“Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”

When we look at the factors that caused our ancestors to migrate from one place to another, specifically within the United States, do we consider the effect that climate disasters may have had? Most of us are familiar with the Dust Bowl, which forced thousands of families in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, to abandon their farms, devastated by crop losses and unable to pay their mortgages and migrate westwards towards California.

For hundreds of years America was largely an agricultural society, dependent on the weather for providing good conditions for crop growth. Many of our farming ancestors lived or died by the harvest their lands produced. Climate disasters, and their accompanying economic losses, were catastrophic to families, and to communities.

In 1847, a 76-year old farmer by the name of Reuben Whitten died in Holderness, Grafton County, New Hampshire.1 Back in the summer of 1816, Reuben had harvested a good wheat crop which he had shared with his family and neighbors. Why was that act important? By sharing his wheat crop, Reuben saved his family and neighbors from starving at a time when all their crops had failed, and many of their sheep had frozen to death, in the summer. In fact, Reuben’s neighbors were so thankful to him, that family members later erected a stone commemorating his selfless act.

Weather grave “1771 Ruben Whitten 1847
Son of a Revolutionary Soldier
A Pioneer of this Town. Cold season of
1816 Raised 40 Bushils of Wheat on this
Land whitch Kept his Family and
Neighbours from Starveation.”

How was it that crops failed and animals froze in what should have been the warm and sunny summer of 1816 in New England? What was the ‘cold season of 1816’ to which the words carved onto the headstone referred? Known also as the “year without a summer” or “eighteen hundred and froze to death”, 1816 was a year that few who lived in the New England region would soon forget.

No-one could have expected that the mild start to April 1816 would foreshadow a period of frigid temperatures, severe frosts and heavy snows. Summer would not come that year to New England. In Salem, Massachusetts, April 24 started off with a mild 74°F, dropping to 21°F within 30 hours. By May 1816, several cold spells had delayed planting and farmers began to fear that they would not have crops to sell or food to feed their families. The corn crop in Maine had frozen and strong winds and freezing temperatures from Canada killed the buds on the fruit trees. Warm days would bring hope to the farmers and a hasty planting of their crops, that hope only to be dashed a few days later when severe frosts would again occur. This cyclic change in temperatures would continue through September 1816, eventually bringing serious drought to the area and to much of the United States.

Weather chart

Newspapers across the region carried articles on the strange weather and the devastating crop losses. On 12 June, 1816, the Hallowell Gazette of Maine reported that there had been few days without which a fire was needed to keep warm, and that the “cold was so severe that vegetation seems to have been suspended.” 2

Weather 1

From New Hampshire, the Intelligencer of 6 September 1816, reported on various places hit by the unseasonably frigid weather and the damage to the corn crops. Ending the article with, “It is probable the year 1816 will have this remarkable designation, that there has been a frost in every month of it.” 3

Weather 2

The extreme weather and resultant loss of crops forced farmers to leave the New England region. Many moved to western New York and into the Northwest Territory (covering the present states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and northwestern Minnesota). Their migration played a part in speeding up westward expansion in the United States and shaped what became known as the American Heartland. The movement of these farming families into what is now Indiana and Illinois helped found those states. 4

Consider again Reuben Whitten sharing his wheat crop with his neighbors in 1816.  It takes on much greater significance when we understand the context surrounding his act. He very likely saved some in his community from starvation.

If your family moved from New England around 1816-1818, it is entirely possible the ‘year without a summer’ may have been the cause.  Some 15 000 people left Vermont after the summer of 1816 for places west.

Climate disasters were devastating for our farming ancestors and their communities and may be the very reason they moved, searching for better conditions in which to grow their crops and support their families.

 

 


  1. Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 9 October 2018), memorial page for Reuben Whitten (1771-1847), Find A Grave Memorial no. 19525630, citing Reuben Whitten cemetery, Grafton county, New Hampshire; Maintained by B.L. Hughes (contributor). 
  2. “Extraordinary Weather,” Hallowell Gazette, Maine, 12 June 1816, page 3, col. 1; online archives, GenealogyBank (https://www.genealogybank.com : accessed 9 October 2018). 
  3. “The Season,” The Intelligencer, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 5 September 1816, page 2, col. 3; online archives, GenealogyBank (https://www.genealogybank.com : accessed 9 October 2018). 
  4. Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org), “Year Without a Summer,” rev. 17:18, 27 August 2018. 

Using Newspapers to Uncover an Emigrant’s Journey

Newspapers are incredibly valuable for genealogical research. They help put the flesh on the bones of our ancestors. Through newspapers we gain a little insight into the times in which our ancestors lived. Newspapers can also help find the story of your emigrant ancestors. Many are full of information on ship arrivals and departures, what life was like on board the ship, tragedies at sea and messages back to their homelands from those who left.

Illustration 1 1

Migration Ship
“On Board an Emigrant Ship”

From the advertisements seeking those willing to leave their home for a foreign land, to the letters sent back to those homes from those emigrants, newspapers can add great context to your emigrant ancestors’ journey.

