The Hurricane History of Colonial Virginia to 1775

by M. Kent Brinkley

Copyright 1999 by M. Kent Brinkley. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce material from the JOURNAL is granted for academic research, library or other archives, or classroom instruction provided the source of material is acknowledged by appropriate citation.


INTRODUCTION

(1) From the late Sixteenth Century, storm activity along the eastern coastline of North America has been recorded by European observers. Hurricanes posed major hazards to British, French, Dutch, and Spanish goals of exploring, treasure seeking, and establishing permanent settlements during this period. For instance, we today know that no less than four destructive storms occurred along the Atlantic coastline in the four weeks from August 20th to September 16th, 1591 (these and all subsequent dates have been corrected from the Julian to Gregorian calendars as necessary), with the reported destruction of at least 27 ships (Ludlum 1963). For the purposes of this survey the Colonial period is defined as starting in 1607 and ending with the start of the American Revolutionary War period in 1775.

SEVENTEENTH CENTURY HURRICANES

(2) The first permanent English settlement in Virginia was established in 1607 at Jamestown. Given the harshness of life in the New World, apparently either no Englishman took the time to record significant weather events in the early years of the Virginia Colony, or else no account has survived to this day. The first surviving contemporary account of a hurricane in Virginia was published in London before the end of 1667 concerning the "Dreadful Hurry Cane of 1667":

"Having this opportunity, I cannot but acquaint you with the Relation of a very strange Tempest which hath been in these parts (which us called a Hurricane) which began September 6th and continued with such Violence, that it overturned many Houses, burying in the Ruines much Goods and many people .... to the great affliction of all people, few having escaped who have not suffered in their persons or Estates, much Corn was blown away, and great quantities of Tobacco have been lost, to the great damage of many, and utter undoing of others. Neither did it end here, but the Trees were torn up by the roots, and in many places whole Woods blown down, so that they cannot go from Plantation to Plantation. The Sea (by violence of the winds) swelled twelve Foot above its usual height, drowning the whole Country before it .... the Tempest .... while it continued, was accompanied with a very violent rain that continued twelve days and nights together without ceasing, with that fury, that none were able to stir from their shelters, though almost famished for want of provisions .... This Tempest, for the time, was so furious, that it hath made a general Desolation, overturning many Plantations, so that there was nothing that could stand its fury .... Although it was not alike Violent in all places, yet there is scarse any place in the whole Country where there is not left sufficient marks of its ruines .... Such Hurricanes on the Land are seldome heard of, but Hurricanes upon the Sea are common in these parts ...." (Ludlum 1963, 14-15).

(3) A corroborative description of this storm is found in a letter from Secretary Thomas Ludwell to Lord Berkeley:

"... on the 6th of September followed the most dreadful Harry Cane that ever the colony groaned under. It last 24 hours .... It was accompanied with a most violent raine, but no thunder. The night of it was the most dismal that I ever knew or heard of, for the wind and rain raised so confused a noise, mixed with the continual cracks of falling houses .... The waves were impetuously beaten against the shores and by that violence forces and as it were crowded into all creeks, rivers and bays to that prodigious height that it hazarded the drownding many people who lived not in sight of the rivers, yet were then forced to climb to the top of their houses to keep themselves above water .... of our plantations I think not one escaped. The nearest computation is at least 10,000 houses blown down, all the Indian grain laid flat on the ground, all the Tobacco in the fields torn to pieces and most of what was in the houses perished with them." (Ludlum, 1963, 15)

(4) Other damage reported included the destruction of an early fortification under construction at what is known today as Old Point Comfort. At least 75 persons are reported to have died in the storm (Longshore 1998).

