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Local Weather History: The 1838-41 Droughts

A series of intense heat waves & major droughts struck the region & viewing area in the 1838-41 stretch.

Posted: Aug 28, 2019 4:41 PM
Updated: Sep 4, 2019 10:42 PM

Drought of 1838 in full swing with extremely dry, hot summer weather continuing in September.  It was a hot summer overall & a dry one, according to early pioneers over a large area of the Midwest.

1838, 1839, 1841 all saw remarkably dry, hot summers to falls in our area with early springs & over the Midwest & Southeast.  Huntsville, Alabama's driest year on record is still 1839.  At Charleston, Illinois, 1841 saw temperatures to 107, the hottest until 1881.  1838 is regarded as the hottest summer in Illinois & Indiana since 1820, when Kaskaskia, Illinois reached 106.

1840 seemed to be cooler & wetter in our region.

1837-38 winter was reportedly rough at Lafayette (-21 recorded in January 1838), but 1838-39, 1839-40 & 1840-41 were all reportedly mild overall.  1841-42 & 1842-43 turned much colder & snowier again.

1838-41 overall (orange colors show drought & the darker or redder, the worse..............blues are wetter):



Locally in 1838:

“Reached camp near Williamsport at 4 p.m. As we advance farther into the country of the prairies, water becomes more scarce - the streams are literally dried up and we have reason to fear that unless soon refreshed with rain, our future marches will be attended with much pain, and suffering. 2 deaths took place this evening.”

An emigrating party on the Trail of Tears, which were leading the Native Potowattamies west stated on the 14th, “A few minutes travel brought us to the Grand Prairie, a portion of which we passed over, arriving at our present Encampment at Danville, Ill., at about 3 o’clk. P. M. The heat along with the dust is daily rendering our march more distressing. The houses are jaded the Indians sickly and many of the persons engaged in the emigration more of less sick.”

On September 24 in central Illinois near Springfield: “Our march today was through a very dry region of Country. We are now encamped on a stream affording little water.”

In west-central Illinois on October 2: “The day was excessively warm and the dust very afflicting, added to which water was scarcely to be found on the route.” “Water on the route was only to be found in stagnant ponds.”


Account of the drought in central Virginia in 1838:

[“H,” The Drought. The Green Spring Lands of Louisa County. The Farmer’s Register 6 (Oct. 1, 1838), pp. 440-441:]

In compliance with a request in your last number of the Register, that reports of seasons and crops might be made to that journal from the different sections of country in which it circulates, I give you one which I am sure cannot be surpassed in melancholy of detail by any that may appear from other quarters. Confining myself to the section of country between the James and Rappahannock rivers, parallel with, and extending thirty miles below, the South-West Mountains, I can say from ocular proof and certain information, that no drought has ever come under the observation of the oldest inhabitant, that will compare in severity with that which has visited this country since about the middle of June. Within this range, I have heard of but one neighborhood, (about New Canton, on James river,) in which the corn and tobacco crops have been at all benefited by rain. On other water-courses, and on good highlands, they have been curtailed from more than half to nothing on inferior grades of soil. Pastures and meadows are burnt up, and the most luxuriant green-sward turf in our yards destroyed even to the root. To add to these grievances, the little fodder that had escaped being entirely blasted by drought, and a sirocco-like wind, which has prevailed throughout the summer

Accounts of the drought in the Southeast with Jackson's Indian Removal Act leading to great loss of life of Native Americans.  This is from the National Parks Service's Trail of Tears booklet of quotes from U.S. military:

The first detachment of Cherokees were taken west. Further removal was halted due to drought and ―sickly seaso

July 1838

- Over 1300 Cherokees are imprisoned in forts and stockades, awaiting a break in the drought. Over 1500 die in confinement.

August 1838

Cherokee chiefs meet at Aquohee stockades and declare sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation. John Ross becomes superintendent of the removal.

September 1838

- the drought in the southeast breaks and the Cherokee set off on their exodus to their new lands in the West.

