livestock
that colonists had introduced to the region, and seeming to bring wintertime nature
closer to them for a time (Anderson 2004, Cronon 1983, Mulcahy 2006,). In the
17th century, promotional authors had expressed optimism that improvements to the
landscape were rapidly tempering the climate of New England (Johnson 1959:84–
85, 207), but severe winter weather at the turn of the 18th century had undermined
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
this conviction (Kupperman 1984, Wickman 2015a,). Colonists’ descriptions of
local devastation implied ambivalence about the idea of improving the landscape
and suggested that early 18th-century writers increasingly approached deep snow
cover as something they would have to live with and understand. At the same time,
historical documents reveal spatial patterns of winter mortality and survivorship
in landscapes transformed by English colonists, and it is unclear to what extent
settlers grasped how their own land-use patterns had exacerbated the effects of
the snowstorms. Colonial development introduced new wintertime risks and perils
during storms. When viewed as a slow-moving event from the first snowstorm on
18 February to a public fast held on 4 April, the Great Snow of 1717 comes into
focus as what environmental historians call an “unnatural disaster” mediated by
humanmade landscapes (Steinberg 2000).
If the Great Snow of 1717 was a gradually unfolding disaster, human response
to it moved at an even more glacial pace, and this essay explores how settlers haltingly
documented and interpreted the event. The first section examines records of
the 4 snowstorms. Archival sources including letters and personal diaries, as well
as printed newspaper reports, chronicled the 4 snowstorms and the human inconveniences
that resulted. The second section explores how colonists encountered and
explained the enduring snowpack after the storms. The long aftermath of the 4 major
snowfalls gave literate New Englanders extraordinary opportunities to observe,
document, discuss, and interpret plant and animal responses to severe winter conditions.
The third section uses modern winter ecology to contextualize the findings
in an unpublished report by Ebenezer Billings as well as the well-known accounts
by John Winthrop and Cotton Mather. Authors of lengthy epistolary reports consciously
hoped to contribute to transatlantic scientific projects, and their writings
reveal a great deal about winter ecology after the storms. At a time when colonists
did not possess thermometers, they relied on language rather than numbers to describe
the storms and their effects.
The cumulative written record of weather conditions and animal responses make
the Great Snow of 1717 the best documented historical case study in New England
winter ecology from the colonial period. Winter conditions put into bold relief the
survival strategies and vulnerabilities of both wild and domestic animals, many
of which experienced elevated winter mortality due to a combination of feeding
problems, increased energy demands, and predation (Campbell et al. 2005, Gibson
and Bondrup-Nielson 2008, Stokes 1979). As Cotton Mather (1717) wrote, the
period from the 18 February snowfall until the thaw at the end of March became a
“time of scarcity” for “wild creatures of the woods”, especially Deer and Meleagris
gallopavo L. (Eastern Wild Turkey). Livestock, especially Sheep, on islands or at
remote and inaccessible grazing sites also suffered for weeks without contact with
humans. On the mainland, Canis lupus L. (Gray Wolf or Wolf) and other predators
compounded the storm’s impact on both wild and domestic animals. Colonists estimated
a 95% mortality rate among Deer and reported total losses of livestock in
the hundreds and thousands (Billings 1717; Mather, C. 1717). Together, the methods
of environmental history and the findings of modern winter ecology can help
Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
explain and contextualize these phenomena. Such punctuated effects of the storms
were predictable consequences of winter’s natural processes but were also indirect
results of a century’s worth of colonial changes to northeastern landscapes. Settlers
did not fully grasp the way they had exacerbated such winter dynamics, nor did they
acknowledge the consequences for Native Americans.
Observing Four Snowstorms
Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton’s interment had been planned initially for Saturday, 16
February, but “a great Storm of Snow and Sleet” caused the service to be suspended,
according to Samuel Sewall (1973 2:846), a longtime member of Pemberton’s congregation.
Few people grouped the 16 February snowstorm with the 4 that followed
from 18 to 28 February, but the preview of things to come on 16 February was sufficient
to cause the funeral to be delayed by 2 days. On Monday, 18 February, the
day of the rescheduled burial, the first “Great Storm of Snow” occurred, and the
proceedings went ahead anyway, thanks to timely, if arduous, snow removal (Sewall
1973 2:846). Sewall (1973 2:846) reported “good going under foot … a broad path
being made” to the burial site, although others faced challenges. Boston minister
Increase Mather (1717) complained that the “very stormy snowy” conditions meant
he “could not attend mr Pembertons funeral interred this day”. Rev. William Brattle’s
interment was held 2 days later, on 20 February. Samuel Sewall and his adult
son Joseph Sewall traveled that afternoon “in Capt. Belchar’s Slay”, and returned
without any trouble in the evening. That night, the elder Sewall (1973 2:848) noted,
“Another Snow coming on. Laus Deo”.
In spite of an ongoing snowstorm the next day, 21 February, a funeral sermon
in honor of both Pemberton and Brattle during the usual Thursday lecture in Boston
attracted a large crowd. Over the course of this second “Extraordinary Storm
of Snow”, Sewall reported “many Men at Lecture to hear Mr. [Benjamin] Colman
preach the Funeral Sermon of Mr. Pemberton and Mr. Brattle”, and “After Lecture
the Storm increases much, grows more vehement” (Colman 1717; Sewall 1973
2:848). Some ministers did not make the trip. Reverend Joseph Gerrish, who had
arrived in Cambridge from Wenham on 18 February, the day of the first snowstorm,
wrote on 21 February, in an abbreviated notation, “Sto sno: many detaind”
(Gerrish 1717–1719). After 21 February, few clergymen seem to have left Cambridge
The convergence of snowstorms and religious meetings continued with the 3rd
snowstorm falling on Sunday, 24 February, interrupting Sabbath services in Boston,
Cambridge, and throughout the region. Sewall (1973 2:849) worried that, “Hardly
any of the Ministers at Mr. Brattle’s Funeral are got home”, and more broadly, “‘Tis
feared many Congregations fail’d”. At Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard, Rev. William
Homes (1715–1747) wrote “it was so [stormy] on the Lords day that nobody
could go to the meeting house to attend the publicke worship of God”. In Braintree,
Benjamin Webb (1717) reported “no meeting”. Rev. John Swift of Framingham,
MA, wrote, “We had no meeting by reason of a very deep snow” (Barry 1847:64–
65). New London minister Eliphalet Adams (1717a) recorded in his diary, “The 24th
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
was also an other as furious a Storme of Snow as the first. There was not Meeting at
ye Church the Storme was so hard & Violent”. New London farmer Joshua Hempstead
(1901:64) wrote more plainly, “it Snowed Smartly last night & this morn
windy & Cold. No meeting”. How people spread the word that services had been
canceled is not clear from the sources. Perhaps they simply looked out to see that
no one had attempted to break through the snow. As Adams (1717b:28) later put it,
“There was scarce a possibility of stirring out or so much as making an attempt to
go up to Publick Worship”.
Boston and Cambridge may have been among the few towns or cities in
New England to hold meetings that Sunday. The visiting minister Joseph Gerrish
“preacht at Cabr” in the morning, rather than in his home town of Wenham
(Gerrish 1717–1719), and Reverend Thomas Blowers of Beverly, MA, followed
with the afternoon sermon (Cotton 1717). Of Boston’s Old South Church, Sewall
(1973 2:848–849) wrote, “Violent Storm of Snow, which makes our Meeting very
thin especially as to Women”. There was no meeting at the “New-South” church. At
Boston’s North Church, Increase Mather wrote, “A.M. I preached & administered
Lords Supper. P.M. Not about because it was an extreme stormy & snowy day”
(Mather, I. 1717). That day, his son Cotton Mather also preached a sermon on the
somewhat obscure verse, 2 Samuel 23:20, “The Mystery of Benajah killing a Lion
in a Pitt, in a Time of Snow”. In his diary, Cotton Mather (1957) worried, “Never
such a Snow, in the Memory of Man! And so much falling this Day … that very
many, of our Assemblies had no Sacrifices”.
The final storm struck on 28 February, yet again the day of Thursday lecture.
Cotton Mather selected a wintry Biblical passage, Psalm 147:16–18, asserting the
divine origin of snow, frost, hail, and ice, and then promising a thaw—“He sendeth
his word and melteth them” (Sewall 1973 2:849). A thaw would come, but not until
mid-to-late March in most places.
After the 4 snowstorms, the recovery was slow, and writers continued to express
concern about disruption to church meetings. The next Sunday, 3 March, Rev. Joseph
Gerrish attended services in Cambridge and noted that in his absence, “No
Sacrat: at Wenham” (Gerrish 1717–1719). Rev. Increase Mather wrote ruefully: “I
was not abroad this Lords day, my right foot something swelled, & I was afraid of
wetting my foot [blot] the Streets very sloppy. No coach or cart can go, because
of that [blot] great snow” (Mather, I. 1717). In Stonington, CT, Manasseh Minor
(1915:135) noted “no meetin by reason of snow”, and in New London, Joshua
Hempstead (1901:64) could be thankful that “Mr Adams pr. al. d.” (or that Reverend
Eliphalet Adams had delivered the usual sermons), though he regretted “a thin
apearance” at the meetinghouse. Rev. Adams (1717b:30) himself acknowledged in
his sermon that, “it is more than probable that even this day, [many are] hindred
from going to the House of God in Company with us by the remaining Effects of
the late Storm”.
