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Our Year Without a Summer

How’s this for climate change: It was 1816 – Mississippi was still a year away from statehood – and it may well have be the coldest year on record, not only in Mississippi, but throughout North America and Europe, if not the world.

Historians call it the “Year Without a Summer.”

Mrs. B. F. Lewis, of Jackson, a local historian writing in the November 1920 issue of The Mississippi Educational Advance, a magazine for Mississippi teachers, noted that 1816 did not start out abnormally cold. January was so mild, in fact, that few found it necessary to kindle fires in their stoves or on their hearths to keep warm. Except for a few days, February was a repeat of January – not very cold – almost unseasonably mild, in fact.

March came in like a lion, but that was not unusual, and, true to the adage, it went out like a lamb. April, too, started out warm, but grew colder, ending in snow and ice, with frigid winter temperatures, and while the April showers brought some May flowers, they wound up iced-over from the snows and freezing rains of late spring – a May so cold as to be without precedent.

Corn and other crops died from frost. Farmers, replanted, but to little avail. Frost got their second crops, as well. June of that year, Mrs. Lewis wrote, “was the coldest ever known in this latitude. Frost, ice and snow were common. Almost every green thing was killed. Fruit was nearly all destroyed.”

Things, were worst, of course, in the northern states: they saw ice and snow throughout the summer and the rest of the year. Mississippi and the other parts of the Deep South did not suffer to that extent, but there was frost every month of 1816 even in the Magnolia State (then the Mississippi Territory).

According to Mrs. Lewis’s research, “Vegetables were killed, corn matured but poorly, [and] the cotton crop planted the last of April and early May was killed [by frost] the first week in July . . . . Settlers in Mississippi had long depended on the extensive, frost resistant canebrakes to furnish green forage for their cattle and horses and on the abundant growths of hardy wild field pea vines to provide a source of winter hay. Few pea vines survived that frigid year, though, and frost even “nipped the young cane and the cattle and horses suffered severely.”

Farmers feared they would not make enough cotton even to supply seed for the next year, much less a normal yield to take to market. Fortunately, some cotton planted after the 4th of July survived to produce at least seed enough to plant the following year. Persons in that time had little idea what caused their “Year without a Summer.”

The prevailing opinion today seems to be that the cold was triggered by clouds of ash from massive volcanic activity elsewhere on the globe during the preceding two years. Whatever the cause, the next year, 1817, the weather apparently returned to normal, Mississippi entered the Union, all once more was right with the world, and no one seems to have worried about climate change again for a couple of centuries or so.

James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website:

Copyright 2017 James T. McCafferty

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