top of page

1816 ~ “The Year Without a Summer”

During our “downtime” earlier this year when we were re-organizing the archives this writer worked on the book collection and came across a number of items that I thought would be of interest to our members and readers of our web page.  From the “Archives Stack Room” here is one that may spark a variety of special interests:

Recently while shopping in our local drug store my attention was directed to the number of 2016 “Almanacs” that were for sale.   As we are near the new year I though it would be of interest to look back two hundred years –  to 1816.  That year has been referred to by several names, one of the more common being “The Year Without a Summer.”  I had remembered, while working with the archival  collections that we had a number of almanacs and found one for 1816 ~ “The Vermont Register and Almanac.”   It was more of a “register” than a guide for planting, weather forecasting, astronomical references, etc.   Besides the monthly daily calendar graph it had brief notes on solar and lunar eclipses, names and characters of the twelve signs and body parts they govern, and showed the names and characters of the planets. ( Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury only)  From June through September, except on August 30th it predicted “a frost” for the most part it noted what one expects during the summer, warm and  hot with rain and thunder-storms, basically a good season for the farmer.

The bulk of its content was printed under the Section Page:  “The Register, containing – A List of the Officers of the United States, and the Civil and Military Officers of Vermont; Sessions of the Circuit and District courts, in this State; a list of the Ministers of the Gospel, Practicing Attorneys, Officers of the several Societies and Corporations in Vermont(.) ; and  With A Great Variety of Useful Information.”

Selective highlights:

  1. In both the 1800 and 1810 census Virginia had a larger population than New York –  880,192 vs 586,050 and 965,079 vs 959,220

  2. Governors: Jonas Galusha, VT & Daniel D. Tompkins, NY

  3. In 1815 their were seven “Territorial Governments: Orleans, Mississippi, Indiana, Columbia, Louisiana, Illinois and Michigan with a total population of 7,238,421

  4. James Madison was President and was paid $25,000; John Marshal, Chief Justice of Supreme Court ($4,000)

  5. James Monroe, Secretary of State; Wm. H. Crawford, Secretary of War; A.J. Dallas, Secretary of Treasury; Benjamin W. Crowninshield, Secretary of the Navy, Return J. Meigs, Post Master General and Adam Eckfelt, Director of the Mint

  6. Ministers Plenipotentiary:  seven countries ~ Spain, Sweden, France, England, Holland, Brazil and Russia

  7. Naval Post Captains – Stephen Decatur (Barbary Wars & War of 1812) and Thomas Macdonough (War of 1812 – Battle of Plattsburgh)

This writer purchased four 2016 Almanacs – (“The Old Farmer’s,” “Harris Farmer’s;” Farmers’ Almanac” and Blum’s Farmer’s and Planter’s”) to review their “modern content” and to see their comments  regarding ” The Year Without Summer.”  It should be noted of the four only “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” (founded 1792) was in print for 1815 and had an interesting story to tell about its 1816 weather prediction:

“As the story goes, the printer inserted a “snow” prediction into the 1816 edition as a joke while Almanac founder Robert B. Thomas was sick in bed with the flu.  When Thomas discovered the “error,” he destroyed all – or maybe most – the “snow”  copies and had the 1816 Almanac reprinted with the more conventional forecast.  it’s said that word got out anyway, and during the early months of that year.  Thomas repeatedly had to deny making such a ridiculous forecast.  Then, when it really did snow in July, he changed his tune and took full credit.  “Told you so!””

Each made mentioned of volcanic activity, either of that year or provided information regarding volcanos and/or their activities, as well as the effect they may have on weather patterns  regionally and/or  globally.  Of the material reviewed most referenced to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies, or Indonesia as we know it today,  as the major contributor to the global climatic change for 1816.

1816 – Crown Point, NY a personal accounting

“The cold summer of 1816 will be fresh in the minds of all who lived at that time, and were old enough to remember it.  It extended all over the United States, and Europe; the sun did not seem to possess any more heat that it does in November, and the weather was cold and chilly, ice was formed in every month in the year in some localities;  flurries of snow were frequent.  I remember  the 8th day of the June, the snow fell more than half an inch deep, and the fields were white as far as the eye could see, but it soon disappeared, the weather was cold and dry, yet a little corn and potatoes were raised, in some favorable localities, but not one fourth of the amount required for the use of the inhabitants, saying nothing about the dumb beasts, and something must be saved for seed another season, at length the dreaded time arrived, the summer of 1817, when starvation stared them full in the face; the people did the best they could, what could they do more.  Some families who were quite well to do in the world, lived without bread many days, and for the poorer classes it was still harder; there were a few cases, and very few, where some fortunate man had a little surplus of old grain on hand, it was spared and divided among the people as long as it lasted, but at exorbitant prices; it made but little difference whether a man had money or not, the bread was not in  the land; I have seen the silent tears roll down the face of the child, the parent, and the grandparent, all under the same roof, because they had no bread; these were times that tired the human soul.  The question arises, how did the people live?  Well they had cows, the streams were full of fish, and the woods, with game, the fields and mountains furnished an abundance of berries in their season, and in some cases when one meal was finished a family council was held, to devise something for the next; this being done, each one would start off hoping to find their share of it.  I have been mentioning some extreme cases, but this was not the situation of the people in general, but one thing is certain there was not much boasting about it; the ripening fields were daily watched, and as soon as it could be done, the ripest heads were picked and carefully shelled and cleaned by hand, and cooked into some kind of pudding which satisfied the gnawing hunger and made a good substitute for bread…”,  (Spaulding’s History of Crown Point, NY –  From 1800 to 1874)

The beginnings of the classical gothic fantasy horror stories  

From this dark and trying period we can also find in literature the foundation for the classical English horror story.  It is of this time through the writings of Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and John Polidori that “Frankenstein” and the “vampires” genre of fantasy fiction began.  It has been written while in Switzerland during the summer of 1816 Lord Byron suggested to his traveling companions: Mary, and later to be husband, Bysshe Shelley, John Polidori (Byrons private physician and writer) that they write a ghost story.  Mary went on to write  “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus;” Shelley wrote “A Fragment of a Ghost Story;” Byron – “Fragment of a Novel” which  later Polidori reworked into “The Vampyre.”  Today, from those creative works, it is hard not to find on television, in the movies or in books the continuation of their basic story with derivatives thereof.

And remember that it all began in 1816 – two hundred years ago!

11/1/15 wgd

Credits:  Wikimedia Commons – Lord Byron by Henry Pierce Bone; John Polidori by F.G. Gainsford and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Richard Rothwell.

5 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page