Remembering ‘The Year Without a Summer’

While global warming is the subject of many climate-related reports today, that wasn’t the case 200 years ago throughout North America and much of Europe. Warm weather arrived on cue in the spring of 1816, only to be followed by the immediate return of low temperatures. The sky seemed permanently overcast, and the lack of sunlight resulted in a significant, prolonged cold spell. Farmers lost crops and livestock, which, in turn, led to widespread food shortages.

The abnormal weather phenomenon became known as The Year Without a Summer and in New York State was marked by snow in June and multiple summer frosts. The June 17, 1816, Albany Gazette acknowledged that it “has been extremely cold for the season, and we have experienced severe frosts, which have nearly destroyed the gardens and have done much injury to the crops of grain.”

Azel Backus
Azel Backus, first president of Hamilton College

On College Hill, President Azel Backus noted on Aug. 10, 1816: “Hay is 1/3 short of the usual crop, have to give $8 1/2 the ton. Wheat will be good. Corn poor.” Later, on Oct. 28, he wrote: “Farmers alarmed by their poor crops will not trade much for the year to come.” President Backus’ son Theodore, the gardener of the family, had written in July that their garden was doing okay despite the nightly frosts.

At the time, people hypothesized that the event was caused by sunspots or an extreme southward flow of Artic ice. It would be nearly a century before the real cause was confirmed — the eruption of Mount Tambora on the small island of Sumbawa (in what is now Indonesia) in April 1815. Tambora’s eruption spewed millions of tons of dust, ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which was carried by air currents across the globe. The result was a dense haze that blocked out and reflected the sun, resulting in a worldwide drop in temperature of as much as 3 degrees.

Although Mount Tambora is located some 16,000 miles from Hamilton, significant evidence of the impact the abnormal weather had on campus surfaced in purchasing records of food for the dining hall that year. David Gapp, the Silas D. Childs Professor of Biology who regularly teaches a course Food for Thought: Introduction to the Science of Food, examined receipts from the treasurer’s logs in the College Archives. Records indicate a shift for 1816. Purchases of meat and dairy products increased, possibly to compensate for a lack of vegetable crops. While prices for products such as cheese and butter remained constant, the price of beef declined during the winter of 1816, most likely because farmers culled their herds due to the scarcity of hay and corn used to feed livestock during the winter months. While no potatoes and small amounts of corn were purchased, oats and rice seemed to take their place in students’ diets.

A segment of Gapp’s research included examining newspaper articles from two centuries ago. This provided insight as to what life was like, not only on Hamilton’s campus, but also in the surrounding area during that desperate time. An article detailing the crops available at the Utica market in early 1817 states, “Corn, not to be had.” Corn, as indicated in multiple accounts, was the crop that suffered the most, creating an impact on farmers across the Northeast and especially in Native American communities, such as the St. Regis, Oneida, Onondaga and Seneca tribes in New York.

Aside from the tragedies caused by The Year Without a Summer, several intriguing outcomes altered history. For example, increased westward migration from New England triggered by the harsh weather spurred the construction of the Erie Canal. In June 1816, the inclement weather prompted Lord Byron, with John Polidori and Mary and Percy Shelley, to seek refuge in Villa Diodati, a mansion overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland. To pass the time the group read ghost stories and challenged each other to create their own stories. This ultimately led to the creation of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Horses were the main mode of transportation, so the increased cost of oats hampered travel. This may have been one of the factors that inspired a German man named Karl Drais to invent a new way to get around: the bicycle.

Though The Year Without a Summer was a weather disaster that touched much of the world and, in a small way, the students on Hamilton’s campus, the event was minimally recorded in the College’s history. North America had the resources to sustain itself until the havoc caused by Mount Tambora dissipated. As President Backus wrote on Dec. 5, 1816, “We are all usually well and there is no special occurrence in the College or in the Village.”

— Charlotte Zee ’18

Background material from the Hamilton College Archives and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research: Center for Science Education.

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