Furs, Sleighs, Iceboats, Empires: Settler Adaptation to Climate Change around Lake Ontario during the Little Ice Age

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In his 1871 pioneer history of New York’s Orleans County, which fronts Lake Ontario, Arad Thomas noted the local environmental degradation that had occurred during the earlier part of the nineteenth century: “Quails, raccoons and hedgehogs are nearly exterminated in Orleans County. A rattlesnake is very seldom seen. The beavers were all destroyed by the first hunters.”[i] He added a number of other animals to this extirpated list, and asserted that streams used to be twice as large and had a more consistent year-round flow, while fields that grew crops had once been extensive marshes. Moreover, before settlers obliterated wetlands and cut down the trees, winters around Lake Ontario were milder with less snowfall. 

It is this last observation about winters that I particularly want to emphasize. Drawing from my forthcoming book on the environmental history of Lake Ontario, this post explores how settler societies living around Lake Ontario adapted to a changing climate during the Little Ice Age. Lake Ontario’s climate shifts presented both challenges and opportunities. I suggest that seasonal unpredictability was likely the biggest obstacle introduced by the Little Ice Age in the lower Great Lakes region. At the same time, consistently cooler winters did provide new opportunities that aided settler expansion around the Lake Ontario basin.[ii]

Little Ice Age

The Little Ice Age lasted roughly between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. Across this period, average temperatures were lower by 1-2°C, but not uniformly colder, in the Great Lakes region. There was considerable variability from year to year, and decade to decade, with plenty of hotter or wetter than normal years mixed in. 

By the latter half of the seventeenth century, climatic cooling, which inhibited food acquisition in various ways, may have played a role in the severe decline of Indigenous populations in the Lake Ontario region (though not as big of a role as introduced disease and war). More than half, maybe much more, of the Haudenosaunee, who dominated the southern watershed of Lake Ontario, may have died, while the Neutral nation, based at the west end of Lake Ontario, ceased to exist as a distinct cultural group.

Recently, one study even argued that this mass Indigenous dying, and the resulting land use changes, that took place following European intrusion might be partly responsible for the aforementioned climatic downturn.[iii] At any rate, the combination of Indigenous death, their seasonal movements, and colonial thinking meant that, from a European perspective, Lake Ontario’s shoreline zone seemed mostly uninhabited and thus open for the taking. 

Lakeshore Sign at Pultneyville, NY. Photo by author

In other important ways, climate and environmental factors helped change the course of empires in North America, both Indigenous and Euro-American.  The fur trade, whose rivalries and economics led to the reorganization of societies and political power in the Great Lakes region, is at least partly attributable to the Little Ice Age. A cooler climate helped drive the desire for fur across the ocean while also affecting the thickness of the pelts of fur-bearing animals back in North America. Moreover, during military conflicts that involved Lake Ontario, such as the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, major weather events or the timing of the spring ice break-up could decide the outcome of a military campaign or handicap a lake fleet.

Settler Adaptations 

Prior to the nineteenth century, the cooler climate may well have tempered European enthusiasm to migrate to northern North America, thus forestalling a larger settler invasion for quite some time. As anyone who has experienced a January beside Lake Ontario can attest, winter here is a major limiting factor even with all the features of modern life. During the nineteenth century, good timing from a climatic perspective would prove integral to settler expansion. After all, as the Little Ice Age was releasing its grip, Euro-Americans began moving to the Lake Ontario basin in larger numbers. 

Without this climatic shift, early settler settlement and agriculture might not have been so successful. If that had been the case, might not subsequent colonists have avoided the area? If so, the history of not only the Lake Ontario basin, but that of the two countries that came to share it, might have played out very differently.   

While a cooling climate could create challenges, it could also provide new opportunities. Climatic pressures encouraged the diversification of agriculture and food production, such as wheat strains hardy enough to survive. Recall Arad Thomas’s recollections at the beginning of this post. Other chroniclers also produced histories to commemorate the US centennial, and natural histories came from the Canadian side of Lake Ontario. The more critically minded of these recorded observations similar to those of Thomas, noting ways that the local climate had seemingly changed because of anthropogenic actions. However, unlike Thomas, most spoke approvingly of human-induced ecological and climatic changes.

Even if they often weren’t correct about all the causes of climatic changes, these settler historians were very attuned to those changes. They believed that human actions could alter long-term weather and precipitation patterns. In fact, settlers often wanted to change the climate and believed that their conversion of forests and wetlands could do so indirectly: their major fear as far as climate went was colder weather, such as the return of an ice age (though it should be noted that “ice age” wasn’t a term they used at the time).

