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The “Year Without a Summer”: Agriculture, Environment, and New England, 1816 and After

Sat, April 2, 3:00 to 4:30pm, Westin Seattle Hotel, Cascade 1C


The extreme weather conditions that brought snowfall in every month of the year in New England in 1816 precipitated an agricultural disaster of almost biblical proportions. The year represents a benchmark in New England rural history – a snapping point in the region’s longstanding frustration with unpredictable frosts and short growing seasons. The specter of farm abandonment appeared in the Northeast when the Treaty of Greenville opened the Ohio Valley to settlement in 1795, but after 1816 out-migration became a defining feature of New England rural life. Contemporary sources record dire predictions for the future of rural life in the region, and historians have accepted farm abandonment as a precondition of New England industrialization. This paper examines the psychological, demographic, and economic impact of the “year without a summer” and traces the long shadow of this enduring lesson in climate consciousness. Did climate, in fact, condemn the region to instability and out-migration, or did New England farmers come to terms with their environment in the decades after 1816? Contemporary accounts and recent historians to the contrary, evidence suggests adaptation to environmental conditions and a substantial degree of dynamic stability in New England rural life in the decades that followed 1816.