(5) Descriptions of the wind place the eye of the storm as passing east and north of Jamestown, on a path that probably tracked over northern Virginia and into New England. This hurricane was noted at what is today Manhatten two days later. News of the disaster soon spread to the other English colonies. Samuel Mavericke in Boston wrote of October 26, 1667 to the Secretary of State:

"... and in Virginia on the 6th of September there was such a dreadful haracana as blew up all the roots that was on the ground, overturned many houses and an abundance of trees, and drove some vessels of burthen above high water mark many foote ...." (Ludlum 1963, 16)

(6) A twelve-day rainy period followed the hurricane. causing severe flooding throughout much of Virginia. Evidence suggests a second severe hurricane in the West Indies at this time may have moved up the Atlantic coast on the heels of the first–close enough to the mainland to produce further tropical downpours throughout all of Tidewater Virginia (Ludlum 1963).

(7) Another hurricane and flood occurred in Virginia and in New England in mid to late August 1683. Increase Mather, a New England diarist, wrote a brief account: "... there was a hurricane in Virginia, attended with great exundation of the rivers there, so as that their tobacco and their Indian corn is very much damnified" (Ludlum 1963, 16-17).

(8) A great storm on October 29, 1693 passed the Virginia coast, causing considerable alterations to the Eastern Shore's topography. There are no reports that Virginia's inland counties suffered ill effects from this storm aside from heavy rain and winds. However, on the Atlantic coastline of the Eastern Shore the seas cut new channels through the tidal marshes behind the barrier islands, as well as closing up long-existing ones (Ludlum 1963).

EIGHTEENTH CENTURY HURRICANES

(9) The early Eighteenth Century brought several major storms to the Middle Atlantic Coast–the first severe hurricane hit Virginia in the late Fall of 1703. In Maryland and Virginia, many vessels were cast away, and several were driven out to sea and lost. Ten tobacco curing barns belonging to one planter were destroyed, and a great number of large trees were blown down.

(10) Another Fall hurricane in 1706 caused havoc with a shipping fleet that departed Virginia for England as the storm arrived off the Virginia Capes. Fourteen unidentified merchantmen foundered on the coast north of Cape Charles, with the complete destruction of their cargo (Longshore 1998), and several others are reported to have been otherwise lost. A large number of ships that managed to survive had to return to Virginia ports to repair damage sustained to masts and sails (Ludlum 1963, Marx 1987). Storm surge from this event inundated two fishing villages on the Eastern Shore (Longshore 1998).

(11) A memorable, severe tropical storm buffeted the Chesapeake Bay in August 1724. Although this storm made a long-lasting impression, and was often compared to similar storms that hit the area for many years thereafter, only a few meteorological details have survived. For example, in describing a December storm in 1744, twenty years later, the VIRGINIA GAZETTE noted that: "The like has not been known in the Memory of Man, not even in the great Gust in the year 1724" (Ludlum 1963, 20).

(12) Lieutenant Governor Hugh Drysdale reported on the Great Gust in a letter to the Council of Trade and Plantations in London. In it, he provides the date of the storm and its effects on local agriculture:

"... had it not that violent storm that happened on the 23rd of August almost wholly destroyed all the tobacco on the ground .... nor has the storm affected only one crop of tobacco, but the country suffers very much for the want of corn ...." (Ludlum 1963, 20-21)

Drysdale noted this storm followed a poor corn crop in 1723, and further disrupted corn prices by damaging the 1724 crop. The economic stress in Virginia was so acute that shortly sfter the hurricane a temporary prohibition was placed on the export of Indian corn (Ludlum 1963).

(13) In a letter dated the day of the Great Gust, John Custis IV of Williamsburg wrote to his brother-in-law William Byrd II: "We have had such a violent flood of rain and prodigious gust of wind the like I do not believe never happened since the universal deluge" (Ludlum 1963, 21). He added that most of the tobacco in the region had been destroyed, some homes wrecked, and several vessels driven ashore. Other records indicate that ships were wrecked on the James River, but that their cargoes were later salvaged (Marx 1987).

(14) Some evidence exists to suggest a second storm in late August may have followed the Great Gust closely. Reports of continuing rain in Virginia for twelve days lend credence to the possibility that two back-to-back tropical storms caused the severe flooding reported throughout much of the area (Ludlum 1963).

