- Historic Sites
Part I Four Centuries Of Surprises
We talk about it constantly and we arrange our lives around it. So did our parents; and so did the very first colonists. But it took Americans a long time to understand their weather—and we still have trouble getting it right.
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
Others entered the almanac field after the turn of the century, and practically all included weather forecasts in their texts. The name of Abraham Weatherwise appeared from time to time as a fictional weather adviser, and after 1792 Abe found a permanent home in The Farmer’s Almanac , published in Boston. He still makes an annual appearance in what is now called The Old Farmer’s Almanac , which celebrates its 194th anniversary in 1986.
By 1775 about twenty-five individuals had thermometers and were keeping records along the Atlantic Coast. Only two sets of readings, however, survived through the Revolution: Edward Hoiyoke’s at Salem, Massachusetts, and William Adair’s at Lewes, Delaware. Hoiyoke, son of a Harvard president, practiced medicine at Salem for almost eighty years, and he maintained a “Meteorological Journal” of the daily weather in New England from January 1,1754, until his death in 1829. Even on his hundredth birthday, in 1828, Holyoke read his thermometer and barometer as usual before walking down to the Essex House for a banquet given in his honor by his fellow townsmen.
Such records are of use today in reconstructing past conditions, but little was done with them at the time. Only two worthwhile publications in the eighteenth century analyzed the climate of a region by using actual meteorological observations. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785)—widely considered to be the outstanding scientific work by a colonial American—Thomas Jefferson made reference to his own temperature readings and those of his friend Rev. James Madison of Williamsburg. The other significant publication was The Natural and Civil History of Vermont , by Samuel Williams. His experiments on the temperature differences between forests and nearby plowed fields constituted a pioneering study of what is now termed microclimatology.
At the close of the eighteenth century, after almost two hundred years of English settlement along the Atlantic seaboard, the vast interior of the North American continent remained a terra incognita in all but its broadest outlines. The French had sent voyageurs, coureurs des bois , and Jesuit missionaries deep into the interior, but what they learned about these vast areas did not filter out to the coastbound British. And though the Appalachian Mountains had been crossed late in the eighteenth century, few scientific men had made the perilous trip westward.
The “Ohio Country Myth” was one of the best-known and most influential of the misconceptions that grew up around the virgin territory. Between October 1795 and June 1796, Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney, traveled westward to Vincennes, on the Wabash River in Indiana. He became convinced, as Jefferson had speculated in his Notes on the State of Virginia , that the annual temperature in the “Ohio Country,” west of the Allegheny Mountains, was several degrees warmer than that of the same latitude along the Atlantic seaboard. Jefferson based his opinion on the different types of plants thriving on opposite sides of the mountains. Volney published his totally unscientific views in London and Paris in 1804, and settlers seeking cheap land in a mild climate flocked westward to this new paradise. The “by no means innoxious vulgar error,” as one naturalist termed it, proved all but indestructible. It was not until 1857 that the Ohio Country Myth was put to a final rest. In his comprehensive Climatology of the United States , the young statistician Lorin Blodget wrote: “The early distinction between the Atlantic States and the Mississippi has been quite dropped, as the progress of observation has shown them to be essentially the same, or to differ only in unimportant particulars.”
While observers were still arguing about the Ohio Country, information began to accumulate about the climate of the lands beyond the Mississippi River. The first concerted exploration of the Western country was mounted by President Jefferson shortly after he engineered the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In May 1804 a group of forty-five men under the command of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark set out to ascend the Missouri River to its headwaters and find a way over the mountains to the Pacific Coast. One of their objectives was to describe “Climate, as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion of rainy, cloudy, and clear days; by lightning, hail, snow, ice; by the access and recess of frost; by the winds prevailing at different seasons; the dates at which particular plants put forth, or lose their flower or leaf; times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles, or insects.”