The Puzzle of the American Climate in the Early American Period

[…]information came from the French, who were on the scene early and were systematic in gathering and recording information. English promoters, such as Richard Hakluyt, were eager to learn from them and to see their writings published in English translations. 29 Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence River in the 1530s. He found it colder than he expected, with floating ice thick in the harbors in May and ice one fathom and snow four feet deep from mid-November through mid-April. "The yce through all the Shippes, was above a hande-breath thicke, as well above hatches as heneath." But he found the heat greater than Spain's in July. Despite his experience. Cartier returned in 1541 with a group that attempted to found a colony near Quebec. 30

Samuel de Champlain was in what is now New England and Nova Scotia from 1604 to 1607. The first winter, spent in Maine, was harsh, with a very long snow cover. He reported that settlers should expect six months of winter, beginning in October; spring did not come until May. The cold, which was much more severe than in France, was so great that everything but the Spanish wine froze and "Cider was given out by the pound." He was puzzled by the discrepancy between actual and expected climate. Like Cartier, Champlain found the summers warm. Indians whom the explorers met on Cape Cod convinced them that winter there was mild, and the next two winters, spent in Nova Scotia, were actually much better than the first, leaving Champlain musing that perhaps the first had been a purely local phenomenon. Marc Lescarbot also wrote of the mild winter he experienced, but he said he knew other winters had been severe. […]

During the same period. English voyages to the coasts of New England and the regions farther north also brought back mixed reports. Many people, frightened of southern heat, thought of New England as the place most suited to English settlers, the true sisterland to England. An early report by Bartholomew Gosnold, who moved along the coast and landed on Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod during the summer of 1602, assured readers that New England, though colder than comparable latitudes in Europe, was warmer in winter than England. The seasons were somewhat displaced: spring came later, but summer lasted longer in America than in England. […]32[…]

The year 1607 saw the foundation of two Virginia colonies, Jamestown by the London Company and Sagadahoc in Maine by the western merchants' Virginia Company. Partly because of bad management in the colony and reversals in England, but also because of the "extreame unseasonable and frostie" winter, Sagadahoc lasted less than a year. Raleigh Gilbert, who was in Maine, called it "that unseasonable Winter (fit to freeze the heart of a Plantation)." Reports emphasized that this winter was also extreme in Europe, with boats being built on the frozen Thames, but the reputation of an inhospitable climate stayed with northern North America. As Sir Ferdinando Gorges recalled in 1622, "all our former hopes were frozen to death," and more than a decade passed before anyone again tried to establish a colony in New England. John Smith said the country had been "esteemed as a cold, barren, mountainous, rocky Desart" after 1608. 33

Despite the failure at Sagadahoc, Sir Ferdinando, in his Briefe Relation of the Discovery and Plantation of New England (1622), argued that New England's latitude was in the center of the temperate zone, the "golden meane," and therefore comparable to "Constantinople, and Rome, the Ladies of the World; Italy, and France, the Gardens of Europe." He concluded the "Clime" had been proven to be temperate, delicate, and healthful "both by reason and experience." In his Description of New England, John Smith, reporting on his three-month voyage of 1614, asserted that New England's weather was cooler in both winter and summer than comparable latitudes in Europe and Asia.

Settlers in New England during the 1620s expressed uncertainty and bewilderment about the weather. Plymouth colonists reported frost and snow in November and December of their first winter, 1620-21, and said they had heard the region was both hotter and colder than England, although they had not yet experienced this. The next report from the Pilgrim leaders confirmed that the winters were colder but that they did not know why. The cold was mitigated somewhat, they said, by the longer winter days. Christopher Levett, a ship's captain who landed in New England in 1624 and spent several months there, believed the climate was as good as England's, but he was puzzled that it was not much better.35

As settlements came to be longer-lived, writers from New England began to offer information about weather patterns rather than reports on a few seasons. William Wood wrote that the winter was cold but lasted no more than ten weeks. He quoted the Indians as saying that every ten years there was "little or no Winter," which he confirmed by his own experience of 1629-30, a mild winter, and by reports of the winter of 1620-21, which was also mild after an early cold period. Wood also stated unequivocally that the summers were hot. […] Francis Higginson wrote a glowing account of the possibilities of New England but was concerned to tell the truth about the weather. He said New England was colder than England in January and February and hotter in July and August. The two months of snow to be expected in winter appeared on his list of discommodities of the country. […] Finally, John Winthrop unflinchingly recorded information about the weather in his Journal, particularly noting bad winters and aberrations in summer temperatures. His data, covering the nineteen years from 1630 to 1649, prepared the way for a genuine analysis of the pattern of Massachusetts weather. The winters of 1632-33 and 1637-38 were severe, and that of 1641-42 was worse. The bay was frozen from mid-January to late February, and people traveled over it in carts. […]The hard winter was followed by a cold, wet summer in which some of the crops rotted in the fields. And the winter of 1645-46 was colder still. 37[…]

