The Great Snow
Updated: May 13, 2022
“As mighty a snow as perhaps has been known in memory of man.”
Cotton Mather, 1717
Over the course of two weeks at the end of February, snow fell in significant quantities across New England. Benjamin Webb recorded his observations of the weather in his almanac:
February 18: "Snowy, a great Snow above mid legg"
February 21: "A terrible Storm of Snow'
February 24: "another Extraord: Storm Snow-heaps upon heaps"
February 28: "Snowd all day"
Snow, in many places, reached nearly five feet in depth. Snow drifts of upwards of 16 feet covered homes up to second-story windows. Single-story houses were buried with only the chimney poking through the mountains of snow. Paths needed to be tunneled under the snow, and snowshoes were the only means of transportation. In Newbury, Massachusetts, newlywed Abraham Adams had been separated from his new bride, Abigail Pierce. She had become snowbound at her parents' home when the great snow began to fall on February 18th. Desiring to see his bride, Abraham mounted his snowshoes and clambered out the second-floor chamber window. He hiked the three miles to his in-laws' house and entered through the upper chamber window in the same fashion. He was the first person outside the household the Pierce family had seen in over a week. (Abraham and Abigail would welcome their first child in November of 1717.)
In Medford, Massachusetts, a widow with several children became trapped in their one-story house. The house remained buried under the snow until neighbors spotted smoke emanating from the drifts. They proceeded to dig out a passage to a window to gain access to the home. They found that the widow had used up her small fuel supply and had resorted to burning the furniture for warmth. This would be a typical scenario in the weeks following the storms. Even when the snow stopped, the snowpack, drifts, and banks hardened and endured. Webb observed the "vast banks of Snow as hard all most as Ice" well into early April. Throughout New England, church services were canceled. The post was delayed until mid-March, and on the coast, ships could not arrive at the port towns. Contemporary writers would describe it as "the long confinement." For New Englanders, enured to the harsh winters, the snow was unusual. Thomas Paine noted in his almanac that the "yr is supposed now to be more snow on ye Ground yn ever at one Time before." Cotton Mather, the influential colonial preacher and evangelist, noted that it was "an horrid snow." Even octogenarian Native Americans remarked they could not recall their fathers ever speaking about such a snowfall.
Humans were not the only ones impacted by the significant amounts of snow. Livestock by the thousands perished across the region. It was common practice to allow cattle and sheep to forage freely in meadows or on pastoral islands along the coastline. The depth of the snow prevented farmers from rescuing their herds. Animals became disorientated and lost, thereby freezing or starving to death. Reports came in of cattle being found frozen and still standing when the snow melted. Those near the coast had their eyes crusted over with ice. Blinded, many animals wandered into the ocean. Yet there were other reports of remarkable survival. A pair of young hogs, despite being buried in snow, found enough tansy to survive. Another story recounts the discovery of some sheep who had survived by eating the wool of their dead companions. Fruit orchards, as well, were not immune to the devastating impact of the snowstorms.
Natural forage became scarce for the deer, and the population was reduced by an estimated 90%. Towns created a special office, the deer reeve, to help preserve the deer population. They created clearings and set up carts, fences, and other barriers to keep out natural predators. The lack of prey drove bears, wolves, and foxes out of the forests and towards populated areas. They raided sheep pens and chicken coops. At the coast, the storms roiled up the ocean water. Seashells washed ashore at places where they usually would not be found, and porpoises were spotted in many harbor areas.
New Englanders were no strangers to plentiful snow. The decades between 175 and 1715 have been identified as the coldest period of what has been referred to as the Little Ice Age (which began in the early 16th century). Though cold weather doesn't equate to more snow, it does allow for significant accumulations of snow to remain for more extended periods. Severe winters were documented through much of the 17th century, with the winter of 1697-1698 providing a harbinger of the 1716-1717 winter. The accumulated experience of these winters helped give the colonists a sense that the snows of 1717 were somehow different. Significant snowfalls had occurred in December 1716 and January 1717, even before the successive storms at the end of February. Utilizing colonial observations, weather historians surmise that the storms between February 18 and February 28 were most likely nor'easters. These are extratropical cyclones that spin counterclockwise and move up the Atlantic Coastline during winter. They bring cold, northeasterly winds, heavy snowfall, and coastal flooding to New England.
Almanacs, diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, and sermons contributed to the fact the Great Snow of 1717 was the most documented winter event in the colonial New England period. Several factors contributed to this being the case. The Boston News-Letter in 1704 was established as the colonies' first newspaper. There was an increase in the use of snowshoes which allowed couriers and other travelers to communicate their observations in the aftermath of the storms. Like Cotton Mather, the more literate New England ministers were essential in collecting, recording, and disseminating information about the snow and its effects. Many farmers, such as Benjamin Webb, always kept daily weather accounts in their personal almanacs. They took a keener interest in this storm due to the severity of the property loss many of them suffered. Yet despite this, in the less settled areas, where the population literacy was limited, news of the event remained within an oral tradition. Stories of the great snow and its aftermath were told and then handed down until they became part of the local lore. It would not be until much later that these accounts were written down and, in most cases, romanticized.
Environmental historians have tapped into this wealth of documentation to better understand what made the snow of 1717 different from preceding winters. Much study is still required, but there is agreement that by the beginning of the 18th century, the colonists themselves created the conditions that would alter the dynamics of winter storms. In the preceding century, the colonists had cleared acres of forest to open the land to fields of crops. Old Native American pathways were widened to create colonial roads. Yet the forests had acted as windbreaks. The new open spaces allowed for more robust and more sustained wind gusts that resulted in colder wind chills and deeper snowdrifts. The colonists fenced in their property and built two-story homes, barns, and other structures. These were all places where large quantities of wind-blown snow could accumulate. Indeed, the storms impacted the coastal areas of New England, the worse and more densely populated towns such as Boston. In these places, snow depths averaged 10-15 feet deep, whereas, in the less settled, more remote forested interior, snow depths averaged five feet with considerably less drifting.
The deep snow of 1717 was more widely discussed among colonists than any previous winter. Although they may have recognized the unprecedented nature of the storms, they did not fully understand their contribution. A century of clearing forests and the growth of populated settlements resulted in significant changes in the landscape that impacted the severity of winter storms. By studying events like the great snow of 1717, we can understand better how prolonged human activity creates subtle but long-ranging changes to our climate.
Historic Storms of New England: Sydney Perley