Fort Snelling (present-day Minneapolis), as written by Charles Fisk:


Record Hot Summer, Heavy July Rains – Summer brought a dramatic warming, average temperature for June-August (73 F) equaling 1823’s high mark for the season. Accompanying the hot temperatures were regular and at times heavy rains. June (mean temperature: 72 F), warmest since 1829, had 4.76 inches’ rain on eleven days. Moderate temperatures characterized the first week, afternoons in the mid-70’s to low 80’s, nights in the 50’s. But the 10th rose to 93 F, and a week-long hot spell set in over the 16th-22nd, with continuously south quarter winds and afternoon temperatures between 89 F and 96 F. The Post was drenched over the last five days of the month with 2.80 inches’ rain. July was very warm with heavy rains, monthly mean temperature (77 F) the second highest figure of the Snelling era. Fifteen afternoons reached the nineties, nine days having rains that totaled 11.31 inches. On the 7th, the mercury climbed to 100 F, tying 10 June 1823’s mark for warmest reading to date, the “evening” reading still 86 F. An approaching cool front triggered a 5.10 deluge next day, however, and the prevailing northwesterly winds after its passage held the mercury at 76 F for the afternoon of the 10th. But another oppressive spell then began to build, the mercury hitting 98 F on the 15th. On this day, the Steamboat “Palyrma” docked, bringing news from Washington concerning ratification of the Indian Treaties of a year ago. White settlers were now free to lay claim to coveted lands in the St. Croix River vicinity and other places [Lass, 1976]. Another series of rains dropped almost 4 inches of rain over this and the next three days, an additional wet spell on the 27th-30th bringing 2.30 inches more. August (mean temperature: 74 F) tied 1833 for second warmest in 19 years. Rainfall totaled 3.58 inches on 11 days. The first half was warm but not exceptionally so, most afternoons in the mid-to-upper 80’s, two reaching 90 F. On the 19th, however, an unseasonably late hot spell set in, this and the next three days each reaching 92 F, the 26th climbing to 96 F for highest temperature ever recorded so late in the summer here.

Warm September, Unusually Persistent October-December Cold – The ’38 fall to winter transition featured lingering above average warmth in September but unusually persistent anomalous cold for October, November, and December. September (mean temperature: 62 F) equaled 1825 and 1833 as the warmest to date. Rain was light, just 0.71 inches on six falls. The first two days brought the coolest temperatures since late May, the 1st 44 F at daybreak and the 2nd 43 F at the same hour, but summery weather quickly returned, to predominate past mid-month. Afternoons frequently rose to the upper 70’s to low 80’s, nights generally remaining in the 50’s and 60’s. After some light rain on the 17th, just the second fall of the month, the season’s first extended autumnal spell set in, the 18th’s temperature range 38 F to 50 F, light frost reported on both the 23rd and 24th.

September 22, 1838, Richmond Palladium, Richmond, Wayne County, Page 4:

October, 5, 1838, Bloomington Post, Bloomington, Monroe County, Page 3:


Warm Spring – April and May brought very warm to seasonable temperatures and frequent rains, the early 1839 growing season, allowing for some May frosts, probably one of the more forward of the last twenty years. April was the warmest such month ever recorded in Twin Cities’ climatic history, average temperature (58 F) about 12 F above the modern “normal”, no freezing temperatures or snow experienced. Rains fell on eleven days to a total 2.71 inches. The first week was like mid-May or later, daily temperatures reaching the mid 70’s on most afternoons, following morning readings typically in the upper 40’s to low 50’s. The 3rd reached 77 F, about 30 F above normal for the day. Somewhat cooler conditions ensued over the next ten days, afternoons generally in the 60’s, a few mornings in the mid-30’s, but the last twelve were unseasonably warm again (and wet), five afternoons reaching 76 F or higher, the 26th hitting 84 F to tie 1829’s reading for highest temperature recorded in April. Five rains over the 22nd-27th also dropped 2.15 inches, including 1.35 inches on the 27th. May (mean temperature: 58 F) a seasonable month in temperature, was no warmer than April, average-wise. Total rainfall was 3.28 inches, almost all of it over the first two weeks. Cool weather set in immediately over the first few days, the mercury 32 F on the 3rd, light frost seen. Warmer temperatures accompanied by generous rains followed, the 6th reaching 85 F, 2.92 inches’ precipitation falling on this and the next six days through the 12th. Frost was again reported on the 14th accompanied by a sunrise temperature of 30 F, and the 15th and 16th were each 34 F at daybreak, but this was succeeded by a nearly week-long stretch of summer-like heat, afternoon 80’s recorded on five of six days over the 18th-23rd, three reaching 86 F.