(15) The use of the Great Gust as a meteorological benchmark included its application to what we now recognize as storms of non-tropical origin. In December 1744, the lower Chesapeake Bay region sustained damaging winds from a strong Northeaster. Newspaper accounts describe the storm:

"There was a prodigious high Tide Yesterday was se'night, by strong North East winds, which blew very hard two Days. Abundance of Vessels have been drove ashore, the wharfs at York, Gloucester, Hampton, Norfolk, and other Places, are carried away, a great deal of Tobacco is spoilt in the Publick Warehouses, considerable damage is done in the Merchants Warehouses, and vast Numbers of Cattle, Sheep, Hogs, &c. are drown'd in several Parts of the Country, especially near the Sea, Bay and great Rivers. The Accounts we have already received, make the Damage very great; and wish we may not hear of more. The like has not been known in "Memory of Man", not even in the Great Gust of 1724." (PENNSYLVANIA GAZETTE 1745).

(16) On Spetmeber 3, 1747, a hurricane caused the foundering and capsize of a merchant ship enroute to Fredericksburg at the mouth of the Rappahannock River. Of the ship's passengers--immigrants, including indentured servants, from Ireland--over 50 lost their lives. (Longshore 1998).

(17) A severe hurricane--known as the October Hurricane of 1749--tracked through Tidewater Virginia on October 18th and 19th, 1749. The eye of this storm appears to have passed a short distance off the Virginia coast. A contemporary account of destruction at Norfolk relates that on the night of the 18th, the wind began to blow hard, and by 1:00 am was blowing violent from the northeast with rain. The highest intensity of the storm was felt between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm on the 19th, with the water of the Chesapeake Bay rising fifteen feet. According to an eyewitness "the tide kept continually fluxing and run at the rate of five knots an hour, overflowing all their streets and has carried some small craft near a mile from common highwater and left some in cornfields" (Ludlum 1963, 23-24). At least 50 vessels are reported to have been driven ashore along the Virginia coast, with a loss of 22 lives (Longshore 1998). Damage in and around the city of Norfolk was estimated at that time to be at least 30,000 Virginia Pounds (about 36,000 Pounds Sterling). Those 1749 figures compute to approximately three million dollars in damages based upon 1992 values (McCusker 1992).

(18) The VIRGINIA GAZETTE reported the entire lower Chesapeake Bay was impacted by the storm on the 19th "with a great gust of wind and rain" (Ludlum 1963, 23-24). In Hampton the water rose four feet deep in the streets; trees were torn up by the roots, others were snapped off in the middle. Near Williamsburg some houses were carried away by flood waters, and one entire family drowned. The VIRGINIA GAZETTE concluded "the like storm has not been known here in the memory of the oldest man" (Ludlum 1963, 24).

(19) Although not reported as a Virginia storm, a 1750 hurricane had an impact on shipping in Virginia waters. The Great Storm of August 18, 1750 caused significant damage to the Carolina coasts (Barnes 1998) and sank four ships of the New Spain Flota under the command of Captain General Juan Manuel de Bonilla off Cape Hatteras. Three other Spanish ships were lost on the Virginia coast, the Nuestra Senora de los Godos off Cape Charles, the La Galga 60 miles north of Cape Charles, and an unidentified brigantine 24 miles north of Cape Charles. Two Spanish vessels sought shelter in Norfolk but were lost two weeks later with 12 English merchantmen in another hurricane (Marx 1987).