In some towns, even if congregants could have made it to the meetinghouse, their
minister would not have been there. Rev. John Cotton (1717) of Newtown (now
Newton) wrote, “I suppose bec. of Conventions last week, yr County was generally
Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
wtout preaching. I believe ye like was never known as to ministers absence from yr
parishes”. Sometime between 25 and 28 February, Thomas Paine (1717) wrote that
the “Marbleheadmen sent a shallop to Boston for yr Ministers”, and that another
group of ministers aborted an intended journey from Boston to Ipswich. On 5 March,
Paine again wrote that “The Ministers, yt wr Still detaind by ye storm, set out from
Camb”. Rev. Joseph Gerrish of Wenham, MA, kept his diary while “detein’d 15 days
By Depth of Snow” (Gerrish 1717–1719), and John Denison, of Ipswich, confessed
in a letter he was “impatiently waiting to get home” (Denison 1717).
Outside of urban centers, few residents of rural hamlets penned letters during
and after the storms because there was little prospect of having them delivered,
even in late March. Waitstill Winthrop (1717d) generalized on 25 March that
though the snowpack was “wasted by the sea yet a little into the country there has
been no stirring”. As a result, people like Jonathan Huntington of Windham in eastern
Connecticut, about 48 km (30 mi) north of New London, simply kept a private
record for posterity (Huntington 1717–1759:12). In spite of high literacy rates, New
England settler culture was still predominantly oral. News of the snows passed by
word of mouth within and between small communities and evolved into local and
regional lore; only in rare cases did this folk memory of the snowstorms pass into
writing, let alone print (Hall 1989:81–85).
If one comment linked the scattered observations of diarists and letter writers, it
was that the snowstorms of late February 1716–1717 surpassed any known winter
event up to that point in colonial New England. Increase Mather wrote on 21 February,
“The greatest snow that I ever knew” (Mather, I. 1717). Thomas Paine (1717)
wrote on 24 February, “yr is supposed now to be more snow on ye Ground yn ever
[ws] at one Time before”. Cotton Mather (1957 2:439) wrote on 28 February, “As
mighty a Snow, as perhaps has been known in the Memory of Man”. In a sermon
on 3 March, Eliphalet Adams (1717b:27) sought to explain in religious terms why
“the Snow Descended in so very great a Quantity, far beyond what is Usual and hath
almost been known in the Memory of man”. Of course, English settlers’ collective
memory about weather in the Northeast only reached back about a century, which
explains why Billings (1717) queried Native Americans about their deeper experience
in the region.
Interestingly, other writers waited until weeks later to deem this event the
“greatest snow”, perhaps taking into consideration the weeks of severe cold that
followed the snowfall. On 12 March, Waitstill Winthrop (1717b) wrote, “it has been
such a Time, as has not been known for many years”. On 14 March, a correspondent
from Rhode Island wrote to the Boston News-Letter (1717d), “Such a violent
Storm of Deep Snow as has been here of late, was never known before, by any of
the Oldest Livers”. Two months later, Ebenezer Billings looked back at the recent
“unparalleled snose” as winter events that had been unknown to past generations
of settlers, and he anticipated that they might not be rivaled in the future. Billings
(1717) felt it his religious duty to collect evidence that winter: “it is agreeable to
the will of god that we tell it to our children that they may tell it to their children
and they to an other generation. ... Recording the wondrous providence in the late
storms of snow and wind”.
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
Historical climatologists have identified the years from 1675 to 1715 as a period
of global cooling and one of the coldest phases of the Little Ice Age, sometimes
called the Late Maunder Minimum (Fagan 2000, Wickman 2015a). Colder weather
did not necessarily produce more snowstorms, but lower temperatures prolonged
the effects of deep snowfall, because the resulting snowpack was less likely to thaw.
New England settlers took notice of the severe winter weather, especially when
2 long conflicts, the Second and Third Anglo–Wabanaki Wars (1688–1699 and
1703–1713, respectively), compounded the stresses on their communities (Wickman
2015a). Cotton Mather (1717) put the extreme winter events of 1716–1717 into
this larger context of anomalous weather: “rarely does a Winter pass us, wherein
we may not say with Pliny, Ingens Hyeme Nivis apud nos-copia, yet our last winter
brought with it a Snow, that excelled them all”.
Manuscript diaries kept in printed almanacs reveal in extraordinary detail how the
weather events developed, using qualitative descriptors because New England still
lacked weather instruments for taking precise measurements. Almanacs were short,
printed pamphlets, usually between 16 and 24 pages, with at least 1 page dedicated
to the natural phenomena of a single month, including sunrise and sunset, high and
low tides, and astronomical changes, as well as weather predictions based on past
years’ experience. Private users purchased a copy of the almanac and sometimes inserted
blank pages beside each month’s page, sewing these interleaved sheets into a
new binding and even using pens to draw orthogonal lines for tables of weather data.
Benjamin Webb and Eliphalet Adams wrote 1 line per day in their respective almanac
diaries. As early as 1663, shortly after the founding of the Royal Society of London,
Robert Hooke had developed a “Method for Making a History of the Weather”,
hoping to systematically collect and synthesize observations within England, from
English colonies, and beyond, but few New England colonists sent weather diaries
across the ocean until the 1720s and 1730s (Golinski 2007:55, 94; Sprat 1667 1:173–
179). In 1717, settlers kept almanac diaries primarily for local use.
Diarists’ observations of winds coming out of the northeast and northwest shed
light on the initial snowstorms as well as subsequent weather trends. Thomas Paine
used a weather code to record a wide range of meteorological conditions in his
almanac diary. He noted the prevailing weather 3 times per day, with special attention
to relative temperature, precipitation type, and wind direction. Paine’s (1717)
notations of a “NE” wind during snowstorms of 16, 18, 21, 24, and 28 February
affirm weather historians’ references to the Great Snow of 1717 as a nor’easter,
which is an extratropical cyclone with counterclockwise winds that usually moves
up the North American coast and strikes New England from October to April
(Keim 2005:597–598; Ludlum 1966 1:43; Zielinski and Keim 2003:181–182). The
storms are characterized by “cold northeasterly wind flow” and often bring “heavy
snowfalls, high winds, and coastal flooding and erosion” (Keim 200:597). The second
snowstorm, which lasted from the evening of Wednesday, 20 February to the
morning of Friday, 22 February, was almost certainly a nor’easter. One writer from
Rhode Island called that event “a violent North East Storm of Wind & Snow” (BNL
1717c). Dr. William Douglass, who had moved from Scotland to Boston in 1716,
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declared, “The N. E. Storms are of the greatest Continuance”, and recalled a “Wind
at N. E. Northerly” during that second storm of 21 February (Douglass 1749–1751
2:212). But this identification of a single storm type may be augmented, given the
clear evidence of changing wind directions and storm patterns during the 4 different
snowstorms over 11 days. Weather historians have developed nuanced ways to rate
the severity of historical winter storms, which may reveal more about a convergence
of meteorological conditions, if applied to 1717 (Kocin and Uccellini 2004,
Zielinski 2002), but wind directions also tell us about settlers’ understandings of
winter dynamics (White 2015). Paine (1717) recorded northwest winds on 20, 22,
24, 25, and 26 February, which his peers would have understood as a shorthand for
freezing winds. Further, Paine’s records and other sources suggest that colonists
viewed northwest winds long after the storms—on 8–10 March, for example—as
contributing to the frigid conditions and stable snow cover.2
Observing the Fallen Snow
In 1716–1717, most colonial writers turned their purview to the ordinary workings
and meanings of fallen snow, looking for evidence of God’s benevolence in
having created an orderly natural world. In this sense, the snowstorms amplified
the usual workings of the winter world, allowing settlers to better understand the
season. Hopeful to document God’s general providence, New England writers drew
upon the language of wonders and curiosities, a tradition in slow decline (Hall
1989, Parrish 2006). A few observers sought evidence of the snow’s benefits, focusing
particularly on strange cases of livestock that survived for days or weeks under
the snow. The regional event presented special opportunities for learning, and justified
collaboration among college graduates, aspiring naturalists, and witnesses to
notable natural occurrences. Cotton Mather regularly requested reports from informants
who might contribute to his “curiosa Americana”, a series of natural history
reports rife with wondrous details, and he added a write-up about the Great Snow
of 1717 to his series (Kittredge 1916:28–29, 44; Stearns 1970:406, 410). In 1717,
everyday settlers thought and wrote about the functions of snow within the natural
world more than ever before. In their comments on life in the snow, colonists explored
some of the themes that later became central to the 20th-century development
of the academic field of winter ecology.
Firsthand documents about the Great Snow of 1717 reveal that colonists’ observations
of snowy landscapes still took place predominantly within agricultural
and urban spaces where families lived and worked, especially during periods of
severe cold and snow when settler mobility was constrained. Outside their homes,
at the meetinghouse, and beside their barns, colonists studied and discussed what
historian Sara Gronim (2007) has called “everyday nature”. It may be true that
some colonial naturalists used transatlantic letters to create a pastoral sphere of
disinterested learning and candid friendship, as Susan Scott Parrish (2006) has
argued, but in short-distance correspondence, private diaries, and Sunday sermons,
New England writers consciously assembled natural history archives with local and
regional purposes. By 1717, graduates of Harvard College had fanned out through
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
New England, taking positions at the pulpit, in colonial government, and in business.
