Saturday, November 03, 2007

Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635

As I'm watching Hurricane Noel go up the Atlantic Coast and threatening Long Island and parts north, I'm reminded of the Great Hurricane of 1938 and of the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 which some of my ancestors, particularly the Perkins family, were sure to have experienced first-hand. The Perkins family had removed from Boston to the Ipswich area by 1635. They were probably spared the worst of the storm by doing so. The eye of the category 3 or 4 storm is believed to have passed between Plymouth and Boston.

There are several first-hand and second-hand accounts of the storm available. Increase Mather, the well-known Puritan minister who is a central figure in the Salem Witch Trials, has this to say:

I have not heard of any storm more dismal than the great hurricane which was in August, 1635, the fury whereof threw down (either breaking them off by the bole or plucking them up by the roots) thousands of great trees in the woods. Of this some account is given by Mr. Thacher in the first chapter of our present collection. And I must confess, I have peculiar reason to commemorate that solemn providence, inasmuch as my father and mother and four of my brethren were then in a vessel upon the coast of New-England, being at anchor amongst the rocks at the Isles of Sholes when the storm began; but their cables broke, and the ship was driving directly upon a mighty rock, so that all their lives were given up for lost; but then in an instant of time, God turned the wind about, which carried them from the rock of death before their eyes. (1)

Writing two months after the storm, William Bradford, the well-known leader of Plymouth, described it thusly:

This year, on the 14th or 15th of August, a Saturday, there was such a fearful storm of wind and rain as none living hereabouts either English or Indians, ever saw. It was like those hurricanes and typhoons that writers mention in the Indies. It began a little in the morning, a little before day, and did not come on by degrees, but with amazing violence at the start. It blew down several houses and unroofed others; many vessels were lost at sea, and many more were in extreme danger. To the southward the sea rose twenty feet, and many of the Indians had to climb trees for safety. It took off the boarded roof of a house which belonged to the settlement on Manomet and floated it to another place, leaving the posts standing in the ground; and if it had continued much longer without the wind shifting it would probably have flooded some of the inhabited parts of the country. It blew down many hundred thousands of trees, tearing up the stronger by the roots, and breaking the higher pine-trees off in the middle; and tall young oaks and walnut trees of a good size were bent like withes, -- a strange and fearful sight. It began in the southeast, and veered different ways. It lasted, though not at its worst, for five or six hours. The marks of it will remain this 100 years in these parts, where it was most violent. There was a great eclipse of the moon the second night after. (2)

Today, we know that many hurricanes spawn tornadoes. In his history of Newbury, Joshua Coffin recounts the town’s official record of the storm. The account seems to be that of a tornado spawned by the hurricane:

August 14th: About eight o’clock there was in Salisbury and part of Amesbury the most violent tornado, or short hurricane, perhaps ever known in the country. It continued about three minutes, in which time it damaged, or entirely prostrated, nearly two hundred buildings. It removed two vessels one of them of ninety tons, twenty-two feet from the stocks. The vein of the tempest was about a quarter of a mile in width on the river and about a mile and a half in length. (3)

The descriptions in these accounts remind us so much of today's hurricanes. Today we have heavier settlement so the impact may seem more devastating, but to those early settlers, the hurricane of 1635 was just as devastating.

(1) Increase Mather, Remarkable Providences Illustrative of the Earlier Days of American Colonisation (Boston: Samuel Green, 1684. Reprint. Reeves and Turner, 1890), 220; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 3 November 2007).

(2) William Bradford; Harold Paget, translator, Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement 1608-1650 (New York: Dutton, 1920), 270-71; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 3 November 2007).

(3) Joshua Coffin, The History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, from 1635 to 1845 (Boston: Samuel Drake, 1845), 241; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 3 November 2007).

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