As we note more and more the impact of climate change around the world, this might be a good time to look back to see the effects of what is called “The Little Ice Age.”
The term refers to a period of unusual cold that reigned over North America from the 17th to 19th centuries.
Before their arrival, Europeans assumed America’s climate would match that of lands situated along the same lines of latitude elsewhere. Instead, the New World was both hotter and colder than they expected. And as a result of the Little Ice Age, the weather was marked by wet springs that led to flooding, hot summers that led to long droughts, and particularly cold winters. Both the areas around the colonies of Roanoke (1585-89) and Jamestown (1606-1612) were suffering from millennial droughts when the colonists arrived demanding food from local Indian populations. The resulting scarcity of food contributed to disease and conflict, both of which ended the venture at Roanoke and threatened the survival of Jamestown.
According to the Encyclopedia Virginia of the Virginia Humanities:
The extreme weather wreaked terrible consequences on both the Indians and Europeans in Virginia. As the Spanish Jesuit pointed out, Indian populations decreased during times of drought, likely because of the scarcity of food. Such scarcities also led to conflict—among Indian communities and between the Indians and Europeans. The English at Roanoke had neither the intention nor the ability to feed themselves off the land, and a cold winter and drought conditions led them to place pressure on the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Ossomocomuck to share their already depleted supplies. This, in turn, led to warfare. Indian towns were destroyed and a weroance, or chief, beheaded.
The letters of John Francis Hamtramck during the establishment of Fort Steuben in late 1786 also reflect hard and harsh conditions. As Dr. John Holmes wrote in The Story or Fort Steuben, October brought a nasty turn in the weather, with cold rain swelling the Ohio River making it difficult to get supplies for the men of the 1st American Regiment as they worked to build and roof the blockhouses. Then the rain turned to snow, which drove the men to work harder to have warm shelter. The snow continued but by November 4, the Officers' Quarters and four blockhouses were finally secured and the soldiers moved in. Holmes notes that the diary of quartermaster John Matthews recorded that two and a half feet of snow had fallen by December 5th.
Worse storms came in the last two weeks of December, making for a decidedly white Christmas at Fort Steuben. Unfortunately, Captain Hamtramck chose the day before the storms hit to send out a detachment to a sawmill on Buffalo Creek [near the present Wellsburg, WV] for finished lumber for the Fort. The moment they set out turned out to be the last moment the river was passable: the boat froze in the middle of the river. The men were able to cross the ice to the Ohio shore and walk back to the fort, but the boat was never recovered.
One good thing about the harsh weather was that it made Indian attack less likely, even while making further construction almost impossible for almost two months. But following a January thaw, the soldiers were finally able to finish the work. On January 8, 1787, Fort Steuben was completed. They overcame the trials of the Little Ice Age.