The Hazards of Winter in Washington’s Day

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Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm after a December snow in 2018.

Many people find winter miserable. It can be hard dealing with freezing temperatures, inclement weather, and long nights.  With much of the nation experiencing record-breaking cold and windchills today and the current temperature at George Washington’s Ferry Farm as we publish this post only 20 degrees Fahrenheit. it may not feel like it but our modern conveniences negate some of the brutality of the season. Colonial Americans did not have these luxuries.  For them, winter was not just difficult but deadly.

OUTDOORS

Winters outdoors in the 18th century were dangerous for many reasons that we take for granted.  Modern infrastructure and weather forecasting have reduced the dangers of winter for us today.

Colonial Americans did not have a permanent network of solid roads and sidewalks they could rely upon.  Roads and walking paths were often dirt and subject to seasonal change.  When the weather turned icy and snowy, the road into town could disappear while a well-worn path through a forest became much more perilous.

Furthermore, lakes and ponds vanished under layers of snow, which gave the impression of a solid surface and created the illusion of a quick but deadly shortcut.  It was common for people and sleds to venture across the frozen water sometimes with lethal results as newspaper reports show.

Williamsburg, January 28. The Weather has been so excessive bad, for some Time past, that there has been scarce any passing the Rivers, for Ice, or travelling for Snow.  And we have Accounts from several Places, of Persons being frozen to Death, and others drowned, by attempting to cross the Rivers.  No Post has come from the Northward these 6 weeks; and we may reasonably conclude, that as the Weather is so severe here, it is worse there. – Virginia Gazette, January 28, 1738

For the last two days the weather has been severely cold. On Thursday night the Mercury in Fahrenheit’s Thermometer was 26 degrees below freezing point; and yesterday morning the Delaware river was frozen, so that many persons crossed on the ice.  Nearly opposite to Spruce Street it broke under a young man, and he fell into the water.  With great difficulty he was saved, after being nearly exhausted with the cold. — Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia daily advertiser, December 24, 1796

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Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia daily advertiser, December 24, 1796

A heartbreaking example of drowning after falling through ice happened in 1793 when a group of cousins tried to cross what was thought to be a solid frozen river in their sleigh.  The ice broke, taking all under the water.  Assistance was rendered by people on the shore but only one person could be saved.

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Gazette of the United-States, New York, NY, March 24, 1790

Fluctuations in temperatures, unpredictable by the rudimentary weather forecasting available at the time, were also very dangerous.  Many underestimated just how quickly freezing temperatures could take their toll and suffered frostbite or succumbed to exposure while trying to carry on with daily life.  On one particularly cold February day in New York, frigid temperatures even froze wine and beer.   In Boston, during the same cold snap, “two or three persons were found frozen to death the beginning of this week, and … many people in the country had their ears and cheeks frostbitten going to public worship.”

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Virginia Gazette, March 25, 1773

INDOORS

Indoors, dealing with freezing temperatures in the 18th century was a constant struggle made more difficult because fire was the only source of heat.  Fire in the open hearth was not efficient, consumed copious amounts of fuel, and only provided warmth within a small area. Almost 90% of the heat produced by a fire in a traditional colonial fireplace escaped up through the chimney. Not only that, but chimneys were drafty, letting in cold air.  This ineffectiveness meant that a family’s living space became restricted and fires were kept going almost constantly.

The quest for warmth lead to many house fires.  The Washington family even experienced a house fire first-hand sometime in the 1740s at Ferry Farm. A small fire began near the fireplace in the hall back room and did enough damage to ensure major repairs. The upper floor would have been well smoked and whole parts of the first floor ceiling were ruined. The home was damaged, but not lost, and repairs ensued.  Archaeological evidence of this fire includes a root cellar filled with fire related ash, burned artifacts, and fire-damaged plaster.

Although it is unreliable, there is some documentary evidence, of a fire at Ferry Farm in a letter to George Washington from Robert Davis dated May 25, 1795.  Written 55 years after the fact, Davis’s memories are interesting but contradict the physical evidence found by archaeologists. He wrote…

“I am not sure but I was once a play Mate of yours many years ago, was Colonel [Augustine] Washington who lived on Rappahannock & opposite to Fredericksburgh your Father, whos Estate Joined a Plantation of Mr Anthony Strathers on the River side—from Mr Strather, a Mr Robt Shadden had a Store house, with him I lived as a young Assistant in the Store, Colo. Washington was very kind and indeed a second Father to me and I Remember it well, that it give me a very sore Heart that on a Christmass Eve, his great house was burned down & that he was Obliged with his good family to go and live in the Kitchen.”

A more contemporary letter hints at the fire as well but provides no real details other than some sort of fire happened.  Writing to Augustine Washington on October 9, 1741, Richard Yates opens his letter with “In the midst of your late calamity wch. you suffer’d by fire, for which I am sincerely concern’d…”[1]

While the Washingtons’ fire was apparently not a newsworthy event at the time, colonial-era newspapers carried plenty of thrilling details about many other fires for their readers.

For example in 1774, the Governor’s house at Fort George in New York City, caught fire and the Virginia Gazette, although far from New York, published stories of a narrow escape out a second story window, lost jewels and valuables, and the death of 16-year-old “servant girl” Elizabeth Garret.

Along with the increased danger of house fires, the cold also made fighting out of control fires much more difficult Another Virginia Gazette story discussed efforts to battle fires in freezing temperatures on an evening in Boston. The Gazette reported, “In this cold season were several alarms of fire breaking out which were happily extinguished before any considerable damage was done, excepting one…”  This was the joiner’s shop of Mr. Benjamin Sumner, “which before the inhabitants could be collected, was all on fire.”  People worked to extinguish the fire “notwithstanding the uncommon severity of the weather, which was so cold that the water thrown from the engines upon those building, that were in the most danger, instantly congealed into ice.”  Despite the difficulty with the extreme cold, the fire was put out, many houses were saved, no one died, and only a few people had their hands and feet frozen.

