News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 17, 2009

GENEALOGY: Looking back on the ‘Year Without Summer’

By Tamie Dehler

TERRE HAUTE — The year 1816 was the last year of James Madison’s presidency, the Second Bank of the U.S. was chartered, Indiana was admitted into the union as the 19th state, and the weather was brutal. In fact, 1816 is often referred to the “Year Without Summer” or the “Poverty Year.”

During the summer of 1816, Europe, Canada, and northeastern America (primarily the New England states and New York), were overwhelmed by below-average temperatures. In May, a frost killed off many of the crops that had already been set out. In June, it snowed twice, killing most of the remaining crops. The later summer months saw ice on lakes and rivers as far south as Pennsylvania. Frosts were recorded in every month of 1816, and some went as far south as North Carolina. Dramatic temperature swings were common, with the thermometer going from normal to below freezing in a matter of hours. The winter of 1817 was especially bitter, too. It is estimated that the average temperature of the earth dropped 3 degrees Fahrenheit during this time.

The result of the summer snows and killing frosts was widespread famine in the human population. Europe lost 200,000 people to famine. Also, there was an energy crisis of sorts. In those days, the major form of transportation was horses, and horses ate oats. Due to crop failure, the price of oats increased eightfold, from 12 cents a bushel to 92 cents. This greatly affected transportation in the affected areas.

The year without summer was caused by a tremendous volcanic eruption, estimated to be the largest in the past 10,000 years. In April of the previous year Mount Tambora, in Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies), erupted and exploded, hurling extremely large amounts of ash and dust into the sky. As this debris circled the earth in the upper atmosphere, it blocked the sun’s rays from the earth. It didn’t help matters that there had been some other volcanic activity in the previous few years, or that there was low solar activity coming from the sun. All these factors combined for a “perfect storm” that would affect the earth and those living on it.

There were some long-lasting effects on society and culture because of the weather of 1816. An inventor in Germany named Karl Drais invented a prototype of the bicycle called the velocipede in response the loss of so many horses and the affect on transportation. In the arts, J.M.W. Turner and others painted the spectacular sunsets that occurred at this time (caused by the sun reflecting off the dust in the atmosphere). Lord Byron wrote a poem called Darkness which begins, “I had a dream, which was not a dream. The bright sun was extinguish’d.” Many of the famine-ridden families of New England and New York decided to migrate west to the Northwest Territory after experiencing the summer of 1816, so this event hastened the settlement of our own area.


Because of negative changes in the economy, the Vigo County Public Library is experiencing budget problems and will be conducting public meetings from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday and from 9:30-11:30 a.m. Thursday in the main branch of the library. The budget cuts being discussed could include closing branches, changing the hours when the library is open, charging for services that used to be free, and other options. The cuts could definitely affect the Special Collections Department, so please attend if you have an opinion you want to express.