3 With a shared educational background and living within 100 miles (160 km)
of each other, 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th- generation ministers consistently recorded observations
and occasionally exchanged insights about biotic and abiotic processes visible
to them from their daily course of labor. They did not always credit conversations
with their lay neighbors.
Writers in places like Cambridge, Boston, and New London remarked
on the way wind shaped and transformed fallen snow in the days and weeks after
the snowstorms. Settlements on islands, peninsulas, and riverbanks were exposed
to particularly severe winter winds. In Dorchester, Ebenezer Billings (1717) marveled
at “the violence of the wind”. On 3 March, when Eliphalet Adams preached
a sermon in New London in response to the snowstorms, he chose for his central
text a verse about wind from the book of Nahum: “The LORD hath His Way in the
Whirlwind, and in the Storm, and the Clouds are the Dust of His Feet” (Adams,
1717b:1). Clusters of houses and barns, particularly 2-story structures, blocked
the blowing snow, which drifted against the walls on one side and left snow shadows
on the other. In fields and pastures, the wind deposited huge drifts against
roadsides, fences, stands of trees, and outbuildings. The snow’s dynamic motion
itself was a marvel to behold. In a 20 February diary entry, Eliphalet Adams
(1717a) described the snowdrifts in New London as “Like Hills or Small Mountains”.
On 22 February, Benjamin Webb (1717) witnessed “extraordinary wind,
& cold, the snow blowing prodigiously”. Cotton Mather (1717) later reported a
16-ft (5-m) snowbank in a sheep pasture, a 12-ft (4-m) drift where Cattle were
left to forage, and drifts tall enough to cause 1-floor houses to be “totally covered
with ye Snow”. It is worth emphasizing that Mather marked these snowdrifts as
having formed across agricultural landscapes. Elsewhere, Webb (1717) and Cotton
Mather (1717) described the snow as lying in “heaps”. The winds created the
largest accumulations where humans had altered the landscape by removing natural
obstacles to the wind over large expanses and by putting up vertical structures
that inadvertently blocked the spreading of the snow.
This drifting might have been most dramatic at settlements near rivers and harbors,
where people cleared trees and built houses back from the shore. A history
of Eastham, MA, on Cape Cod, recalled that around the Reverend Samuel Treat’s
house, “The wind blew with violence; and whilst the grounds around his house
were left entirely bare, the snow was heaped up in the road to an uncommon
height” (History of Eastham 1802). Elsewhere, the winds artificially flattened
out the landscape, filling in ditches, crevasses, and paths or roads that passeed
through elevated terrain. Billings (1717) explained how the “the wayes were
filled [levell] with the low hills that were to windward”. The Boston News-Letter
quipped on 25 February, “This Month of February has been a Cold Winter Month,
which has verify’d the old Proverb February fill Dyke, with either black or else
white” (BNL 1717a).
If only the few people outside during windy periods witnessed the formation
of the snowdrifts, many more later came outside to see the resulting natural
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monuments. On 21 and 22 February, Joshua Hempstead (1901:64) wrote in his diary
in New London that “ye wind blew very hard the driftts in Some places higher
yn a mans head”; Hempstead estimated that “ye Snow is drove in Some places 10
or 12 foot deep”. Dorchester church records reported “Snow in drifts twenty-five
feet deep” (Harris 1804:196).
When the snowstorms concluded, people went outside to measure the average
snow depth. The snowpack was deepest in northern New England. In the
interior forests of the Piscataqua River watershed, at the border of present-day
New Hampshire and Maine, snow lay “five foot deep on a lavel”, according to the
Boston News-Letter (1717c). In coastal Connecticut and Rhode Island, by contrast,
measurements tended to be “a yard Deep” or 3–4 ft (1 m) on level ground (Adams
1717a). Similarly, Thomas Paine (1717) wrote that the snow lay “near levell,
between 3 & 4 feet deep” on the Cambridge town common. The reports are consistent
with general patterns in the northeastern snow gradient: snowfall and snow
accumulation both tend to be greater the further northward and inland one goes in
the region. Yet, at the same time, since the settlers in southern New England had
cleared more land, extraordinary snowdrifts may have been more common in the
south than in the north.
It is ambiguous whether colonists fully recognized how their alterations to the
land had influenced snow formations. Most settlers may not have appreciated
the contrast between patterns of snow accumulation across forested and cleared
land because exploration of the snowy woods required snowshoes. References
to snow depths in forested interior areas tended to focus on average snow depth.
In Windham, CT, Jonathan Huntington (1717–1759:12) recalled the snow being
“three foot and an half or four feet deep upon a level”. From Martha’s Vineyard,
William Homes (1715–1747) reported, “the snow was said to be in the woods
where it did not drive about 3 feet and a halfe deep generally on the maine land
and in many places much deeper”. Benjamin Webb (1717) noted, “Snow in ye
woods near 4 foot deep”. Joshua Hempstead (1901:64) heard that the snow lay “4
foot deep in ye woods on a Level”. By using the phrase “on a level”, whether in
urban, rural, or forested settings, informants emphasized that these were modest
estimates of the areas where no drifting or depressions occurred (Adams 1717a,
After each snowfall, laborers cleared paths through town centers, creating snow
banks that grew to enormous heights. The combined effects of naturally blowing
snow and human efforts at snow disposal gradually created snowbanks even higher
than the early drifts. In Cambridge, by the 3rd snowstorm, Thomas Paine (1717)
heard reports of “many Banks, to be between 20 & 30 feet deep”. Who performed
the work of removing snow? Joseph Gerrish (1717–1719) wrote on 23 February
simply that, “people dug us out”. Not all the snow was removed from roadways,
and a bottom layer was packed and smoothed into a hard base. As the Boston
News-Letter (1717a) wrote, reliable travel could not “be expected till the Roads
(now impassable with a mighty Snow upon the ground) are beaten”. Wide, stable
roads were especially important for travel by horse-drawn conveyances, a marker
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
of status distinction, but the luxury of even partially cleared roads was practical
only in and around city and town centers. The limits to muscle power forced people
to make choices about where to remove snow and where to leave it (Meyer 2009).
English writers did not mention the use of draft animals for snow removal in 1717.
On the crowded streets of Boston, the most concentrated effort to clear the
roads resulted in only limited progress. On 22 February, Samuel Sewall (1973
2:846–848) found it “terribly surprising to me to see the extraordinary Banks of
Snow on the side of the way over against us”. The Boston News-Letter (1717a)
reported on 25 February that in the provincial seat, “the Snow lies in some parts
of the Streets about Six foot high”. According to Thomas Paine’s (1717) almanac
diary, clergymen attempting to travel from Boston to Ipswich “attended wth y
Shovelmen”, but no number of “[s]hovelmen” could facilitate such a long journey,
and they turned back.
Travel conditions in the month of March proved dismal, as much of the snow remained
intact, while in some places it slowly turned to slush, mud, or ice. Wheeled
vehicles sunk into the snow and found little traction. The risks of a Horse or Ox
becoming injured or a cart or sleigh breaking due to rocks or holes beneath the snow
made only the shortest trips safe. Cotton Mather remarked on 7 March, “The Business
of the Country has an uncommon Stop upon it”, and on 10 March he fretted
about divine providence “shutting me out from the Service of the Flock” (Mather
1957 2:440). Rev. John Swift noted in Framingham on 10 March, “The Lord’s supper
adjourned till the next Sabbath, by reason of the restraint of the season by deep
snow” (Barry 1847:64–65). There were no reports of flooding. In Windham, CT,
Jonathan Huntington (1717–1759:12) wrote that the crusted-over, 4-ft (~1-m)-deep
snowpack stayed solid until 14 March, and thereafter it only “wasted away gradely”.
In Braintree, Webb (1717) was still noting, “Extream bad Travelling” in mid-March
and “bad Travelling” at the end of the month. On 18 March, a correspondent from
New London reported “travelling yet very bad”, and that day the Eastern Post arrived
in Boston late due to “deep Snow upon the ground” (BNL 1717e). Waitstill
Winthrop (1717c, 1717d) went on reporting “impassable” roads on 19 March and
snow “so deep” on 25 March that interior travel was still impossible. On 26 March,
Sewall (1973 2:850) still warned, “very bad way, No Sled, Cart or Calash has gone
that I can see”. By then, muck was as much of a problem as snow.
Painstaking trips through deep snow could only cover so much distance. On 12
March, Waitstill Winthrop (1717b) wrote from Boston, “the snow is so deep and like
to be so that nobody can stir ten miles from hence”. The radius of feasible travel by
foot or with draft animals elsewhere in southern New England was much smaller.
Without the labor of these animals to move goods around the region, Boston experienced
shortages of fuel and food. On 7 March, Thomas Paine (1717) reported, “A
very great Scarcity of Wood (and also Provisions) at Boston & ye adjacent Towns”,
and on 8 March, he remarked about Harvard College, “The Scholars began to
leave ye Coll for want of Wood”. Such statements are a reminder of just how much
colonists in urban centers depended on regular winter transport of firewood to keep
their homes and public buildings habitable. Henry David Thoreau (2008:178) later
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wrote, based on an unknown source, that “farmers could not get to the woods and
swamps with their teams, and were obliged to cut down the shade trees before their
houses”, presumably for fuel, even though green wood burned poorly.
