The Birthday of the Year Without a Summer

This image has become associated with the Year Without a Summer, ...but it is not at all clear it dates from, or is about, 1816.

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Happy birthday, I guess. Two hundred years ago this morning, snow started coming down in Quebec City and didn’t let up. Bewildered flocks of birds landed in the streets, where they were killed in great number. Sleighs had been long put away for the season, and so carriages got stuck in snow up to their axles. The thermometer stayed below freezing the next five nights.

This freakish June 1816 weather heralded the onset of the so-called “Year Without a Summer” across Eastern North America. A year earlier, the Indonesian volcano Tambora had erupted – the largest eruption in recorded history – sending tens of cubic kilometers of ash and dust high into the sky, lessening the sunlight that could reach the earth, and cooling the planet measurably.

But the 1810s were actually a cold decade even prior to Tambora. One likely cause is the massive volcanic eruption that happened somewhere — we don’t know where! I love climate history — in 1808 or 1809. The Canadas experienced poor harvests in 1814 — note, prior to Tambora — and, in 1815, Lower Canada was hit with a killing frost on 7 August that is said to have wiped out much of its wheat crop. There was concern not only that the people of Lower Canada would go hungry, but also that there would be insufficient seed to plant wheat for an 1816 crop, and that many people would be in no position to plant crops because they would be travelling to find food.

The situation was dire enough that in late 1815 the Bishop of Quebec instituted a survey to assess the state of parishes in the colony. The condition of 90 parishes were classified on the basis of their responses. I have mapped and colour-coded those responses in the following illustration, and more fully, here.  The parishes were rated as

  • First class [dark green]: Harvest was plentiful, grain is for sale.
  • Second class [light green]: People have sufficient grain to survive and to sow.
  • Third class [light red]: Subsistence will be difficult, due to loss of wheat and other crops.
  • Fourth class [dark red]: People are without food or the hope of sowing in the spring.
Feb 1816 survey of Roman Catholic parishes in Lower Canada.
Feb 1816 survey of Lower Canada parishes.

There is evidence of considerable variability between the condition of parishes: Montreal is in the first class, for example, while Kahnawake, just a short distance away, is in the fourth. The broadest generalization that might be made is that parishes in and around Montreal and Quebec City are in reasonably good shape, and that poorer conditions tend to be in the outlying areas. And then the winter and spring was cold, and snow fell in June, heralding what myth remembers as a summerless year. There would seem to be all the ingredients for widespread famine.

But that didn’t happen. The weather turned warmer in late June, and the crops improved — it was even said that Canada fared better than the Northeast US, because, being farther north, its crops had not been as far along when the June cold snap had hit. The summer of the Year Without a Summer turned out to be quite seasonal. But farmers, and eaters, were not out of the woods just yet. Severe frosts in late September and early October devastated crops still in the field across the eastern end of Lower Canada in particular. In those place, the harvest was lost, food reserves were spent, and bread prices were high. Well before winter set in, residents called on government for relief.

In January 1817, in preparation for giving relief, the government of Lower Canada compiled a report documenting places “in such a state of distress that it is indispensably necessary to assist a part of those Inhabitants both with articles of Food and Seed grain…” I have mapped all the parishes that were in distress, as plum, in the following illustration and, again, more fully here.

Jan 1817 report of parishes in distress.
Jan 1817 survey of Lower Canada parishes in distress.

The two surveys were not identical. The first was implemented directly by the Roman Catholic Church, and categorized the parishes into four classes, whereas the second was implemented by the government, and categorized the parishes into two classes (in distress or not). But both used the same unit and were based on reports from the Catholic church.

Two things are most noticeable in comparing the two maps. The first is how widespread the distress was in the eastern end of the colony in late 1816. The second is that not only was there said to be no distress in the western end of the colony, but that the parishes there that had experienced distress in Feb 1816, such as Kahnawake, did no longer. In such parishes, the harvest of the Year Without a Summer had apparently significantly improved conditions. That seems to have been the pattern throughout British North America: the threat of famine increased substantially in specific regions during 1816, but may well have decreased overall. (To be sure, the threat to the extreme poor persisted everywhere.)

That’s a warning to question seemingly simple historical narratives, especially ones built around a catchy title. But it’s no reason not to raise a glass. Happy birthday, you misleadingly-named climate history event, you.

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Elsewhere on this site, Michael O’Hagan and I have gathered 120 primary sources documenting Canada’s Year Without a Summer. We made the conscious decision not to editorialize on the meaning of those sources: we want to give readers a chance to draw meaning from those sources themselves. Also, I’m having my say in an upcoming issue of Canada’s History. …But I thought I’d take the anniversary as an excuse to offer a little analysis that can best be told on the web.

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I am a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. You can reach me at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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