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Virginia Gazette, March 25, 1773

Some were not so fortunate.  The same newspaper dispatch about the Boston fire noted that on a December night in 1772 Michael Law of Putney lost not only his house but four children.

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Snow begins to fall on Historic Kenmore on the evening of January 12, 2019.

Winter has always been a difficult time for people. The constant battles with the cold and lethal dangers of the season were in the forefront of colonial Americans’ minds.  As Mary Palmer Tyler reminisced in the 19th century about the brutality of winter in her youth in the 18th century, “Truly the people of this age know little of the horrors of winter.” [PDF]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Richard Yates to Augustine Washington, October 9, 1741, printed in Moncure D. Conway, Barons of the Potomack and the Rappahannock (New York, 1892), pgs 68-69.

When Washington Wanted to Know the Weather

Snowing at the Washington House

Snow falls on the Washington house at Ferry Farm in the midst of construction late last winter.

Winter is coming.  For the next three months or so, we face cold temperatures, blustery winds, chilly rains, occasional snow and ice storms, and regular frosts.  Living in the 21st century, accurate foreknowledge of unpleasant or dangerous weather is available at our fingertips.  It was decidedly different in the 18th century.

Just like we are today, people in the past were captivated by the weather and urgently wanted to know what it was going to do. George Washington was fascinated by the weather.  His preoccupation stemmed, of course, from his occupations as a surveyor, soldier, and planter.  Washington’s lifetime of diaries are filled with meteorological observations like this one from December 13, 1799.  “Morning Snowing & abt. 3 Inches deep. Wind at No. Et. & Mer. at 30. Contg. Snowing till 1 Oclock and abt. 4 it became perfectly clear. Wind in the same place but not hard. Mer. 28 at Night.”  This particular weather observation by Washington would also prove to be his final diary entry.  He died about 24 hours later.  Given his passion for the weather, it actually seems quite fitting that among the man’s last documented words there would be a weather report.

Accurately predicting the weather certainly would have helped Washington in his surveying, soldiering, and planting and weather forecasting was not completely impossible in the 18th century.  People in Washington’s time had some primitive tools, skills, and knowledge that they could call upon to help them guess what the weather was about to do for a relatively brief amount of time within the limited geographic area around them.

Weather vanes were one common tool used by colonial Americans to help divine the weather.  The direction and intensity of the wind can indeed provide a general idea of weather ahead.  Breezes from the south typically bring warm temperatures and increased humidity.  Winds from the north can mean colder temperatures and drier air.  A sudden shift in the wind direction with strong gusts coming from the west may mean a storm is approaching.

Mount Vernon Weathervane

Weather vane atop the cupola at Mount Vernon. Credit: Tim Evanson / Flickr.

Along with wind direction, early Americans also got an idea of what might happen with the weather simply by watching the sky.  Over the centuries, folk knowledge from this sky watching was distilled into weather lore, sayings meant to forecast the weather based on these observations of the local sky.  Indeed, some weather lore can be explained scientifically, is actually valid, and does provide an idea of what the weather will be for the short-term.

Let’s examine three example sayings (PDF)

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight
Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning

Red sky marks where high pressure is located. Dust and soot captured in the high pressure dome scatter more of the sunlight’s red wavelength while regular air molecules scatter sunlight’s blue wavelength.  An evening red sky in the west indicates an approaching high pressure bringing calm weather.  A red sky in the morning in the east means a high pressure has passed and a low pressure with unsettled weather is likely following behind.

Red in the Morning

Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.

When halo rings the moon
Rain’s approaching soon

At night, high thin cirrostratus clouds can create halos around the moon. These clouds forecast approaching rain.

When clouds look like black smoke
A wise man will put on his cloak

Thick clouds contain a lot of moisture which helps block sunlight and creates an appearance of black smoke in the sky.  The moisture in the clouds will often fall as rain, of course, necessitating the need for a cloak to stay dry outdoors.

In the 18th century, many weather sayings once shared through oral tradition were finally recorded in almanacs.  The 1700s was a boom time for almanacs and none was perhaps as focused on weather prediction as The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which first appeared in 1792 when George Washington was president.

Robert B. Thomas, The Old Farmer’s Almanac original publisher, created long-term weather forecasts based on a theory developed by Galileo in the 1600s. Galileo and Thomas believed that an 11-year cycle of sunspots influenced the Earth’s climate and weather.  To this day, science has not ruled out a connection although sunspot impact on weather is thought to be relatively minor.  Nevertheless, a farmer who wanted to know the best day to plant a certain crop and if that day would have good weather consulted The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

The last tool available to 18th century weather prognosticators was the barometer, which measures atmospheric pressure. Generally speaking, a rising barometer means high pressure is approaching and thus good weather is likely ahead while a falling barometer means low pressure is on the way and so is bad weather.  While they were over 100-years-old by his time, it does not appear that Washington owned barometer.  He definitely owned a thermometer but the many weather observations he recorded in his diaries do not include observations taken on a barometer.

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A snowy evening at Historic Kenmore.

With these primitive tools, skills, and knowledge, weather forecasting in the 18th century was possible but immensely flawed.  One could not know anything with certainty.  The error rate was substantial to be sure.  Forecasting was really little more than making a guess based on some vague general rules of thumb.  The advent of telegraphy in 1835 sparked the current age of modern weather forecasting with its collecting and sharing of both observations and data across large distances and its ever-increasing warning times about weather changes.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs