Two hundred and six years ago this week, on January 19, 1810, the residents of New England experienced a weather event so extreme and unusual that most of them would remember it vividly–or tragically–for the rest of their lives. Cold winters aren’t necessarily uncommon in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine and surrounding areas, so in a sense talking about an exceptionally cold day one long-ago January sounds at first like you’re talking about nothing substantive at all. But this particular weekend in 1810 etched itself into the collective memory of early Americans in a way that few other environmental events have ever done. Even if you happen to live in one of these places and have been through a lifetime of New England winters–which I admit I haven’t, since I’ve lived in Oregon much of my life–you might get a chill reading about the infamous Cold Friday.
Curiously, the winter in which it occurred had been, up until the day before, unusually mild. In an era before the snowplow was invented the only way to get around in winter was by sleigh, and New Englanders at this time typically measured the severity of winters by counting the number of days that there was “good sleighing.” In the winter of 1809-1810 there were almost none at all up until then. In fact it was quite warm for January. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the afternoon of Thursday, January 18th was sunny and mild and the temperature was 42° F. That evening it started raining lightly, but people around New England had no reason to expect a cold snap. They went to bed as usual in winter. By the time they woke up on Friday morning, though, conditions had changed drastically.
What happened was what today weathermen might call an “Arctic blast,” brought in by a change of wind direction. At dawn on January 19, the temperature in Portsmouth was 7° below zero and continuing to fall. Overall the mercury plunged 54 degrees in 12 hours in Portsmouth; in Cheshire County, New Hampshire, the 12-hour temperature swing was an astounding 63 degrees. The wind was howling fiercely from the northwest. Unlike most days, when temperatures are warmest in the final hours of daylight, the mercury continued to plunge–by the next morning it was at minus 14°. Barometers around New England registered extreme low pressure. The region was in the midst of a terrible gale. Yet strangely not a flake of snow fell.
Before roads were routinely cleared of snow, New Englanders needed sleighs as a means of daily transportation in winter. Today we associate “sleigh rides” with holidays, but there is still a heritage of them, as you see here.
The ferocity of the icy wind wreaked havoc all over the region. The roofs of houses, barns, sheds and other buildings, most of which were plain wooden shingles, shredded like confetti. The unroofing of barns left livestock at the mercy of the elements, which was bad enough in an area whose mainstay was agriculture, but when it happened to houses human deaths were sometimes the result. A famous case, later reported in newspapers all over New England, happened in Sanbornton, New Hampshire. A family called the Elsworths had their farmhouse unroofed by the winds early in the morning while they slept. Jeremiah Elsworth’s wife took one child down to the cellar, leaving her two others in bed, while Jeremiah went for help to the neighbors. He was blown down several times and nearly frozen by the time he reached the neighbors’. Meanwhile the wind blew the covers off the bed where two of the kids lay, and their panicked mother tried to pack them all into a sleigh to flee to the neighbors’. They didn’t make it–the winds were so strong they blew the sleigh itself over. Jeremiah and his wife barely survived, but their three children were frozen to death.
The extreme cold shut down just about everything in New England. People remained in their houses, bundled up, waiting for the brutal wind to stop. Commerce ground to a halt, not least of which because many of the region’s rivers quickly froze solid. The effects of the storm were felt even outside New England. Some brick chimneys were blown down in New York City, and it was cold enough in Washington, D.C. that Congress adjourned and closed the Capitol building. By Monday, January 22, thermometers were slowly inching back upwards, though it was still tremendously cold in many places. There is no accurate count of the total death toll, but many communities across the Northeast reported a few people had frozen to death or otherwise died of exposure over the weekend.
Newspaper and book publisher Isaiah Thomas, of Worcester, Massachusetts, believed the Cold Friday was the coldest day he’d ever seen in New England. According to his diary, another cold snap in February 1817 was even worse.
Though no one knew it at the time, New England’s Cold Friday was just the first stark manifestation of a strange episode of temporary climate change–global cooling–that affected the whole world between 1810 and 1820. The culprit was a volcanic eruption, mountain as yet unknown, that emitted a large amount of sulfur dioxide that reflected solar radiation and cooled the Earth’s surface. This effect was greatly exacerbated by another and much larger volcanic eruption, that of Mt. Tambora (in what is now Indonesia), in April 1815. I’ve written about this episode before, such as in my article on Thomas Jefferson’s environmental misfortunes, and it’s connected to other weather disasters of the same decade, such as the Great September Gale of 1815. In fact it’s the subject of my academic research.
There is no doubt that the Cold Friday left an indelible icy mark in the memories of New Englanders. Over the next few years and decades, whenever the temperature plunged, residents would invariably compare it to the infamous “Cold Friday,” which was noteworthy in that it affected the entire region instead of just a few localities, thus giving everyone a common base of comparison. In my research I continue to find references to the Cold Friday in sources dating as late as the 1850s and 1860s, half a century after the event. I’m aware of almost no other single weather event quite so indelible and ubiquitous in the historical records and which was shared by so many people who remembered it the same way.
Weather does matter in history. Cold winds and strange atmospheric conditions can’t speak, but on occasion they make their way forcefully into the historical record. No one alive today can remember the Cold Friday obviously, but if there’s such a thing as collective memory of places and societies, certainly that icy weekend in January 1810 is marked in its archives.