Monday, February 18, 2013

Boston snowpocalypses of 1638

© 2013 Christy K Robinson

AP Wirephoto from Feb. 19, 1964
Because the coldest years of the Little Ice Age* occurred during the Dyers' lifetimes in the mid-1600s, it's reasonable to expect that heavy snowfall would have been normal in Rhode Island and Massachusetts winters. Certainly there are reports that Boston's harbor iced over a number of times, people lost fingers and limbs to frostbite, and died from extreme exposure.

In January 1638, Anne Hutchinson was under house arrest in Roxbury, Mary Dyer was in Boston recovering from the miscarriage of her anencephalic fetus, and the Hutchinson/Wheelwright supporters, including William Dyer and William Hutchinson, were buying Aquidneck Island from Narragansett Indians for their anticipated move in April. Massachusetts Bay Colony (and probably all of New England) experienced a nor'easter snow storm in the midst of a long, severe winter. Governor John Winthrop kept a historical journal with his observations of the formation and growth of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
About thirty persons of Boston going out in a fair day to Spectacle Island to cut wood, (the town being in great want thereof,) the next night the wind rose so high at N.E. with snow, and after at N.W. for two days, and then it froze so hard, as the bay was all frozen up, save a little channel. In this twelve of them got to the Governor's Garden [island], and seven more were carried in the ice in a small skiff out at Broad Sound, and kept among Brewster's Rocks, without food or fire, two days, and then the wind forbearing, they got to Pullin Point, to a little house there of Mr. Aspenwall's. Three of them got home the next day over the ice, but their hands and feet frozen. Some lost their fingers and toes, and one died. The rest went from Spectacle Island to the main, but two of them fell into the ice, yet recovered again. ~John Winthrop’s Journal made at Boston, January 13, 1638
This was a very hard winter. The snow lay, from November 4th to March 23d, half a yard deep about the Massachusetts, and a yard deep beyond Merrimack, and so the more north the deeper, and the spring was very backward. This day [April 23] it did snow two hours together, (after much rain from N.E.) with flakes as great as shillings. ~John Winthrop’s Journal made at Boston, April 23, 1638

Boston Harbor detail from a 1639 map of New England, in the William Wood book, New-Englands Prospect.
Color added by Christy K Robinson.
The wind at N.E., there was so great a tempest of wind and snow all the night and the next day, as had not been since our time. Five men and youths perished between Mattapan and Dorchester, and a man and a woman between Boston and Roxbury. Anthony Dick, in a bark of thirty tons, cast away upon the head of Cape Cod. Three were starved to death with the cold; the other two got some fire and so lived there, by such food as they saved, seven weeks, till an Indian found them, etc.
27 January 2015: The Tall Ship Providence has blown over
at Newport Shipyard leaving the mast broken.

Reports indicate the hull has been ruptured, too.
The ship's owner, Thorpe Leeson, says she will "come back to life."
Photo credit: Rocky Steeves via Twitter.
Two vessels bound for Quinipiack [early name for New Haven, Connecticut] were cast away at Aquiday [Rhode Island], but the people saved [by the Boston exiles who founded Rhode Island, including the Dyers and Hutchinsons!]. Much other harm was done in staving of boats, etc., and by the great tides, which exceeded all before. This happened the day after a general fast, which occasioned some of our ministers to stir us up to seek the Lord better, because he seemed to discountenance the means of reconciliation. ~John Winthrop’s Journal made at Boston, Dec. 15, 1638

Mary Dyer statue at Massachusetts Statehouse, Boston, in snow
Original image URL:

Rebel Beach, Rhode Island, February 2013

© 2013 Photography by Sheri, used by permission

* The Little Ice Age in the 17th century: 
All three of the Dyer trilogy are set in England and New England during
the Little Ice Age, in the 1600s.
Find them at this link:


  1. Nasty and deadly weather, for sure! What is your take on the route Anne Hutchinson got to Rhode Island?

    1. I think the Hutchinson party took I-93 to Providence. (They did go to Providence before going to Pocasset/Portsmouth.) Yes, that's a joke, but the road follows the straightest, easiest path over hills and rivers. The road had probably begun as an Indian path, then was enlarged for wagons and flocks and herds. Freemen had to give up a certain number of days to improving and repairing roads. From there, they either took boats or walked Route 114. Boats would be faster and safer, as the peninsula where Bristol is now was still Indian farm and tribal land, though the natives were friends with Roger Williams. And the Hollywood effect of stalking out of Boston at Passover/Easter in a great exodus had been accomplished, so there wasn't much need to continue walking. Best guess: I-93 and then boats.


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