- 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
The expedition reached the land of the Mandan Indians, near the present site of Bismarck, North Dakota, in late October 1804 and set up winter quarters. Twice a day, at sunrise and 4:00 P.M., the men recorded the temperature, sky condition, and wind. These were the first daily records characterizing a winter on the northern Great Plains, and it turned out to be a severe one, the temperature falling to minus forty-five degrees Fahrenheit, equal to the coldest registered there by the United States Weather Bureau in the modern period. Unfortunately the expedition’s thermometer was broken in the spring, but the explorers continued to make descriptive entries of the weather all the way to the Pacific.
The harsh conditions that the expedition encountered laid the foundation for another climatic myth, that of a “Great American Desert” between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. Sgt. John Ordway, accompanying Lewis and Clark in 1804, declared that “this country may with propriety be called the Deserts of North America.” Lt. Zebulon Pike explored the headwaters of the Arkansas River a few years later and described “these vast plains of the western hemisphere [that] may become in time as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa.” Maj. Stephen Long wrote that “the great Desert at the Base of the Rocky Mountains … is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable….” In the decades before the Civil War, the notion of a great Western desert spread widely and certainly had some effect in deterring westward migration.
Besides sponsoring exploration of the Western lands, the federal government made several efforts in the first half of the century to study climatic conditions throughout the United States. What brought Washington into the pursuit of climatology was a supposed connection between weather conditions and certain diseases, a connection that assumed military importance during the War of 1812. In 1814 the appalling amount of sickness among the soldiers in the northern states bordering Canada led Dr. James Tilton, chief medical officer of the United States Army, to order hospital surgeons at military posts throughout the country to keep a “diary of the weather, together with an account of the medical topography of the country in which he serves, and [to] report to the commanding officer every circumstance tending to restore or preserve the health of the troops.”
Implementing Tilton’s order was difficult during the chaos surrounding the end of the war. It was not until 1820 that enough summaries had been received to permit the compilation of means and extremes for public distribution. Reports came in from points as remote as Fernandina in Florida and Fort Snelling in Minnesota. An 1831 report from Fort Crawford, Wisconsin, suggests a real if indirect connection between the weather and prevailing indispositions: “mean depth of snow during Quarter [Jan.Mar.] about 36 inches, principally falling between 4 o’clock P.M. and 7 A.M. —Season healthy—Diseases mild—complaints, most caused by Whiskey —symptoms, obstinance, vexations, and extreme subject to relapse—treatment various, but ineffectual.”
Twenty years later Gen. S. M. Baird reported glumly from his post in New Mexico: “Meteorology.—I have no observations of this character, more than, in the spring there are terrible winds, and in the summer terrible hails, and during the winter, in the mountains, terrible snows, and take it altogether, it is a terrible dry country.”
Between 1817 and 1822 the military records were supplemented by weather observations collected through the General Land Office of the United States by its director Josiah Meigs. By 1820 enough data were flowing in so that newspapers across the country could publish a table of means and extremes for points westward to the Mississippi Valley. With the Army weather reports—many from frontier posts located well beyond sizable settlements—these figures allowed the American people to appreciate for the first time the great variety of climatic conditions prevailing across their expanding nation.
Some states also collected weather information. The regents of the University of New York in 1825 offered to supply each of the state’s private academies with a thermometer and a rain gauge for keeping weather records. Library funds were ordered withheld from schools that chose not to take part. Eventually sixty-two institutions were participating, and the results were published in the Annual Report of the State Board of Regents .
The most ambitious undertaking to collect and study weather reports from all parts of the country centered in the Smithsonian Institution. Professor Joseph Henry of Princeton, a physicist, assumed direction of the newly created organization in December 1846. Among his first objectives was to establish a “system of extended meteorological observations for solving the problem of American storms.” Circulars were distributed by congressmen in their districts offering the loan of instruments to scientifically minded civilians. The first returns were received in March 1849, and by the end of 1851, there were 155 observers taking part.