Warm, Dry Summer – Summer ’39 was warm and relatively dry, long hot terms being felt in both July and August, the latter having a twenty-day rainless spell. June (mean temperature: 69 F) was only slightly warmer than average with light precipitation. Total fall was 1.80 inches on nine days, just 0.77 inch of this over the first three weeks. An early warm spell brought mid-to-upper 80’s temperatures on six straight days over the 6th-11th, but cool to pleasant weather prevailed thereafter all the way through the 28th, most afternoons in the 70’s to low 80’s, eight mornings in the 48 F to 52 F range. The closing two days were the month’s warmest, 90 F read on the 29th and 96 F on the 30th; the latter was the hottest June temperature registered in sixteen years. July (mean temperature: 76 F) tied its’ 1834 namesake for fourth hottest calendar month so far in Post history. Twelve days had “P. M.” readings in the 90’s, rain falling on seven to 3.50 inches, most of this (2.80 inches) coming over the 17th-20th. Hot weather was scattered throughout, a ten-day spell over the 19th-28th, however, being particularly oppressive, seven afternoons passing 90 F and five in succession over the 24th-28th reaching between 93 F and 95 F. August was relatively warm (mean temperature: 72 F) but dry, total rainfall just 1.04 inches on five falls. The first week continued warm, most afternoons in the upper 80’s, nights, though, in the relatively comfortable mid-50’s to low 60’s. Light showers dropped 0.09 inches on the 1st, but no additional falls came, however, until the 22nd. Hot weather set in again around mid-month with 96 F recorded on the 15th. Over the three-day stretch the 19th-21st; 95 F, 97 F, and 97 F temperatures were also registered. Cooler and wetter weather closed the last ten days, afternoons in the 70’s, nights in the 50’s; four rains left about an inch. During August some significant history was realized as the first sawmill in the St. Croix Valley began operations at Marine on St. Croix [Lass, 1976]. As would be recollected years later, water levels this season were particularly low [St. Paul Pioneer, 1865].

Dry Fall/Early Winter, Very Warm October – Infrequent precipitation falls and a record warm October marked the transition to winter. September was the year’s most anomalously cool month, mean temperature (57 F) about 2 F lower than the September average for the previous 19 years (1820-1838). Seven light to moderate rains produced 1.61 inches total. The 2nd and 3rd were summery, afternoon readings in the low 80’s, but autumnal weather quickly set to predominate the next two weeks.

August 30, 1839, Indiana American, Brookville, Franklin County, Page 2:

September 26, 1839, Leavenworth Arena, Leavenworth, Crawford County, Page 2:

October 25, 1839, Indiana American, Brookville, Franklin County, 25 October 1839, Page 3:

The Franklin Farmer (Kentucky), September 1839, Page 4 & 17:


Mild, Snowless Winter – Mostly mild and dry, with the exception of a January cold term and several cold waves comprised 1840’s weather through the time of the spring breakup. January (mean temperature: 12 F) was unseasonably mild over the first half but unseasonably cold over the second. Snowfall was light, about 5 inches on six falls. Thanks to a long spell of south to southeasterly winds, the first and second weeks experienced almost daily afternoon temperatures in the 30’s to low 40’s, overnight readings remaining mostly in the 20’s. A sharp cold wave, one of three that would occur during this month and February, routed the mild pattern on the 14th, the mercury plummeting 40 F in 18 hours to minus 26 F by the following “A.M.”, -18 F and -22 F readings recorded on the next two mornings, the 16th and 17th. An even more intense blast set upon the Post about a week later, the mercury tumbling 43 F in 18 hours to -25 F at “A.M.” of the 23rd, a near all-time record -37 F read on the 24th, -32 F registered on the 25th. Near or below zero morning temperatures occurred regularly through the close, the coldest -18 F on the 31st. After some lingering early frigidity, February (mean temperature: 21 F) saw a return to mostly mild conditions. Total precipitation for the month was light, .12 inch of rain falling on two days and 2 inches of wet snow on another. Minus nineteen was recorded on the 1st, -13 F on the 3rd, but a marked warmup then ensued, afternoon 30’s and 40’s to be the rule through the third week. Another cold wave swept through on the 23rd with temperatures falling all day, but after a bitter -26 F observed next morning, conditions warmed dramatically, the mercury hitting 50 F on the 28th, the temperature range on Leap Year Day 40 F to 54 F. March (mean temperature: 36 F) was also very mild. Each of the first nine afternoons reached the 50’s, an unprecedented occurrence so early in the season based on the record-keeping experience so far. Fair skies and southerly winds predominated, nighttime temperatures over this mild period frequently remaining above 32 F. On the 3rd, the mercury reached 59 F, a highest-so-early-in-the-season mark. Afternoon readings from the 10th on were only slightly lower, mostly in the 40’s and 50’s. Following 1 to 2 inches’ snow on the 18th, a final, abbreviated arctic outbreak driven by “high” northwesterly winds dropped the mercury to 0 F on the morning on the 20th. By the 25th, however, the mercury was back to 55 F, and 59 F was read on the 28th. On the 31st, the Mississippi was still noted as “not open yet”, possibly reflecting the winter’s lack of an insulating snow cover and the several brief but intense arctic spells. Total snowfall for the ’39-’40 season was a paltry 15 inches, approximately, less than one-third the modern-day “normal” amount. The Mississippi breakup finally came on 3 April.