Transportation was another area for adaptation. Heavier ice cover on Lake Ontario, along with consistently cold winter weather, actually made winter mobility easier in some ways. Once the ice had frozen thick on the lake’s nearshore waters, as was more likely during the Little Ice Age, it offered a transportation platform that was generally cheaper, more flexible, and more dependable than travel by boat. Whereas someone hoping to travel or move goods would otherwise have to pay to get themselves or their goods on a lake vessel or canal packet whose timing and destination were controlled by others, or not even possible in winter, those with access to a horse and sleigh or wagon had better mobility on ice. 

Note the sleighs, skaters, and ice-cutting
Winter Scene on Toronto Bay. Note the sleighs, skaters, and ice-cutting
Painting of the steamship Chief Justice Robinson landing passengers on the ice of Toronto in 1852. Note the ice boats as well as skaters and sleighs

Such innovations are on display in two paintings of Toronto’s waterfront: “Winter Scene on Toronto Bay” and “Painting of the steamship Chief Justice Robinson landing passengers on the ice of Toronto in 1852.” These pieces of art serve as an indirect type of climate proxy, revealing new designs and technologies that emerged to take advantage of climate conditions and local materials. 

Skates, sleighs, and iceboats, which can all be found in these paintings, collectively offered alternative commercial, transport, and recreational possibilities. There was always the danger of falling through, of course, especially in the shoulder seasons when ice was congealing or melting, or during a mid-winter warm spell. Such a thaw could leave mired roads passable by neither sleigh nor wheeled cart. This is where consistently colder weather, and thus stable ice, was beneficial. 

As these two paintings indicate, skates and sleighs also offered recreational activities. These might bring out a whole community, offering important social opportunities. The use of iceboats, apparent in one of these paintings, dates back to the 1820s in Toronto Bay and at other places around Lake Ontario such as the Bay of Quinte, Kingston, and Sodus Bay. The unique craft that is the iceboat was used for ferrying purposes across Toronto’s frozen harbour and for patrols by police and life-saving services.

Look to the lower right of “Winter Scene on Toronto Bay.” You will see another key but easily overlooked winter resource supplied by Lake Ontario: ice for storing food and perishables. Until electrical refrigeration in the twentieth century, communities would cut ice during the winter for use throughout the year, and an extensive ice trade was carried out regionally (though pollution meant that ice-cutting moved away from Toronto’s waterfront – to Lake Simcoe, in fact – earlier than at other parts of the lake).  

Conclusion

The Little Ice Age altered the history of the Lake Ontario basin in myriad ways. I’ve tried to sketch out a few in this post. On a grand scale, the geopolitical organization that ultimately prevailed around the lake – from Indigenous empires to European powers and then the Canadian and American nation-states – hinged to at least some extent on the shifting climate of the region. In many ways, milder weather in the nineteenth century as the Little Ice Age dissipated went hand-in-glove with the expansion of Euro-American colonization efforts.

Euro-American settlements still remained vulnerable to the weather, but they adapted their subsistence and transportation strategies to the changing climate, from new crops to different transportation methods. Those adaptations in turn had social and political ramifications since a society reliant on agriculture and grain organizes itself quite differently than one based on trading furs. Put another way, such adaptations and changes to the modes of production altered the types of liberal capitalist states that emerged over time around Lake Ontario.


[i] Arad Thomas, Pioneer History of Orleans County, New York (Albion, NY: H.A. Bruner Orleans American Steam Press Print, 1871), 29-32.

[ii] Dagomar Degroot stresses not just the challenges, but the opportunities, offered by the Little Ice Age in his The Frigid Golden Age: Climate Change, the Little Ice Age, and the Dutch Republic, 1560-1720 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019). On colonial expansion in North America during the Little Ice Age see also: Anya Zilberstein, A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016);  Victorian C. Slonosky, Climate in the Age of Empire: Weather Observers in Colonial Canada (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); Sam White, A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); John Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Colin Coates and Dagomar Degroot. “‘Les bois engendrent les frimas et les gelées:’ comprendre le climat en Nouvelle-France.” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 68:3-4 (2015): 197-219.

[iii] Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark M. Maslin, Simon L. Lewis, “Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492,” Quaternary Science Reviews 207 (March 2019), 13-36.

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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of five books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be released in 2024. Website: https://danielmacfarlane.wordpress.com Twitter: @Danny__Mac__

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