by Eric Werme
In April 1815, Mt. Tambora, a volcano on an Indonesian island, first stirred and then exploded. Of the 12,000 inhabitants of the island, only 26 survived. 4,000 feet of the volcano was blown off, the ensuing eruption ejected an estimated 25 cubic miles of debris. As in many large eruptions, dust and sulphate aerosols were injected into the stratosphere and took months to gradually settle back to the troposphere where weather systems could wash them back to the ground.
The eruption was the biggest of perhaps the last 10,000 years, dwarfing Krakatoa (1883, 4.5 miles3) and Mt. St. Helens (1980, 1 mile3). The stratospheric cloud stretched around the Earth, spread north throughout the northern hemisphere, and reflected enough sunlight to affect weather patterns. In some parts of the world, the impact was minor but in much of Europe it caused near famine conditions. In New England it helped changed history.
In 1816, family farms were largely subsistence affairs. Transporting crops to the cities was feasible only along waterways. The major crop was Indian corn, most which was fed to livestock during the long winters, but it was a staple for human consumption too. Wheat was prone to a fungus, apples and potatoes did well. (Johnny Appleseed was in the middle of his career, planting apple trees throughout the new states around Lakes Erie and Michigan.)
Several cold spells in May 1816 delayed the start of the planting season. June began well, but crops were lost in a cold spell between the 5th and 11th. Snow accumulated throughout all but southernmost New Hampshire. A warm spell starting the last third of June provided hope that summer had arrived, but a killing frost on July 9th dashed that hope. The rest of the month was warmer, but didn't equal the warmest days of June. A warming trend in August abruptly ended with frost on the 21st and a worse one on the 30th.
Some crops did well, apple and pear harvests were very good, perhaps due in part to the cold weather being hard on insect pests. Potatoes did well too. Some people were able to raise a good crop of wheat, and they were rewarded with prices that were double that of normal years. Increased farm efficiencies have exceeded inflation - the high price was never equaled until the 1970s.
In Ashland, Reuben Whitten shared his wheat crop with his neighbors. After his death in 1847, they paid for his headstone in his family graveyard. Later, relatives erected a monument saying "A pioneer of this town. Cold season of 1816 raised 40 bushils of wheat on this land whitch kept his family and neighbours from starveation." His farm was on a south facing hillside, so probably benefited from the extra sun and being above the valley chill.
After 1816, the weather returned to normal conditions quickly. However, farmers had already started emigrating to the more hospitable weather and soil of Ohio and further west. This migration helped accelerate the construction of the Erie Canal, which started construction in 1817 and was completed in 1825. Others went to the mills in Manchester and Lowell, others went to the seaports of Nantucket and New Bedford to learn the whaling trade. Another impetus to the westward migration was an energy crisis - much of the accessible first growth forest had been cut for construction, fuel, and products. Today's New Hampshire is much more forested than it was in 1816.
The westward emigration decimated the population of many farming communities in New Hampshire. To this day, many northern towns have a smaller population than they had in 1816, many more exceeded the old population only when NH began a long growth phase after 1960. Ashland was part of Holderness until 1868. They, and neighboring Plymouth, have rivers with waterfalls, so their economy could shift to manufacturing. In fact, Holderness was in the midst of a growth boom. In 1820 its population climbed to 1160 after growing of 57% and then 40% in the previous decades.
Plymouth's northwest neighbor, Rumney, is a better example. While it grew 22% and 13% to 864 in 1820, it declined to 820 by 1960! (In 2000, population reached 1480, with most of the growth between 1970 and 1990.)