(20) In September 1769, the Tidewater area was again buffeted by a powerful storm which came ashore near between Southport and New Bern, North Carolina, on the 6th (Barnes 1998) and turned north, doing extensive damage to the eastern counties of that colony. The eye of this particular storm apparently passed directly over or slightly east of Williamsburg. The PENNSYLVANIA GAZETTE reported that in Williamsburg at about 1:00 am on Friday morning the 8th, there "come on at northeast a most dreadful hurricane." The storm blew violently until between 10:00 am and 11:00 am and "then shifted northwest, when the storm increased, and continued without any abatement, until about dinner time" (PENNSYLVANIA GAZETTE 1769, 2-3). This account continued:

"The Damage done in the Country must be inconceivable, for the Corn is laid level with the Ground, and much of it destroyed; the Fodder is entirely gone. What Tobacco was in the Fields is quite spoiled, and that in the Houses by their falling, and the Deluges of Rain which poured into them, greatly damaged, which may likewise be said of the Wheat. There was not a dry House in Town that day, many old Houses were blown down, and a number of Trees. The Woods are entirely covered with falled Trees, many of the largest Bulk, which has blocked up the Roads, so there is no traveling with Carriages. The father up the Country the fiercer the storm was, and most of the Mills are destroyed; upwards of 50 we hear between this and New-Castle. From Hampton we hear that all the small Craft there is driven ashore; and Captain Pearon, for London, lying in the Road, was obliged to cut away his Mainmast, but road out the Gale. All the shipping and small Vessels of Norfolk are aground, many of them are dismasted, some of the wharfs gone and others much damaged .... The James River Post-Boy, in his Way down, crossing a Swamp, was washed off his Horse by the rapidity of the Current, but got hold of a Tree; and a Man hearing him call for help, swam in to his Assistance, but could not get him out. He therefore went and sought more People, swam in again, and tied a Cord round him, upon which he was drawn out. The Bodies of three Negroes are come ashore a little below Lyon's Creek, with an Oar marked J. Goodrich, and a large open Flat is drifted ashore near the mouth of said Creek." PENNSYLVANIA GAZETTE 1769, 2-3)

(21) An account which appeared in the local VIRGINIA GAZETTE gives yet another graphic picture of the storm's effect on the region:

"Last Thursday night came on the Severest hurricane of wind and rain, that has happened here in the memory of man, which lasted great part of Friday. The damage it has done is inconceivable. Vast numbers of houses are blown down, and mills carried away, trees of all sizes torn up by the roots, and cattle, hugs, &c. crushed by their fall; the corn laid level with the ground, and the tobacco ruined in many places, and much hurt in almost all; In short, such a dreadful scene of devastation presents itself in every part of the colony we have yet heard from, as beggars all description. Add to this, the damage sustained by water, which it is impossible yet to form any idea of. Providentially we have not heard, with certainty, of any lives being lost, though we fear it has been fatal to many." (Ludlum 1963, 25)

(22) This 1769 storm caused heavy damage in the Chesapeake Bay area. Four large English merchant ships anchored in the York River were driven ashore. Another ship, newly arrived from England, had to cut both main and mizzen masts and, thus stripped, rode out the storm. Winds carried away the top of a commercial shipping wharf at Yorktown, and a schooner was pushed onto the shore so that she ran her bowsprit into a storehouse which then sat on the Yorktown beach (Ludlum 1963). Shipping on the James River was also damaged with two merchant vessels being sunk (Marx 1987).

(23) Evidence exists to pinpoint times the 1769 hurricane struck in two locations, thus allowing us to estimate its approximate forward speed. The storm center passed over or just to the east of Williamsburg at 10:30 am on the 8th, and passed over a point just east of Boston at 10:15 pm that night, a period of twelve hours. This suggest a forward speed over the ground of almost 40 miles per hour. Rain gauges in Boston recorded a total of 3.69 inches of rain during the hurricane's passage (Ludlum 1963).

HISTORIC HURRICANES IN FOLLOWING YEARS

(24) This concludes this summary of known hurricanes for the Colonial period in Eastern Virginia. The remainder of the Eighteenth Century saw a number of notable storms in September 1775, August 1778, twice in October 1783, September 1785, twice in July 1788, August 1788, and twice in August 1795. In addition, hurricanes struck the Virginia coast in 1804, 1815, 1821, 1825, 1827, 1830, 1846, 1854, 1856, 1861, and 1867.


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