During the height of winter when the snow’s piled high, and there’s not even the slightest encouraging sign that temperatures will rise anytime soon to usher in the splendors of spring, it’s depressing to think how much more will have to be endured before things improve. While our present storms may seem especially intense and inconvenient, they are nothing compared to what the colonial inhabitants of the Northeast, and New England in particular, had to deal with one winter season almost three centuries ago. The winter of 1716-1717 was especially severe, producing the largest quantities of snow the eastern seaboard has received in recorded history. A series of snowstorms in late February and early March of the latter year produced a blanket of snow of truly biblical proportions, which henceforth went down by the name of the “Great Snow of 1717.”
The previous months of winter before the destructive storms arrived compounded the situation even more. By the end of December five feet of snow had already fallen; by the first week of February drifts were noted to have reached the 25 foot mark in some places. So when the storms part of the “Great Snow” began rolling through on February 18th, and continued almost unabated until March 9th, the entire countryside was devastated. Business and communication came to a standstill, and even church services—a staple of New England more important than food to the mostly Puritan inhabitants—were cancelled. By the end of it the snow lay on a level 10, 15, or even 20 feet deep!
Snow drifted to such heights as to completely bury shorter one-story houses. In certain instances even the lofty chimneys became engulfed by the ever-shifting snow. Henry David Thoreau details in Walden how a settler’s home in Sutton, Massachusetts was nearly entirely concealed. If it wasn’t for a passing Indian who “found it only by the hole which the chimney’s breath made in the drift” the occupants might have met an ignonimous end. Numerous other families faced identical predicaments of being trapped inside, unable to shovel out of the icy prison. Rescue parties were sent to help locate and dig out the elderly and infirm. In one instance, before rescuers arrived and relieved the home of a widow and her children, she had been forced to burn a substantial portion of her furniture to ensure that her family didn’t freeze to death.
Livestock and wildlife fared even worse. Multitudes perished as the snow slowly buried the animals alive. Even the protection offered on the leeward sides of buildings, where drifts have difficulty forming, wasn’t enough to stymie the deluge of snow. Cotton Mather, a resident of Boston, famous for his treatises on witchcraft and the supernatural, wrote one of the most detailed accounts of the storms. “Vast numbers of Cattel were destroyed in this Calamity,” he writes, further adding that in the spring after the snow had melted sufficiently to reveal the damage some “were found standing dead on their legs, as if they had been alive many weeks after.” One wealthy landowner had lost upwards of 1,100 sheep.
Despite the rampant fatalities, this isn’t to say there weren’t tales of “strange survivals.” While digging out a flock of about a hundred sheep, two were miraculously found alive, buried for 28 days. These lucky (or unlucky) creatures depending on your take on it, had managed to survive by “eating the wool of their dead companions.” Similar amazing stories of rescue abound. Groups of pigs lost beneath the snow for identical amounts of time had managed to stay alive by eating a little tansy that remained on the ground, rather than feasting on their compatriots.
Wild animals were pushed to the coastline, the only relatively snow free place around. Deer that had managed to escape succumbing to the weather congregated on the shore, only to be devoured by the wolves and other predators that were similarly drawn to the coast by a promise of open space and a luxurious fare of food. It is estimated by Mather that “not one in twenty [deer] escaped.” For many years after the storm certain persons called “deer-reeves” were annually elected to manage the remaining deer populations to ensure their continued survival and reestablishment.
The storms were of such a severity that even “Indians near a hundred years old, affirmed that their Fathers never told them of anything that equaled it.” During the whiteout conditions mail delivery (and essentially all communication between towns) was impossible. Even after the snow had subsided the postriders were greatly delayed, having to trade in their horses for snowshoes. On the advent of spring, March 25th, a postboy noted that it took him 9 days to cross between Salem, MA, and Portsmouth, NH, a distance of 40 miles. In the woods the snow was measured to still stand at 5 feet, with drifts rising to between 6-14 feet. What’s more, bodies couldn’t be interred to the grave, people in taller houses had to make an exit through second-story windows or dig tunnels from house to house, and orchards were decimated. With the snow rising to such heights and later garnering a firm icy cuticle, it was possible for animals to graze on the uppermost tops of fruit trees, which never was able to occur before the storm. Cattle were observed to traipse over the tops of snow drifts of a dozen feet where they “fed upon ye Trees as very much to damnify them.”
While it’s easy to dismiss these harsh storms as a fluke, since nothing of this magnitude has presented itself to the Northeast on such an encompassing scale in 299 years, as history shows, natural events such as these tend to repeat themselves sooner or later. It has been surmised that the potency of this event was aided by an abnormally high amount of dust in the atmosphere caused by numerous volcanic eruptions in the Pacific during 1716. In the future, global warming could potentially enhance our storms in a similar vein. They aren’t predicted so much as to increase in frequency, as they are to become more severe. We may one day, too, find ourselves dating important events as occurring before or after the “Great Snow of 20--.”