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The Great Snow of 1717

With a pretty nasty snow storm bearing down on New England, we decided to examine an early 18th Century storm that is often cited in social media circles whenever a major winter storm rolls into town.

“The Great Snow of 1717” was a series of snowstorms that pounded the Pennsylvania, New York and New England colonies between February 27, 1717 and March 7, 1717. By the time this event was over, the Northeast was buried in several feet of snow.

The winter of 1716-1717 was already difficult for colonists, particularly New Englanders. In 1716, a series of volcanic eruptions in Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines spewed ash into the upper atmosphere of the Earth. Meteorologists believe these occurrences contributed to an unusual amount of snowfall over the Continental Northeast in November and December of that same year.

By the end of December, almost five feet of snow was on the ground in Massachusetts. With additional snowfall in January, 1717, some areas had drifts as deep as twenty-five feet.

The “Great Snow of 1717” began on February 27th when a nor’easter of snow, sleet and rain struck New England. Three more storms pounded the region over the following days. According to Cotton Mather “ there came on a Snow, which being added unto what had covered the ground a few days before, made a thicker mantle for our Mother than what was usual: And ye storm with it was, for the following day, so violent as to make all communication between ye Neighbors every where to cease. People, for some hours, could not pass from one side of a street unto another, & ye poor Women, who happened in this critical time to fall into Travail, were putt unto Hardships, which anon produced many odd stories for us . . . Another Snow came on which almost buried ye Memory of ye former, with a Storm so famous that Heaven laid an Interdict on ye Religious Assemblies throughout ye Country, on this Lord’s day, ye like whereunto had never been seen before.”

The effects of the Great Snow were devastating. The storms dumped approximately forty inches of new snow on Boston alone, while towns further north had upwards of seventy-two inches. Most of Northern Massachusetts was covered somewhere between eight and sixteen feet of snow.

Post roads throughout New England and New York were impassable. At least one account suggests the road connecting Boston and Portsmouth, New Hampshire was buried under fourteen foot snow drifts.

Apple orchards were simply wiped out. “It is incredible how much damage is done to ye Orchards, For the Snow freezing to a Crust, as high as the boughs of ye trees, anon Split ym to pieces. The Cattel also, walking on ye crusted Snow a dozen foot from ye ground, so fed upon ye Trees as very much to damnify them.”

Single story homes were completely buried. “Cottages were totally covered with ye Snow & not ye very tops of their chimneys to be seen.” Drifts reached the third-story windows on the windward side of larger residences. Period accounts from Hampton, New Hampshire and Newbury, Massachusetts suggest the that people could only leave their houses from second and third story windows.

According to Mather, the New England livestock population was decimated. “Vast numbers of Cattel were destroyed in this Calamity. Whereof some there were, of ye Stranger sort, were found standing dead on their legs, as if they had been alive many weeks after, when ye Snow melted away. And others had their eyes glazed over with Ice at such a rate, that being not far from ye Sea, their mistake of their way drowned them there . . . One gentleman, on whose farms were now lost above 1100 sheep, which with other Cattel, were interred in the Snow, writes me word that there were two Sheep very singularly circumstanced. For no less than eight and twenty days after the Storm, the People pulling out the Ruins of above an 100 sheep out of a Snow Bank, which lay 16 foot high, drifted over them, there was two found alive, which had been there all this time, and kept themselves alive by eating the wool of their dead companions . . . The Poultry as unaccountably survived as these. Hens were found alive after seven days ; Turkeys were found alive after five and twenty days, buried in ye Snow, and at a distance from ye ground, and altogether destitute of any thing to feed them. The number of creatures that kept a Rigid Fast, shut up in Snow for diverse weeks together, and were found alive after all, have yielded surprising stories unto us.”

A 19th Century historian suggested that almost ninety percent of the deer population died aftermath of the storms. Mather confirms that deer were an easy target for predators. “A vast multitude of Deer, for ye same cause, taking ye same course, & ye Deep Snow Spoiling them of their only Defence, which is to run, they became such a prey to these Devourers.”

Of course, when deer were no longer an option, these same predators descended upon colonial farms and pens in search of food. “The Wild Creatures of ye Woods, ye outgoings of ye Evening, made their Descent as well as they could in this time of scarcity for them towards ye Sea-side . . . These carnivorous Sharpers, & especially the Foxes, would make their Nocturnal visits to the Pens, where the people had their sheep defended from them. The poor Ewes big with young, were so terrified with the frequent Approaches of ye Foxes, & the Terror had such Impression on them, that most of ye Lambs brought forth in the Spring following, were of Monsieur Reinard’s complexion, when ye Dam, were either White or Black.”

Interestingly, Mather recounted an unusual occurrence that transpired along the Massachusetts coast in the days after the storm. “The Ocean was in a prodigious Ferment, and after it was over, vast heaps of little shells were driven ashore, where they were never seen before. Mighty shoals of Porpoises also kept a play-day in the disturbed waves of our Harbours.”

The full geographic scope of the storm remains unknown to this day. However, as one period account recalls “The Indians near an hundred years old, affirm that their Fathers never told them of any thing that equalled it.”

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