Settlers who knew how to snowshoe and were willing to make the exertion could
travel on top of the snowpack, lightly pressing down trails where the snow naturally
lay flat. Snowshoes expanded an individual’s travel opportunities significantly,
and evidence from 1717 implies that a growing minority of colonists used them.
In several documents, writers referred to snowshoeing as the exception to the rule,
using double-negatives. In the midst of the February snows, Webb (1717) found
that there was, “No traveling for horse, or man, but with Rackets”. Similarly, on 1
March, Eliphalet Adams (1717a) reported, “no Stirring avout or travelling to & fro.
Unless some few that used Rackets or Snowshoes”. Both Webb and Adams specifically
noted that snowshoe travel was possible where Horse travel was too risky.
John Denison successfully journeyed on snowshoes across the Charles River from
Cambridge to Newton on Tuesday, 26 February, between the 3rd and 4th snowfalls.
A graduate of Harvard College with experience as a sheriff and military officer,
Denison had acquired a skill that many of his neighbors in Ipswich and throughout
New England had not (Cotton 1717, Denison 1717). It was no coincidence that a
New Hampshire correspondent to the Boston News-Letter made a more straightforward
declaration in the first-person plural, “we Travel here altogether with Snow
Shoes, Horses not being able to pass” (BNL 1717c). In northern New England,
snowshoeing ability was more widespread, in part because of recent service in the
Anglo–Wabanaki Wars (Wickman 2015a).
Snowshoeing skills and serviceable snowshoes were distributed unevenly
throughout the region and within each town, and those who knew how to travel
over the snow endeavored to help those who did not. Indeed, it seems to have taken
some time for sufficient men with snowshoeing skills to be summoned and assembled
when a special job demanded that ability. On 7 March, Joshua Hempstead
(1901:65) wrote that in New London, “Ensign George Way was buried brought by
men on Snow Shoes, he hath been dead 10 or 12 days”. Billings (1717) wrote of
one neighboring community, “their town being well furnished with snow shoes thay
soon Release[d] such as was shut up”. He also relayed an anecdote about a young
couple and their children trapped in a house, with the chimney “full of snow” and “a
banke in the home”. The father did not possess snowshoes, and when the children
called for food, the man “Endeavored to go to a hous about a mile from him”, but
he worried that he would not be able to make the round trip and gave up. The next
morning, “finding hunger pinch himself as well as his children”, the man resolved
to go out a second time into the snow. In preparation, he fashioned “stokins and
shoes” especially for the trip, put on his “peticote” and “goun”, and “upon the second
adventure (hunger driving him hard)” he succeeded in reaching his neighbor,
“who by the help of snow shoos Relieved them” (Billings 1717). Overall, persistent
reports of lengthy travel delays in 1717 indicate that only some colonists owned
or knew how to use snowshoes. In milder winters, most people simply had waited
for the snow to subside or freeze over. But the distribution of printed newspapers
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by snowshoes in peacetime (BNL 1717c) seems to have knit colonists together in
wintertime to a greater degree than before.
The snow interfered with but did not entirely prohibit postal delivery throughout
the region during this long period. Postal service itself was only a few decades
old, but by the 1710s it functioned year-round with few interruptions (Grandjean
2015:173–174, 204). The first report of the snowstorms in the Boston News-Letter
(1717a) on 25 February predicted poor communication: “The extremity of the
Weather has hinder’d all the Three Posts from coming in; neither can they be expected”.
One week later, the newspaper again reported, “the Snow so deep that there
is no Travelling” (BNL 1717b). The delivery of the post to northern (or “eastern”)
settlements depended entirely on snowshoes; a New Hampshire postal messenger
appeared in Boston on 8 March “with his Mayle and Snow Shoes” (BNL 1717c). The
southern and western posts also faced persistent challenges. In mid-March, the posts
were still delayed, “By reason of the Difficulty and Danger of the Road, occasion’d
by the vast body of Snow still remaining” (BNL 1717d). Communication by sea was
interrupted, too. Waitstill Winthrop (1717b) wrote from Boston on 12 March, “no
news stirring here by reason of no Vessels from any part”. Even on 1 April, the newspaper
excused postal setbacks the previous week, “the Roads being still very deep
with Snow and bad Travelling” in northern New England (BNL 1717f).
For most human inhabitants of colonial New England, the hallmark experience
of the Great Snow of 1717 was what Billings (1717) called “long confinement”.
With improved transportation and communication technologies, news did travel
better in 1716–1717 than it had decades earlier, but people waited to receive it. In
a 27 February letter, between the 3rd and 4th snowstorms, Rev. John Cotton (1717)
wrote from Cambridge to his father Rev. Rowland Cotton in Sandwich that their
shared acquaintances “At Boston wr lodg’d as prisoners”. New London farmer
Joshua Hempstead (1901:64) wrote on 8 of 10 days from 21 February to 2 March
that he “was at home al day”, a refrain that had been common in his diary during the
winter months but not with such repetitive frequency. Without being able to travel,
some settlers feared shortages of food or clothing. On 3 March, Eliphalet Adams
(1717b) preached to a small New London audience, “there is hardly any stirring
from our Places about our Necessary Business or Providing our selves with those
Conveniences of Life which yet it is very Uncomfortable to want”. Cotton Mather
(1717) claimed that some “Cottages” owned by the poor were entirely submerged
by snow. He wrote in his diary on 8 March, “Many People are thrown into Straits
and Wants, by the Difficulties of the Season; I would both express and excite all
suitable Expressions of Charity on these Occasions”. The next day, he wrote more
specifically, “There is a poor Widow in this Neigh[bor]hood, who, with her son, is
exposed unto Difficulties. I would make my House to become an Home unto them”
(Mather 1957 2:440). Tradition, in Sutton, MA, held that among the few early settlers
of the town in the winter of 1716–1717, one family became stranded in a “hut”
covered by snow, until “an Indian, who knew the circumstances, … found the hut
only by the hole which the smoke from the fire place had made through the snow”
(Thoreau 2008:178, Whitney 1793:90).
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Faced with extreme conditions, writers resorted to all kinds of words to portray
their struggles with deep snow. William Homes (1715–1747), Eliphalet Adams
(1717a), and Waitstill Winthrop (1717b, 1717d) referred to the eerie calm and
restrained travel with a derivation of the phrase “no stirring”. Winthrop (1717b,
1717c) and an author in the Boston News-Letter (1717a) classified the roads as
“impassable”, “unpassable”, and “hardly passable”. Cotton Mather (1717) invented
the term “innived” to denote the condition of being buried in snow. John Winthrop
(1717a) called 1716–1717 a “Doleful Winter” and Benjamin Webb (1717) a “melancholy
season”. Among the adjectives employed to describe the snowstorms,
“great” was by far the most common (Adams 1717a, Hempstead 1901:64, Huntington
1717–1759:12, May 1708–1766, Minor 1915:135, Sewall 1973 2:846), but not
everyone used “great snow” to refer to the storms; the Boston News-Letter (1717b)
for example referred to “The great Snow upon the Ground”.
One of the most troubling aspects of snowstorms at the end of February, “so
very late in the Year”, was that they created a snowpack that lasted into spring (Adams
1717b:27). Devout settlers celebrated the new year on 25 March, rather than
on 1 January, an observance that implied each year began with the appearance of
plants and animals that had been invisible over the long winter (Hambrick-Stowe
1982:170, 174). Just how late the snowpack remained becomes especially apparent
to modern readers by converting the dates from Old to New Style. On 26 March,
Benjamin Webb (1717) recorded, “Snow banks sevl. foot deep yet remaining”; that
date corresponds to present-day 5 April.
The persistent presence of snow so late in March was frustrating because the
deep snow had been on the ground for over a month by then, and people were expecting
renewal with spring and a new year. Eliphalet Adams (1717b:7–8) invoked
rhapsodic words from the Song of Solomon to describe the feeling of settlers in
mid-February, after a relatively mild winter:
We were almost ready to say … The Winter is past, The Rain (& the Snow)
is over and gone, The Flowers are ready to appear on the Earth, The time of
the Singing of Birds is almost come, and the Voice of the Turtle shall again
be heard in our Land, When, Lo we are cast back into all the Solitudes and
Difficulties of the Winter again.
Even though God had ordered the snows, Adams preached, they had brought “Violence
and Terror”, and “Distress, Loss, and Suffering”, just at the time that colonists
expected vernal bounty. Disturbed by the non-appearance of flowers, birds, and
amphibians, Adams searched for religious meaning in the phenological confusion
(Adams 1717b:27, 31). A similar wistfulness for the signs of spring might explain
why Cotton Mather (1717) mentioned how, “immediately after ye fall of ye Snow
an infinite multitude of Sparrows made their Appearance, but then, after a short
continuance, all disappeared”.
Characteristically, the English hoped that great snow would be quickly succeeded
by “great Thaws”, especially in the month of March (Mather 1957 2:439–440,
506). Accordingly, settlers participated in days of fasting to call for a return to what
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
they perceived as normal conditions. On 8 March, Samuel Sewall’s son Joseph, a
minister at the Old South Church, proposed “Turning the Lecture into a Fast”, an
idea that the elder Sewall piously approved in his private diary, hoping for divine
favor upon “the seasonable Solemnity”. On Thursday, 14 March, Sewall attended
2 sermons to honor the local fast. Samuel Sewall rode to Cambridge for another
town-fast service on 26 March (Sewall 1973 2:850).
