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the_summer_of_1816_in_glengarry

The Summer of 1816

The summer of the year of 1816 should have been a joyous year. 1815 was the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Peace had returned to the world. But as military activities dissipated, another equally formidable threat bore down on the citizens of Glengarry. Mother Nature had a severe meteorological challenge in store.

The unusual spring and summer weather of 1816 is well recorded in the North Eastern United States and Europe. Canadian records of this period are largely drawn from contemporary newspaper reports. These reports can be augmented by regular temperature observations taken in Quebec City, by the Rev. Alexander Spark, and, in Montreal, by members of the McCord family. However, there were no official meteorological readings, as this field only became of interest to governments in Europe and North America in the mid-nineteenth century.

The spring and summer of 1816 began with a severe frost and snow recorded during the first week of May. At the end of the first week in June, the St Lawrence Valley was covered with a blanket of snow for three days. Whilst the weather improved as June progressed, Glengarry experienced a cold wave from the 5-9 of July. F.D.McLennan of Williamstown, in a speech in Cornwall in 1936, noted that his grandfather had observed that: “it was said that there was a heavy frost every month during that summer and that in July, the ice in the ditches would bear a man’s weight”. An early frost was also recorded on August 21st in Montreal.

Although, the growing season of 1816 started as a particularly cold one in Glengarry, the crops were sown at the usual time and the potatoes planted. But late spring frosts destroyed the potatoes as they sprouted. Optimistic farmers planted their potatoes again and again, only to have them leveled by frost. A final meteorological disaster for the pioneers was late September frosts, which wiped out any chance of a wheat crop in Glengarry.

An article in the Cornwall Standard Freeholder of 1st May 1936, painted an even gloomier picture: “absolutely nothing in the way of harvest was garnered, everything in the way of crop rotted in the ground”. According to the grandfather of F.D.McLennan:: “five hundred and fifty Glengarry families suffered total crop failure and were facing imminent crisis due to lack of provisions”.

The residents of the eastern counties of Upper Canada were not alone. The Halifax Weekly Chronicle noted: “great distress prevails in many parishes throughout (Quebec) Province from a scarcity of food….many of them have no bread.” In December 1816, the paper lamented: “It has been given us from the most authentic sources that several parishes in the interior part of Quebec are already so far in want of provisions, as to create the most serious alarms among the inhabitants.”

A petition was sent from Glengarry to the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, Francis Gore seeking assistance to “relieve them from their present distress and the horrible prospect of approaching starvation”. The request was primarily for funds to be loaned to enable the purchase of food. It appears that they were prepared to offer their farms as security. The petition was signed by Alexander McDonell and nineteen others. Six Justice’s of the Peace supported the petition which was dispatched to the Lieutenant Governor on 15th February 1817.

On March 3rd, 1817, the petition was read in the Legislature for Upper Canada and was referred to a committee of the House consisting of John McDonald, member for Prescott, Alex McMartin and John Cameron for Glengarry, Philip Vankoughnet, member for Stormont and Russell and Jonas Jones for Grenville. Some time later a bill granting some relief was brought before the House and came up for second reading on March 27th 1817. The bill was defeated by a majority of one.

One can only speculate as to why this relief bill was defeated. It would appear, again from newspaper reports that the weather in the Great Lakes basin was not as extreme as in the eastern counties of Upper Canada. Newspapers in Kingston and York provide only passing references to the sufferings of those living to the east.

So what was it that brought Glengarry perilously close to catastrophe in 1816? The blame has been laid at the foot of the volcano Tambora in Indonesia which erupted during 1815. The Tambora eruption has been estimated to be the most violent in historical times. The explosion is believed to have lifted 150 to 180 cubic kilometers of material into the atmosphere. For a comparison, the infamous 1883 eruption of Krakatoa ejected only 20 cubic kilometres of material into the air, and yet it affected sunsets for several years after.

References:

  • F.D.McLennan Papers, Archives of the Glengarry Historical Society
  • Standard Freeholder, Cornwall, May 1st, 1936
  • K. Hamilton. Early Canadian Weather Observers and ‘‘The Year Without a Summer’’. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 67, 524-532. (1986)

P.Robin Flockton

October 12, 2012.

the_summer_of_1816_in_glengarry.txt · Last modified: 2014/12/14 21:19 by admin