Warm, Dry Spring with Early Hot Weather – Mild to unseasonably warm temperatures along with more extended dry spells featured spring. April (mean temperature: 48 F) was mild, sunny, and almost rain-free through the first three weeks, afternoon temperatures with few exceptions reaching at least the 50’s and 60’s. Just .04 inch of precipitation was recorded. The 21st and 22nd brought a taste of early summer, 79 F and 78 F recorded at the “P. M.” observation time, overnight temperatures holding in the mid 50’s. Thunderstorms on the 23rd brought some needed moisture, 1.50 inches of rain left, and much cooler temperatures, afternoon readings in the high 40’s, prevailed on this day and the next two. Fair skies, southwesterly winds, and near 70 F readings, though, were back again before month-end. The season’s first two steamboats, the “Tennessee” and the “Omega” each arrived on the 27th. May (mean temperature: 64 F) tied 1836 for third warmest to date. Droughty weather was evident again over the first seventeen days, just .01 inch of rain falling. Mid-summer-like heat prevailed on five straight afternoons through the 18th with mid-to-upper 80’s occurring on four. Temporarily cooler and wetter weather followed, 1.70 inches’ rain falling over the 18th-20th, the latter only 58 F at mid-afternoon. But another even hotter spell then began to build as the month closed, temperatures of 92 F, 90 F, and 90 F recorded over the last three afternoons with overnight readings remaining in the mid-to-high 60’s. The 92 F reading on the 29th would be the year’s highest, distinguishing 1840 as the only year here locally until dust-bowl era 1934 in which the yearly maximum would be a May event. Premature heat continued over much of June (mean temperature: 71 F), roughly half the afternoons reaching the mid to upper 80’s. Numerous nights held in the 60’s, three sunrise temperatures noted at 70 F or higher. Rainfall picked up significantly over the first half, 2.70 inches measured through the 16th, .70 inches coming over the balance. Most afternoons during the last week approached 90 F, the highest (89 F) coming on the 24th, the next morning a sultry 78 F at sunrise.

Trend to Abnormal Coolness – Reminiscent of 1826 and 1829, May and June’s early warm buildup did not culminate with an oppressive balance of the summer. July (mean temperature: 72 F) was only seasonable, temperature-wise, August (mean temperature: 67 F) just 1 F warmer than 1836’s record coolest average. The former started with some unseasonable coolness, the 1st ranging from just 54 F to 63 F, the 4th 57 F to 70 F. Only a few hot days were experienced during the month, the warmest being five afternoons in the 88 F to 90 F range. Precipitation (2.89 inches’ total) was confined mostly to two several-day spells over the second week (1.62 inches), and during the third and fourth weeks (1.14 inches). August had only one 90 F afternoon, nine confined to the 60’s. Lowest morning temperature was 49 F. Rainfall was heavier and more evenly distributed than July’s, totaling 3.40 inches on eight days.

Cold Autumn With Early Snows – Cool and sunny weather made up September (mean temperature: 57 F).