The province of Massachusetts also sanctioned an official day of fasting on 4
April. As early as 7 March 1717, Cotton Mather (1957 2:439–440) conceived of a
province-wide fast day to call for the snows to melt, writing privately in his diary:
Such Storms and Heaps of Snow, visit us in the approach of Spring, as were
hardly ever known in the Depth of Winter. A great part of the Assemblies
in the country have been interdicted their public Sacrifices. A Multitude of
Cattle have perished. The Business of the Country has an uncommon Stop
upon it. Many Difficulties grow upon us. I would procure a Day of Humiliation
and Supplication to be kept upon these occasions.
The incongruity of “Heaps of Snow … in the approach of Spring” seemed most
alarming. On 12 March, Waitstill Winthrop drafted an “Order for a Fast”, which
was “voted, to be Apr. 4th”, to coincide with Thursday lecture (Sewall 1973 2:850).
That day, Massachusetts Governor Samuel Shute officially proclaimed “a Day of
Publick Fasting and Prayer throughout this Province” (BNL 1717d). Shute’s proclamation,
subsequently printed on the front page of the Boston News-Letter, deemed
the “late Excessive Snows and Tempests” to be divine warnings and supplicated
God to “bless the Springing of the Year”, in other words, to put an end to the snows
(BNL 1717e). When 4 April came, Harvard College student Thomas Paine (1717)
observed, “A generall Fast throughout this Province”, and classmate Warham Williams
(1716–1718) took notes on sermons in Cambridge by Nathaniel Appleton
and Henry Flynt to honor the “publick fast”. By then, the snows had already subsided
significantly, and other diarists did not mention the fast, but the ritual was
significant in imagining the Great Snow of 1717 as a shared regional crisis (Love
Plants and Animals in the Snow
If almanac diaries charted out the weather, epistolary reports gave a much fuller
picture of snow ecology, animal behavior, and the survival of selected plants in the
aftermath of the snowstorms. Privileged authors crafted these formal letters long
after the fact, often having waited to receive and compile information gathered
from their relatives and colleagues living nearby, before forwarding the full account
to Boston or London. Accounts of the Great Snow of 1717 by Cotton Mather,
Ebenezer Billings, and John Winthrop fell into this category of a lengthy epistolary
report. Mather’s letter synthesized the findings of Billings and Winthrop, though
he did not give their names. Mather and Winthrop held college degrees, which
conferred authority to collect and interpret such data in a trustworthy manner,
and Mather possessed the additional distinction of having been elected fellow of
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the Royal Society in 1713. Of the 3 authors, only Billings explicitly credited correspondents
at other locations who had supplied firsthand information: Reverend
Samuel Man of Wrentham, MA, and Billings’ son, Reverend Richard Billings of
Little Compton, RI. In a chain of deferential collaboration, Billings and Winthrop
sent their reports to Mather, who digested the letters and submitted an 1100-word
essay to the Royal Society, which was never printed in their Transactions. Although
Cotton Mather’s letter has remained in continuous circulation in New England from
the 18th to the 21st century and was known for example to Henry David Thoreau
(Lepore 2011, Ludlum 1966, Perley 1891, Thoreau 1888:328–330, Zielinski and
Keim 2003), it is impossible to draw any direct lines of influence from settlers’
insights about the Great Snow of 1717 to modern formulations of winter ecology.
Conversely, though, winter ecologists’ findings can shed light on colonists’ testimony
about the prolonged effects of the deep snow.
One reason that Cotton Mather entitled his report “An Horrid Snow” was because
he received vivid reports about non-human life suffering profoundly in the
snows. As Winthrop (1717a) wrote to Mather, “The Storme continued so long &
Severe that Multitudes of all Sorts of Creatures perrished in the Snow Drifts”. Colonial
writers with scientific ambitions, Mather and his correspondents documented
the effects of the snows on vulnerable plants and animals, especially species that
the English had introduced.
Domesticated animals suffered disproportionately from the powerful storms and
the deep, lasting snow. When private diarists like William Homes (1715–1747) reported,
“This storm did much damage in the country”, or Samuel Sewall (1886:2:69)
wrote to John Winthrop about the storms, “Am sorry that your estate was diminished
thereby”, they were referring to the loss of living property like livestock and fruit
trees. Most colonists thought primarily about domesticated landscapes and secondarily
about wildlife. Nevertheless, New England writers did show interest in
the effects of the Great Snow of 1717 on Deer, Wild Turkeys, and Gray Wolves.
Their brief remarks on wild fauna can be corroborated and indirectly illuminated
by their more extensive observations about how extreme conditions affected Sheep,
Gallus gallus domesticus L. (Domestic Chicken, hereafter Chicken), and other domestic
animals, which faced similar challenges, such as impediments to locomotion,
obstructed access to winter forage, and predation by more-mobile species.
Some settlers seem to have imagined that the initial snowstorms alone had the
power to kill large, hoofed animals, a thought that struck fear in human bipeds. As
historian Virginia Anderson (2004:236) has written, English settlers often looked to
livestock as proxies in periods of stress or peril. Moreover, domestic animals were
a widely distributed form of moveable property, central to the economic system of
colonial New England. Symbolically, introduced species also represented settlers’
aspirations to transform northeastern landscapes and make the region more like
England (Anderson 2004, Cronon 1983, Crosby 1986). In a private almanac diary,
New London minister Eliphalet Adams (1717a) responded, aghast at the consequences
of the first 2 snowstorms for domestic ungulates: “Cattle, Sheep, Horses
&c Lost & Stiffed in the Violence of ye Wether being Buried up in ye Snow Drifts”.
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
Adams (1717b) later alluded again in a sermon to the phenomenon: “our Eyes have
lately seen how Effectual some driving snow is to smother, bury, and Destroy”.
Joshua Hempstead (1901:64) also noted tersely on 24 February, the day of the 3rd
snowstorm, “many horses & Cattell are dead wth ye Storm”. At first, the destruction
of tall, long-legged animals suggested that humans caught alone in such conditions
might face a similar fate, although in retrospect it seems that settlers succeeded in
taking refuge from the snowstorms. The vulnerability of Horses posed an additional
inconvenience to settlers who relied on them for transportation services. Joshua
Hempstead (1901:64) wrote that on 21 February, “the drifts were So high thr was
no passing to an fro for man or beast”. If Oxen or Horses could not move, then often
humans often chose not to travel.
Other sources explained that restricted human mobility meant that husbandmen
could not reach their herds and flocks to provide relief. Between the 2nd and
3rd snowstorms, Samuel Sewall noted that his cousin’s servants tried “to get their
Cattel home that came hither on Wednesday, leaving their Sleds &c. here”, but the
outcome is uncertain (Sewall 1973 2:848). Livestock left outside to forage in meadows
or to wander freely between feedings suffered the storms’ effects most directly.
During and after the storms, animals throughout the New England countryside became
disoriented, were blocked from their foddering places, and starved or froze.
Immediately after the snows, colonists traded rumors about the number of livestock
that had died, indicating a central concern with financial loss, if not food security.
In Boston, Waitstill Winthrop had received “a rumour that the late violent storme
of snow reached Fishers Island” causing “a loss of 600 or 700 sheep” (Winthrop
1717b). Cotton Mather’s diary entry for 7 March noted that, “A Multitude of Cattle
have perished”, and he later wrote that “Vast numbers of Cattel were destroyed in
this Calamity” (Mather, C. 1717, 1957 2:440). In Dorchester, MA, by May 1717,
Ebenezer Billings (1717) had heard from family and friends that in Rhode Island
and Connecticut “many thousands of sheep and hundreds of other cattlers are lost”.
He also listed Horses among the animals found frozen solid, dead, and yet still
upright in the snow. In September 1717, John Winthrop (1717a) computed, “Lost
at o[u]r. Island and Farmes above Eleaven hundred Sheep! besides some Cattle &
Horses Inter’d in the Snow”.
Scattered references imply that the winter storms must have also affected marine
ecology. As John Winthrop (1717a) reflected from New London, “The Storme had
its Effects also on the Ocean; the sea was in mighty ferment”. Winthrop bore witness
to “great Schooles of Porpises; yt o[u]r. Harbour & River seem’d to be full of
them, but none of these came on shore, but kept a play day, among the Disturbed
Waves”. Ships caught at sea during the storms likely suffered worse than pelagic
sea life. The 4 storms had disrupted voyages to such an extent that Waitstill Winthrop
(1717b) thought Boston still had received “no Vessels from any part” by 12
March except one ship “blown off” its course; he heard of another “drove ashore
at Cape Ann”. Later, Governor Samuel Shute exclaimed, “great Losses of Lives
and Estates have been sustained by the way of the Sea” (BNL 1717e). Surprisingly,
though, colonists wrote little about the tempests’ effects on beaches and dunes, even
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though winter storms in general and nor’easters in particular transform shorelines
and transport massive amounts of sand (Keim 2005, Shumway 2008, Zielinski and
Keim 2003). After the storms, John Winthrop (1717a) observed, “vast heaps of the
Inclosed Shells came ashore, in places where there never had been any of the sort
near before”. New England ships kept in harbors at the time of the storms might
be taken as indicators of the forces brought to bear upon coastal landscapes. A correspondent
in New London wrote to the Boston News-Letter on 23 February that
“Two Sloops were forc’d from their Anchors ashore upon the Rocks” (BNL 1717e).
