Wednesday I spoke to the Old Salem Garden Club at Home Moravian Church. The topic was “The year there was no summer”, a subject that I have not covered in a long time. I thought that others might like to know what happened in Salem, NC and around the world in 1816, so…


The red lines show the depth of ash accumulation at various distances from the Tambora eruption of April, 1815. Click pic for full size.

Sometime between 1812 and 1814, Tambora, an obscure volcano that had lain mostly dormant for 5,000 years began expelling steam, ash and a few rocks, all caused by the interaction of molten lava and ground water beneath the surface. This activity increased for months. On April 5, 1815 there was an explosion that was heard on the island of Java, almost 500 miles away, as distant thunder. Soon ash was drifting down there.

The military arm of the British East India Company went to battle stations, thinking that the locals might be getting ready to attack them, or that a nearby settlement was under attack.

But the big show came on April 10. That explosion was heard in Batavia (now Jakarta), over 900 miles away. People 200 miles away in Surabaya felt the ground shake. Three columns of fire went shooting into the sky, carrying an estimated 12 cubic miles of magma. When the smoke began to clear, it could be seen that the top one-third of the 15,000 foot mountain was gone.

About 36 cubic miles of pulverized rock had been projected into the atmosphere. The immediate ash fall in an area extending about six hundred miles from the mountain killed all crops and made the land unarable, causing the deaths of as many as 90,000 people. Tsunamis killed an unknown number of additional people.

But the lighter ash was swept upward, forming a band that traveled around the earth. As it passed overhead, average temperatures fell by as much as five degrees. It disrupted the monsoon in China and India causing alternate periods of flooding and drought, with unseasonable frosts, killing the rice crops, causing famine in China, and triggering a massive cholera epidemic in India. The cholera epidemic was spread by travelers to destinations as far away as Moscow and Cairo, where about 12% of the population died. The total number of deaths is beyond speculation.

The worst effects of the ash cloud were not felt in Europe and North America until 1816, “the year there was no summer”. The weather in much of Europe was cold and extremely rainy, with late frosts and falling snow mixed with ash on into June. Rivers flooded and famine was everywhere. Riots and looting broke out in Germany, Switzerland and France. Most of the citizens of Wales became refugees, roaming the countryside begging for food. A combination of typhus and hunger killed about 200,000 people in eastern and southern Europe.

In eastern Canada and the northeastern United States it was not much better. In the spring and summer of 1816, a persistent “dry fog” was observed throughout the region. The fog reddened and dimmed the sunlight, and was not dispersed by wind or rain. At the Shaker colony near New Lebanon, New York, the temperature fell below freezing every day in May. There were frosts in every summer month and snow fell in New England, New York, Quebec and parts of Pennsylvania in June. There were frosts in every summer month. Lack of sunlight and drought killed most of the crops, and what survived was finished off by a September frost.

The effects were less severe in the South, but in Salem, the always observant Moravians were aware that something was not right as early as April 3, when a hard frost struck. As Easter approached in mid-April, the weather was “…very unpleasant with cold rain falling…” causing cancellation of the Maundy Thursday services. Good Friday was “…windy and cold…” and on April 19 the Salem diarist stated that there had been a “…heavy frost (with ice) every night for a week…”

On April 30 the Salem minister summarized the situation: “During this month the weather has been unusually cool for the time of year, and there have been heavy frosts at night. Plants in field and garden have been much retarded in growth; there is almost no hope for fruit. It has also been so dry that on many farms the corn, a chief product of the farmers in this neighborhood, has not yet been planted. This cold, dry weather has also been injurious to health, and near here and further away many have been ill, some critically. In Salem a catarrhal cough was very general.”

The weather continued unseasonably cool and dry throughout May, with several frosts. June 6: “Since the rain and hail of yesterday, the weather has been unusually cool…”

Then it got hot and dry. June 14: “…yesterday the thermometer measured 100, and today 102.” June 26: “It has not rained for three weeks, but today it rained a little, refreshing the dry earth and somewhat moderating the great heat.”

June 30: “…very dry month…days were hot but nights were unusually cool for this time of the year.”

July: “In addition to the great heat which prevailed during this month, there was such a drought at many places, especially the Hope neighborhood (Clemmons), that fields and gardens suffered greatly, and some crops were entirely killed.”

Temperatures for August 17-19:  100, 102, 104.

August 18: “For a long time it has been hot and so dry that crops have died, and at many places there is a scarcity of meal for bread because the mills can run little or not at all for lack of water. Today we united in prayer for the greatly desired blessing of a refreshing rain.”

August 19: “During the afternoon clouds rose in the distance, and during the night we had a hard rain, with some thunder close at hand.”

So prayer worked this time, but not for long.  In mid-September it began raining. That continued almost daily for nearly two months, eliminating any hope for late crops. “…many evening meetings were postponed or canceled…”

The first hard frost came on October 8. Even the Salem Female Academy was affected: “Because of rising food prices, the board fee at Salem Female Academy is raised 2 shillings per month.”

Apparently, no one starved to death in Wachovia in 1816, but we can be sure that New Years brought hope for improvement, which did happen in 1817. And by 1818, matters were back pretty much to normal.

Tambora is a volcano located on a peninsula of the island of Sumbawa in central Indonesia. Its last eruption, considerably milder than the one in 1815, was in 1967.


Tambora today. Click on pic for full size.