Advertisements for free emigration

Newspapers were full of advertisements offering free or assisted emigration to countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa. High in demand were those skilled in a trade such as blacksmiths, carpenters, bakers, and bricklayers. Women were also in demand as housemaids, nurses and dairy maids. 2

Migration free
“Free Emigration to Queensland.” Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

Life Aboard Ship

Newspapers often contained reports on life aboard ship. Most described the awful conditions, the disease and deaths, the lack of food and water and the ill-treatment of the emigrants by the crew. Yet, emigrant’s kept making the journey, hoping that life in a foreign country would be better than where they were previously.  These articles describe the deplorable conditions on many ships, but they also contain clues for further research. The article below contains the ship name, the port it arrived in and the date it arrived, where it departed from, the number of days at sea and the number of passengers aboard when it left Liverpool. It also gives the number of passengers who died on the voyage and the number of babies born. 3

Migration sick
“Emigrant Life on Board Ship.” Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Ships lost at sea or plagued by disease

Traveling by sea was often perilous. Ships sometimes caught on fire and sank,  some were damaged by storms, others ran aground on reefs or sand bars. Newspapers carried the stories of survivors, if there were any, or simply reported that the ship was considered late to its port and therefore ‘lost’.

The loss of 20 lives aboard the English emigrant ship, the Trusty, was reported by the Norfolk News (England) on 14 August 1852.4 The ship had left Scarborough, in North England, with 200 emigrants on board. Their final destination was Quebec. The ship had sighted land when a dense fog occurred and the ship struck a reef and began to sink. A boat was lowered and 20 persons climbed aboard and tried to get to shore. Sadly, the boat capsized in rough surf and all drowned. Their names appear in the newspaper article. The remaining emigrants clung to the sinking wreck for over 8 hours until another vessel was able to pull alongside and rescue them.

Migration wreck
“Melancholy Wreck of an Emigrant Ship” Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The emigrants aboard the ship, Hartha, left Hamburg, Germany in October 1865, bound for New York. Three months later, in January 1866, the Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press noted the arrival of the ship at Spithead, on the southern English coast. The journey from Hamburg to New York should have taken about a month, instead the emigrants had now been on board the ship for two and half months, arriving on the coast of England instead of New York. Their journey had been fraught with problems from a leak which caused the ship to head for the coast of Scotland for repair, to the discovery of small pox among the passengers. On 20 December 1865, sixteen passengers suffering from small pox were left behind in Scotland while the ship sailed on. In the English Channel, a ferocious storm with gale force winds, forced the ship back to Spithead again. Once more, small pox broke out, this time affecting many more of the emigrants. The Captain was forced to move all the sick off the ship and have it fumigated. Many of the children aboard also suffered from diphtheria.  The newspaper noted, “The misfortunes this ship has encountered have dispirited the intended emigrants, as might naturally be supposed.” 5

Migration sick1
“Remarkable Voyage of an Emigrant Ship” Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

These are the stories that add color to our ancestors’ lives and make them more than just names and dates on a piece of paper. Whether mentioned by name or not, reading these accounts allows us to understand more fully what our ancestors went through in their journey to their new home.

Letters sent back home

Once our ancestors reached their new home, they would send letters back to family left behind. Letters would often be sent to the vicar of the local parish where the emigrants had once resided, and the vicar would request that the newspaper publish the letter so all in the parish could hear how the family was doing.

William and Mary Anne Randle wrote the following letter to their children in Coventry, England, from Quebec, Canada, in 1862.6 The letter is filled with information on their journey to Quebec and their new life there. If William and Mary Anne Randle were your ancestor’s, how fortunate you would be to find all this information! However, if your emigrant ancestor’s followed the same route as the Randle’s, you now have an idea of what that journey entailed and what life was like for new emigrants.

Migration-letters-all
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Newspapers are wonderful for filling in the details of the journey our emigrant ancestors’ took to get to their new homelands. From the advertisements ‘selling’ the idea of emigrating, to the letters sent back home, we can add context and color to their lives.

All images are from the British Newspapers Archive and used under their terms of conditions which state that the image appear with a copyright statement and attribution to British Newspaper Archive.

 


  1. Illustration 1 “On Board an Emigrant Ship,” Every Saturday: An Illustrated Weekly Journal, Vol. III, 30 December 1871, p. 628; Hathitrust (https://babel.hathitrust.org : accessed 26 September 2018). 
  2. “Free Emigration to Queensland,”The Cornish Telegraph (Penzance, Cornwall), 28 March 1876, Vol. XXV, No. 1318, p. 2, col. 3; British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 27 September 2018). 
  3. “Emigrant Life On Board Ship,” Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 28 April 1847, Vol. XXIII, No. 1238, p. 270, col. 1;  British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 27 September 2018). 
  4. “Melancholy Wreck of an Emigrant Ship,” Norfolk News, 14 August 1852, No. 398, p. 4, col. 4; British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 27 September 2018). 
  5. “Remarkable Voyage of an Emigrant Ship,” Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 27 January 1866, p. 3, col. 4; British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 27 September 2018). 
  6. “Letters from Emigrants,” Coventry Herald and Observer, 5 July 1862, p. 3, col. 4 & 5; British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 28 September 2018).