Joshua Hempstead (1901:64) recorded, “Wm Lathams New Sloop is drove a Shore
in his Coave bilged filled & overset”, and “Woostters open Sloop is drove out of ye
harbour Bound for Easternpoint. got into ye Coave Recd no Damage”.
The destruction of livestock was worst along the coast and on islands set aside
for grazing animals (Pastore 2014). In coastal communities of southern New England,
husbandmen commonly let their animals roam during late winter in meadows
near the shore and on islands, trusting that infrequent and shallow snowfalls would
melt quickly enough in sunny open areas to let the animals access forage. Billings
(1717) reported that animals suffered severely in coastal Rhode Island. Cotton
Mather (1717) speculated that the blowing snow along the shore interfered with
animals’ vision, and “their eyes glazed over with ice at such a rate, that being not
far from the sea, their mistake of their way drowned them there”. In 1717, George
Worthylake, the keeper of Boston’s lighthouse, requested higher compensation
because the extreme winter conditions had kept him from tending his livestock at
Greater Brewster Island, one of the Boston Harbor Islands. Without his care, 59
Sheep had drowned (Snow 2002:37). Massachusetts governor Samuel Shute’s official
proclamation on 12 March plaintively enumerated “great Numbers of Cattel
Destroyed on Shore” (BNL 1717e).
The destruction of livestock was not universal across the region. Around Boston,
where people commonly kept their Cattle housed in winter, snowdrifts merely
leaned against the barn wall, and predators could be more effectively deterred than
in rural situations (Billings 1717). As long as farmers could reach their barns, the
livestock could be fed. Some animals even found a place in colonists’ homes during
the storms. William Homes (1715–1747) wrote that on 21 February, “no body
could stirr out of doors all that day, or give their cretures that were in the house any
drinke”. By contrast, in new frontier communities, outbuildings had been burned
in recent wars (Wickman 2015a), and resettlement and reinvestment were slow and
uneven. As Billings (1717) observed, the animals suffered devastation in western
Massachusetts, where he claimed people had not built structures to protect their
animals, there being “no barns in those towns”.
Predators and scavengers took advantage of unattended, injured, or malnourished
livestock after the snowstorms. John Winthrop (1717a) wrote sensationally
that “Wilde Rapacious Quadrupeds of the Forrest…from the Upland parts of the
Country” were “in great Numbers forc’t down to the Seaside among us for Subsistance,
where they Nested, Kenneld, and Burrow’d in the Thick Swamps of these
Ample pastures, nightly Visiting or. Pens or Yards, for yr Necessity”. So taken was
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Winthrop (1717a) by the predator–prey relationship that he speculated that, by the
doctrine of maternal impression, pregnant ewes “being often terrify’d & Surpriz’d
more Especially wth the Foxes! during the Deep Snows” were so affected that
the springtime generation of lambs born in 1717 had taken on the “complexion &
couler” of foxes, though “their Dams [or mothers] wr all either white or Black”.
Extreme hunger among neglected livestock had ramifying ecological effects.
Fruit trees suffered indirectly where animals had access to orchards. Billings (1717)
claimed to have found Sheep’s wool and chewed bark as high as 11.5 ft (3.5 m)
from the ground on a Malus pumila Miller (Apple) tree. Presumably, over time, as
the surface of snowdrifts began to harden, Sheep were able to walk on the crust
and forage on the trees sticking out of the snowpack like shrubs. As Cotton Mather
(1717) put it, the livestock did much “to damnify” the trees. Even where animals
did no damage, snowdrifts killed fruit trees. Strong winds filled in the depressions
in the landscape between hills, submerging the trees in snow. Billings (1717) wrote,
“orchards that were planted in lowland suffered much the snow being as high as the
leaves of the trees and freezing to a crust when it [settled] it split the wood all to
peeces and young nursereys were many of them utterly Ruined”.
Colonial reports balanced interest in both winterkill and the preservation of life
within the snow. As John Winthrop (1717a) noted regarding a case on Fisher’s Island,
off the coast of Connecticut in Long Island Sound, the deep snow cover had
the power to produce winterkill at a large scale:
it was very Strange that 28 days! after the Storme, o[u]r. Tennants at Fishers
Island, pulling out the Ruins of one hundred Sheep out of one Snow Bank in
a Valley where the Snow had drifted over them 16 foot, found 2 of them alive
in the Drift wch had Layne there all that time and kept themselves alive by
Eating the Wool of the others that Lay dead by them.
Even if the phenomenon itself was miraculous, the survival rate, 2 out of 100
Sheep in the 16-ft (5-m) snowdrift, was grim. The Reverend William Homes of
Martha’s Vineyard similarly wrote in his diary that on 22 March he “found some
sheep that had been buried under the snow that fell Feb 21 one of wch was still
alive. She was taken out the 23d of March alive and continued to live for severall
days she had continued under the snow without any food about 31 days” (Homes
1715–1747). Again, most Sheep died in the snow, but Rev. Homes focused on the
lone survivor. The personal pronoun, “she”, made Homes’ anecdote poignant,
reminding us that New England families often knew each animal intimately
and by face and name through years of care (Anderson 2004:90–92). Although
many more animals had died than these singular survivors, the anecdotes about
survival under the snow were part of a hopeful discourse about overwinter survivorship,
especially as facilitated by snow cover, one of the fundamental themes
in modern winter ecology. Settlers knew their livestock best among non-human
life forms, and in the wake of the 4 storms of late February 1717 they gathered
insights about the properties of snow through their experiences with Sheep and
other vulnerable creatures.
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Cotton Mather became fascinated by animal submersion under the snow cover:
live Chickens trapped for 7 days, Wild Turkeys for 25, Sus scrofa dometica (Erxleben)
(Domestic Pig) for 27, and Sheep for 28 (Mather, C. 1717). What unified
these discrete reports was the power of snow to insulate, which seemed paradoxical.
Prior to 1717, Mather (1693) had published an innovative devotional treatise,
Winter Meditations, that reflected intermittently on the positive aspects of snow
cover. In 1713, he also had submitted a specimen he called a “woolen snow” to
the Royal Society; in an accompanying report, he claimed the enclosed object was
literally a “snow-ball” made of “wool”. He intended the specimen to illustrate what
“ye American Snow should be made of” and asserted that “this is the first time
that an Englishman sent a parcel of snow wrapped up in a letter to him, yt wast, at
such a distance”, across “ye wide Atlantic”. He assured the society that “this wool
did fall from shower and a considerable quantity of it; at a time when more common
Snow was falling”. He did not give the year of the storm, but reported that
in Fairfield, CT, snow of this variety had been found over a significant expanse.
One of his concluding lessons in the letter about the “snow of wool” was that “we
may not be afraid of ye snow” (Mather 1713). In sermons and other publications,
Cotton Mather, his father Increase Mather, and others including Eliphalet Adams
commonly cited a Biblical verse about how God “giveth snow like wool” (Adams
1717b, Mather 1693, Mather 1704, Mather 1712). In his 1713 letter to the Royal
Society, Cotton pushed beyond the metaphor, hoping to find real evidence that God
sent warmth through the snow. The strange claim also implied a popular association
of Sheep with snow: some Sheep blended in with snowy landscapes, and in their
winter travels the animals rubbed off some of their wool, leaving it on the surface
of the snowpack. Mather’s letter also departed from the predominant concern in
early modern Europe with the microscopic structure of snowflakes. John Winthrop
(1717a) anticipated that a learned audience would be interested in the latter, writing
in his report about the Great Snow of 1717, “the Snow Spangles wch. fell on the
Earth appeared in Large Sexangular Formes”, and adding a remark in Latin. While
natural philosophers wanted to theorize the physical form of snowflakes, a vernacular
concern in New England was how snow cover acted ecologically, preserving
familiar forms of life.
Modern winter ecology can help explain settlers’ observations about life and
death in the snows in 1717. Of all the animals Cotton Mather reported to have
survived “for whole weeks without their usual sustenance, entirely buried in the
Snow-drifts”, Wild Turkeys were the only wild animals he listed. Wild Turkeys, he
wrote, “were found alive after five and twenty days, buried in the snow, and at a distance
from the ground, and altogether destitute of anything to feed them” (Mather,
C. 1717). Winter ecologists have noted that Wild Turkeys respond to deep snow in
Massachusetts and other northern locations by taking refuge among softwood trees
next to farmlands and pastures, a strategy that certainly would have been feasible
in 1717. Scientists have found that Wild Turkeys survive severe winter conditions
at higher rates near agricultural lands than in the forests (Holland 2010:333, Vander
Haegen et al. 1989). In the wake of snowstorms with high winds, Wild Turkeys seek
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
out “windblown areas” where they can scratch through relatively shallow snow to
feed on pasture grass. They also commonly eat winter feed (e.g., corn) left out for
livestock as well as seeds within manure. Yet by staying close to open field areas
during snowstorms, Wild Turkeys expose themselves to being trapped in unusually
high drifts, as Mather reported. Winter ecologists also have found that in agricultural
communities, human hunters take advantage of deep snow conditions and can
diminish Wild Turkey populations at higher rates than canids and other predators
(Humberg et al. 2009). Among the Wild Turkeys that survived in 1717, reproductive
success likely would have been low because the cumulative stresses during a
severe winter undermine the abilities of female Wild Turkeys “to hatch eggs and
rear the young” in the spring, resulting in reduced populations by the following fall
(Porter et al. 1983).