29Quinn. England and the Discovery of America. 315: and Douglas R. McManis. Europran Impressions of the New England Coast, 1497-1620. University of Chicago Department of (Geography. Research Paper no. 139 (Chicago. 1972). 59-60. 137.

30Carticr. A Shorte and Briefe Narration of the Two Navigations and Discoveries to the Northwest Partes Called Newe France, trans. John Florio (London. 1580). 1-3. 18. 60. 66-67: John Alphonse "Here Followeth the Course from Belle Isle, Carpont. and the Grand Bav in Newfoundland up the River of Canada" (1542). in Richard Hakluyt,. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, 12 vols. (1598-1600; reprint edn.. Glasgow. 1904). 8: 278: Sir Francis Roberval. The Voyage of John Francis de la Roche. Knight, Lord of Roberval, to the Countries of Canada. Saguenai. and Hochelaga (1542). ibid.. 286; and Carl O. Sauer. Sixteenth-Century North America: The Land and the People as Seen by Europeans (Berkeley and Los Angeles. 197 I). 278.

32 Gosnold, “Letter to His Father” (1602), in Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumous: or, Purchas His Pilgrimes, 18: 301. French explorers tried to avoid this mistake: see Champlain, Voyages of the Sieur de Champlain, 307, 352-53; and McManis, European Impressions of the New England Coast, 74.

33 Charles Edward Banks. "New Documents Relating to the Popham Expedition. 1607." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. 39 (1929), 318. 321. 324. 327. 330. 334: Gilbert, as quoted in Purchas, Hakiuytus Posthumous: or, Purchas His Pilgrimes. 19: 296; Gorges. Discovery and Plantation of New England. 206-07. and A Brief Narration of the Originall Undertakings of the Advancement of Plantations into the Parts of America (1658). in Baxter. Gorges and His Province of Maine, 2: 16-17; Strachey. Historie of Travel into Virginia Britania. 173: and Smith. Generall Historie, 696. For the complex reasons for the colony's failure, see, in addition, Gorges to Sir Robert Cecil, in Baxter, Gorges and His Province of Maine, 3: 161; Richard A. Preston. Gorges of Plymouth Fort (Toronto, 1953), 141—50; and McManis, European Impressions of the New England Coast, 106-08. 137.

35Gosnold. "Letter to His Father." 301; William Bradford and Edward Winslow. A Relation or Journal of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, known as Mourt's Relation (London. 1622), 8-21. 25—30. 62: William Bradford. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647. ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York. 1953). 70-71; Edward Winslow, Good Sewn from Sew England (London, 1624). 62; Smith. Description of Sew England. 198; James Rosier. A True Relation of the State of Virginia (London, 1605), sig. E2: Levctl. A Vmtage into Sew England (London. 162-1). 23. 26; and John Winthrop to John Winthrop. Jr., J ulv 23. 1630. in Everett Emerson. Utters from Sew England: The Massachusetts Bay Colons. 1629-16)8 (Amherst. Mass.. 1976). 50-51.

37 John Winthrop. Winthrop's Journal: History of New England.1630-1649. ed. James Kendall Hosmer, 2 vols. (New York. 1908). I: 55-,95.98. 114. 157.165-67.223. 258. 269-72. 278-79. 291. 296. 306-07. and 2: 14. 44-45. 54-55. 57. 67. 81-82. 91-92. 126. 155-56. 224. 263-64. 267. 286. 328. 341. 346: Edmund Brown to Sir Simonds D'Ewes. September 7, 1638. in Emerson. Letters from New England, 228: Parry. Climatic Change, Agriculture, and Settlement.163; and Ludlum. Early American Winters. 1604-1820. (Boston, 1966), 12.

Source: Karen Ordahl Kupperman, "The Puzzle of the American Climate in the early Colonial Period," American Historical Review 87 (1982): 1262-1289.

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