In tandem with anecdotes about wondrous animal survival beneath the snow
and meditations on the physical structure of snow, colonial writers also recognized
how light-footed predators used crusted snow to attack heavier animals. Ebenezer
Billings (1717) lamented what he perceived as a 95% mortality rate among Deer:
the poor Deer that depend on nothing but the swiftness of their Running and
that failing the poor creature were a pray to all Ravinous beasts dogs and
wolves killed them at their [pleasure] and what they did not eat they left to
[foxes] Eagles crowes and there is a Remnant that [escaped] but I think not
one in 20.
Billings shared the estimate and the ecological description with Cotton Mather, who
passed it along without attribution in his letter to the Royal Society (Mather, C.
1717). The report of such severe mortality among Deer is plausible for several
reasons. Snow depths over 12 in (30 cm) significantly reduce Deer mobility, and
yarding within and near dense conifer stands is only adaptive up to a point. Moreover,
deep snow covers up many food sources, leaving only the buds of deciduous
trees or the needles of young Tsuga canadensis (L.) Carrière (Eastern Hemlock) or
Thuja occidentalis L. (Northern White Cedar) saplings (Holland 2010:401, Stokes
1979:59–60). Hunger further weakens Deer, slowing them down and lowering
their defenses (Major 1979:67). When an icy layer forms atop an enduring snowpack,
Deer find their legs obstructed and lacerated, while Wolves, dogs, and other
predators move swiftly over the hard surface (Major 1979:67). As the historian
Jon Coleman (2004:80) has argued, many historical instances from early America
support wildlife biologists’ finding that packs of Wolves “thrive in miserable winters”,
even engaging in “‘surplus killing’, a form of exuberant bloodletting” when
they leave corpses intact rather than eating them up. In severe winters, when snow
depths pass a threshold of 27 in (70 cm) for 4–8 weeks, the physical condition of
White-tailed Deer deteriorates to a point that Wolves engage in this extreme behavior
(DelGiudice 1998). The spectacle was visible to settlers like Billings because
both predator and prey migrated to milder lowland areas during such harsh weather.
Wolves are known to travel up to 75 mi (120 km) on a single winter day (Krohn and
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Deer were exposed to both canine and human predators, in contrast to livestock,
which were protected to some degree by husbandmen. In many places in southern
New England, if Wolves did not kill a stranded or emaciated Deer, human hunters
might have put it out of its misery and salvaged the meat and hide. Two decades earlier,
in 1698, during one of the coldest single decades of the last millennium (Wickman
2015a), Connecticut had banned hunting from 15 January to 15 July, explicitly to protect
Deer during this season of vulnerability. The Connecticut law stated that “great
numbers” of Deer had been “destroyed in deep snows when they are very poor and
big with young, the flesh and skins of very little vallue, and the increase greatly hindered”
(Kawashima and Tone 1983:176). The same year, Massachusetts banned Deer
hunting from January to July, though not everyone followed the injunction (Kawashima
and Tone 1983). An early 19th-century historian of Lynn, MA, recalled about the
Great Snow of 1717 that not only did “a great number of deer” come down from interior
forests “for food … followed by the wolves, which killed many of them”, but also
that other Deer “were killed by people with guns” (Lewis 1829:149). Billings (1717)
also mentioned Canis lupus familiaris L. (Domestic Dog) together with Wolves, suggesting
that colonists’ and Indians’ Domestic Dogs might have inflicted significant
damage on Deer in 1717 (Roberts 2017).
Deer are known to escape from canids by crossing shallow waters and taking
refuge on nearby islands or protected peninsulas, where colonists intentionally had
created environments with no wolves and few people. The migration of these animals
in response to extreme snows and the threat of predation might explain why Eliphalet
Adams (1717a) in New London recorded an instance on 8 March in which “a Wilde
Deer came down the meetinghouse Hill & Run thro ye towne, then crost the mill
Cove on the Ice over to [Naumeauge] Neck & so swam thro ye Great River over to
[Tonoweeseck]”. In Lynn, MA, a historian later wrote that, “Some of the Deer fled
to Nahant, and being chased by the Wolves, leaped into the sea, and were drowned”
(Lewis 1829:149). The snowstorms in 1717 had struck the shorelines hard; thus,
deep snows along shore might have disrupted and complicated such journeys in some
places. Additionally, Deer that made it to islands just offshore likely would have had
to compete for forage with livestock placed there by colonists.
Even without Wolves, deep snow would have threatened the Deer of southern
New England in 1717. Winterkill of Deer is a natural phenomenon that cyclically
affects their populations throughout North America. Winter ecologists have demonstrated
that “snow depth imposes a far greater challenge to Deer survival than
ambient temperature” (DelGiudice et al. 2013). When severe snowstorms occur
in succession, it can be hard for Deer herds to maintain a network of packed trails
or reliably find food. Ecologists have found that Deer show some flexibility in response
to extreme winter weather, sometimes leaving their historical yarding sites
and traveling along a river drainage to seek out better conditions. It is not uncommon
for Deer to access roadways or to use residential areas as a “surrogate winter
yard” (Hurst and Porter 2008). When severe winter conditions last into spring, these
challenges could “be particularly hard on animals since their fat and food reserves
are depleted” (Halfpenny and Ozanne 1989:160).
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The devastation among Deer would have remained visible to English settlers
in February and March 1717. Whether the animals died due to starvation,
attacks by Wolves and Dogs, or bullets from guns, their carcasses remained out
in the open, preserved by the cold (Stokes 1979:306). Over time, scavengers like
Vulpes vulpes (L.) (Red Fox), Procyon lotor (L.) (Raccoon), Mustela vison Schreber
(Mink), and Pekania pennanti (Erxleben) (Fisher) joined in devouring their
remains; Billings (1717) mentioned the work of “[foxes] Eagles crowes” in scavenging
It bears repeating that Billings (1717) claimed, “not one in twenty [deer] escaped”
during the winter of 1716–1717—in other words, mortality was 95% or
higher. A survival rate of 5% among Deer was the most significant finding in
Mather’s letter, and to my knowledge historians have been unaware of his original
informant. Kenneth Silverman (1968) noted the extent to which Mather cribbed
from John Winthrop’s letter, but until now, no scholar has identified Mather’s other
major source of data. Was this a single, fairly localized report? Was Billings repeating
a vernacular figure of speech that was more numerological than statistical to
describe varied losses? Was it fair for Cotton Mather to extrapolate it to a regionwide
estimate? The number deserves scrutiny because a 95% mortality rate would
have had widespread ecological and social consequences. If accurate, this rate may
not have had a single cause, but Billings and others deserve credit for their insights
about the contribution of deep snow to winterkill among Deer.
On 13 February 1718, Massachusetts banned Deer hunting for nearly 4 years. The
timing and text of the ban suggest that lawmakers were responding to the die-off in
the late winter of 1716–1717. As the law lamented, “the depth of snow in some late
winters hath been so great as hath occasioned the destruction of a great part of the
Deer in this province”. With some optimism, legislators hoped that “the said creature
(which is both harmless and profitable) may be preserved an d increased” (Acts
and Resolves 1874:90). Previous legislation in 1694 and 1698 had limited the Deer
hunt to a season between July and December, but still allowing a fall hunt; evidently
Deer populations had reached such low numbers by 1718 as to justify a complete
prohibition (Cronon 1983:101, Kawashima and Tone 1983:176). Connecticut also
strengthened its regulations of Deer hunting in October 1717 (PRCC 1872 6:28–29).
Notably, Massachusetts passed a law to further “Encourage the Killing of Wolves”
1 year after the snowstorms as well (Vaughan and Rosen 2004:180–181). Access
to healthy populations of Deer apparently seemed significant enough to some colonists
to pass protective legislation, even though Deer hunting may not have been a
widespread form of recreation, a regular source of subsistence for settlers, or a major
element in the trade of animal hides. Environmental histories of the Northeast have
been better at documenting steady settler-induced “changes in the land” than at identifying
and explaining punctuated changes that followed (Cronon 1983:32). As the
Great Snow of 1717 shows, people on the ground noticed, wrote about, tried to explain,
and even attempted to counteract such sudden changes.
Notably, the archive for 1717 reveals relatively little about Native American
responses to the snowstorms, even though indigenous communities were likely
Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
affected by the unnatural disaster in similar ways, given how thoroughly entangled
their lives had become with the colonial systems of southern New England by the
early 18th century (Den Ouden 2005, Mandell 1996). Most colonial records and
local traditions about the Great Snow referred only to Indians who came to the
aid of settlers or who gave testimony about past winter weather (Billings 1717,
Thoreau 2008:178). Strikingly, after the 18 March 1717 death of Reverend Samuel
Treat, who had ministered to Wampanoag Indians on Cape Cod for decades, tradition
holds that Wampanoag pallbearers voluntarily assisted in carrying the coffin
through tunnels or arches that had to be dug through the snow on the half-mile
path from Treat’s house in Eastham to his grave (History of Eastham 1802). But
what about Native American reactions within their own communities? Wampanoags
of Martha’s Vineyard as well as other Native Americans possessed vulnerable
livestock and orchards of their own in 1717 (Silverman 2003). Winterkill among
Deer may have been especially distressing for Native families in 1717. As historian
Brian D. Carroll (2009:90) has argued, game hunting still held cultural and
economic importance for indigenous communities of the Northeast, and in 1717
“the son of the Mohegan sachem, Ben Uncas II, was fined for killing several deer”.
At the same time, Native Americans of the Northeast possessed rich and versatile
winter traditions, with which they adapted to the realities of colonialism and severe
winter weather (Wickman 2015a). A few winters prior to 1717, an Algonkian writer
inscribed a response to another “great snow” in the margins of a so-called Indian
Bible that John Eliot and indigenous assistants had translated decades earlier. After
describing the snowstorm, the writer added, “we Indians still survive well on this
morning” (Goddard and Bragdon 1988:447). Indigenous strategies of physical and
cultural survival seem to have been of relatively low concern to most English writers
in the wake of the Great Snow of 1717.
The Great Snow of 1717 occurred at a transitional moment in English settlers’
attitudes toward winter and colonialism. In the decades leading up to 1717, the
Anglo–Wabanaki Wars had increased winter suffering, colonists adopted snowshoes
on a wider scale in the early 18th century than ever before, and some of the
wintertime fears than had afflicted them in wars of the 17th century were lessened
(Wickman 2015a). The Anglo–Wabanaki Wars continued intermittently in the mid-
18th century, but English leaders wrote less about their winter vulnerability, thanks
in part to effective winter patrols against Native American families and war parties.
By the late 18th century, New England writers began to single out the Great Snow
of 1717 with nostalgia, perhaps because it was a notable winter event that occurred
during peacetime, in contrast, for example, to the winter of 1697–1698. In retrospect,
descendants of English settlers chose to remember a winter in which they
could minimize Native American presence and influence, elide colonial violence,
and instead focus on domestic and natural details. The Great Snow of 1717 was recalled
not as a judgment but as an entertaining event for chronologies of the weather.
Not unlike the “domestication” of hurricanes in the English colonies of the West
Indies (Mulcahy 2006:58), American writers over time elevated the Great Snow of
1717 to an iconic status precisely because it could be remembered apolitically. New
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
England historians identified settlers’ very first winters in the early 17th century as
instances of acute human suffering and reflected on the violence and uncertainties
of colonialism (Donegan 2014), but when they memorialized the Great Snow of
1717, they took the survival of the colonies for granted and focused instead on the
workings of winter landscapes.
A disaster with few or no human deaths, the Great Snow has become trivialized
by local historians and popular writers over time, singled out for its unusual
snow drifts and associated more with quaint, domestic scenes and static tableaus
of snow than with the natural effects of severe winter weather or with the
politics of colonialism or Native American persistence (Coffin 1845:189; Hawthorne
1982:251, 254, 1023, 1049–1050). Most manuscript diaries and letters
referring to the Great Snow of 1717 primarily presented the view from inside
colonists’ houses, watching the snows fall and the winds blow, and then looking
out at foreshortened expanses of snow. This domestic perspective, repeated
uncritically by subsequent historians, has implied that New England’s winter
landscapes in 1717 were homogeneous, static, and ahistorical. Moreover, when
New England ministers drew on a religious discourse of wonders and emphasized
the benign aspects of deep snow, and when in sermons and letters they
described rare cases of animal survival beneath the snow, they illuminated the
ecology of snow but obscured the historicity of the landscapes and downplayed
the scale of mortality across the region, a tendency sometimes repeated by historians.
Instead, looking back at a wide range of archival and print sources and
with the benefit of insights from winter ecology, this paper shows patterns of
winterkill and survival in a landscape that had been altered profoundly by English
The Great Snow of 1717 exemplified 2 distinguishing traits of New England
winters during the Little Ice Age: a potential for sudden, dramatic storms, and
the possibility of deep and steady cold. With English settlements positioned at
a nexus between the Atlantic Ocean and a vast continent, colonists experienced
the effects of coastal weather systems that brought powerful winter storms and a
continental climate that promoted a long winter season (Fagan 2000, Kupperman
1982:1262–1263). Colonists referred to these alternating forces as being associated
respectively with northeast and northwest winds: storms that moved up the coasts
with strong winds coming out of the northeast as well as frigid conditions when the
wind blew from the northwest (BNL 1717c; Johnson 1959:73, 93, 209; Paine 1717;
White 2015). For environmental historians of the Northeast, these oceanic and continental
winter influences pull in opposite historiographical directions, calling for
greater integration with emerging histories of storms and seasonality in the Atlantic
world on the one hand and with histories of adaptation to American and Canadian
winters on the other (Adcock 2016, Coates and Morrison 2001, Grandjean 2011,
Mulcahy 2006). New England’s winter was never a season of disasters like the Caribbean
hurricane season, but winter was a season of powerful coastal storms. Nor
Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
were northeastern winters as long as they were in much of Canada, but stable snow
cover in New England during the Little Ice Age had much in common with snowy
landscapes across northern North America. In 1717, colonists wrote about both
pronounced snowstorms and prolonged snow cover, speaking to a special combination
of winter stresses.
English settlers wrote extensively about life and death in the snow following
heavy snowfalls and a subsequent period of deep cold in the winter of 1717. Initial
shock at the severity of the snowstorms prompted temporary curiosity about winter’s
nature, and the lasting snowpack preserved the answers to people’s questions.
Although the snowstorms in February 1717 were not entirely unprecedented in
their effects, persistently cold weather in March 1717 allowed settlers to observe
evidence of the Great Snow for weeks at a time. In peacetime, settlers on snowshoes
circulated reports, which were then transmitted more widely through the region’s
first newspaper. At a time when naturalists did not have cars or snowmobiles, the
long aftermath of the snowstorms in 1717 gave colonists time to discover the meanings
of the storms and share their findings. Yet they were still dependent on muscle
power to get around on snowshoes or perhaps by Horse. In this sense, within a
longer historical context, the Great Snow of 1717 illustrates winter observation
practices not just of the early Enlightenment or before the American Revolution,
but before fossil fuels and combustion engines allowed 24-hour snow removal and
speedy transportation to field sites (Chaplin 2015, Meyer 2009).
After the snows melted, the association of the Great Snow of 1717 with divine
punishment dissipated over time, and what remained were observations about nature
in winter. In economic terms, the Great Snow of 1717 may not have affected New
England greatly in the long term. Unlike warfare, which destroyed infrastructure
and resulted in loss of human life, the snowstorms primarily killed domesticated
and wild animals, only some of which had financial value. The long-term impacts of
this single winter event as well as other ongoing pressures on Deer populations remain
to be researched further. Initial reports totaling the number of livestock deaths
may have suggested the fragility of agricultural landscapes, but these systems were
remarkably resilient. Even a loss of several thousand Sheep, Bovines, and Horses
statistically represented a tiny fraction of the animal population in colonial New
England. Historians have estimated that there may have been hundreds of thousands
of Sheep in early 18th-century Rhode Island alone (Bridenbaugh 1974:57, Pastore
2014:64–65, 130). These animals had prolific reproductive capacities and because
of access to robust regional markets, farmers could replenish their flocks and herds
relatively easily. The 1690s were a period of extreme cold and regional warfare,
and consecutive years of historically severe winter weather caused fears of food
shortages (Wickman 2015a). In contrast, the winters immediately before the winter
of 1716–1717 occurred during peacetime and were not quite so extreme. Without
having to dedicate their collective energies to logistical concerns like military security
or famine relief, New England leaders instead wrote reports detailing animal
mortality and survival. Proto-ecological insights, therefore, might have been the
most lasting legacy of the Great Snow of 1717.
2017 Vol. 24, Special Issue 7
I presented some of these findings at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association
and at the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and thank attendees for questions
and comments. Archival research for this article was made possible by staff members at the
Massachusetts Historical Society, American Antiquarian Society, Maine Historical Society,
and Connecticut Historical Society. I also thank Scott Smedley, Matthew Mulcahy, Kaci
White, and two anonymous readers for responses to drafts of this article.
Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. 1874. Vol. 2.
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1Numerical values for depth and distance included in this manuscript come from historical
sources which were usually not precise measurements and hence the metric equivalents
provided have been rounded off so as not to give a false impression of greater precision.
2Historical climatologists also may be able to incorporate these data as they produce climate
reconstructions and evaluate the potential contributions of the El Niño Southern Oscillation
(ENSO) and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) to the snowstorms and their aftermaths
(Gergis and Fowler 2009, Straile and Stenseth 2007). Settlers agreed that the weather in
December 1716 and January 1717 had been mild. Samuel Sewall (1886 2:63) noted on 21
January, “The weather of January has hitherto been exceeding moderate, with a great deal
of Rain and some Snow”. Increase Mather (1717) marveled on 31 January, “it hath bin the
warmest Janry that I think was ever known in N.E.”. The next month, the Boston News-
Letter (1717a) concurred, “The Month of January past was very Moderate, most like to
Spring Weather”. So far, proxy data and weather models have not shed light conclusively
on what caused unusually mild weather in January 1717 followed by extreme snowfall
events in the following month.
3For references to Harvard College graduates writing about the Great Snow of 1717, I have
consulted volumes 2 through 6 of the series collectively referred to as Sibley’s Harvard
Graduates. See John Langdon Sibley, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University,
vol. 2 (Cambridge: Charles William Sever, 1881); Sibley, Biographical Sketches
of Graduates of Harvard University, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Charles William Sever, 1885);
Clifford K. Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College, v.
4 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933); Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Those
Who Attended Harvard College, v. 5 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1937);
Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College, v. 6 (Boston:
Massachusetts Historical Society, 1942).