Premature Heat after mid-May – Spring’s pace of warming this year was more irregular then last, unseasonable cold displayed over much of April, a return visit of premature summery heat, however, coming in May. The former (mean temperature: 40 F – 1.40 inches’ precipitation) was about as cool as 1837, just one afternoon warmer than 44 F over the first two weeks, almost every night freezing. A couple of one-inch snows also fell over the period. A modest warming trend brought 68 F on the 22nd, highest of the month, but conditions then relapsed again, the 25th recording 0.75 inches’ cold rain with temperatures hovering in the mid-30’s. The 29th was similarly disagreeable with 0.32 inches’ rain/snow mixed and 29 F at mid-afternoon. This latter snow extended the 1840-41 snow season’s length to six months and 27 days, a record; total accumulation for the season finished around 40 inches. The cool spell climaxed over the first days of May with 23 F at sunrise of the 2nd, this the season’s “last freeze”. Afternoon temperature this day was only 41 F. From here, afternoon readings gradually warmed day-by-day, the 50’s reached by the end of the first week with the 60’s being general by week two. After mid-month, conditions warmed considerably, taking on a strong resemblance to last year’s anomalous heat about this time. Four straight days in the mid-80’s were felt over the 17th-20th, morning readings in the low-to-mid-60’s. Following a slight cooling, the 86 F-88 F range was attained on three of the last five afternoons. Monthly mean temperature finished at 60 F, total rainfall 1.50 inches. June (mean temperature: 70 F) was several degrees above normal with more normal rainfall, 4.24 inches on eight days. Temperatures continued unseasonably warm and humid over the first eleven, five afternoons reaching 88 F to 92 F, virtually every night in the 60’s. The 10th and 11th were especially muggy, sunrise temperatures at 70 F and 74 F, respectively. A strong cold front with thunderstorms on the night of the 11th-12th finally broke the spell, the succeeding afternoon just 66 F in the “P. M”, some 26 F cooler than 24 hours’ previous. Mostly cloudy and cool weather prevailed over the next two weeks, nearly every afternoon in the 60’s to 70’s, one morning as cool as 50 F. Warm and humid weather was back at the close, 88 F and 90 F recorded on the 27th and 28th, the last two mornings 74 F and 70 F, respectively, at sunrise. Phenological notes had strawberries “ripe” on the 12th and “abundant” on the 18th.Pleasant Summer – Similar to a year ago, May and June’s early heat did not presage an oppressive July or August. The former (mean temperature: 73 F) was only seasonable in temperature with light rainfall – 1.47 inches on three falls. The first two weeks were pleasant, nights mostly in the mid-60’s and afternoons generally in the mid-to-high 70’s. Two thunderstorms, the only ones of the month, dropped 1.37 inches during the second week. An abbreviated heat wave set in during the third week and into the fourth, four out of five afternoons over the 19th-23rd between 90 F and 93 F. Morning readings over the 20th-24th ranged from 70 F to 76 F, but only two afternoons thereafter got as warm as 84 F, one morning dipping to 53 F. August (mean temperature: 68 F) was also generally pleasant in temperature with continued light rainfall, 1.17 inches on five falls. There were no 90’s, the highest a comparatively moderate 86 F. Most afternoons over the first two weeks were in the 70’s, with a couple of mornings in the low 50’s. A brief humid term was experienced during the third week, three “A. M.” readings in a row noted in the 70’s, the “A. M.” of the 22nd, however, 48 F. The last week had a couple of afternoons confined to around 60 F with cloudy skies and northerly winds, but start of a late-season heat wave that would carry over into the early days of next month, the 31st reached 85 F.

Extraordinarily Cold/Wet Early Fall – September (mean temperature: 54 F, coldest in 22 years) brought the first of a series of extraordinary and extended below normal temperatures spells that would set in at scattered intervals over the next several years. Unseasonable heat, however, predominated early, 90 F to 92 F readings recorded on the 4th, 5th, and 6th. Following .15 inches’ rain on the evening of the latter, though, an exceptionally strong cold front, almost winter-like in intensity, swept through, bringing mid-autumn-like temperatures in the space of a few hours. Next afternoon, the mercury stood at just 51 F, 39 F lower than 24 hours’ previous, the following sunrise [of the 8th] 40 F. Afternoon temperatures displayed a gradual up-trend over the next week, 72 F reached on the 14th, but another cold spell then set in, the next eight days exceptionally chilly for mid-September with no afternoons readings higher than 50 F. Only one afternoon reached as warm as 60 F over the whole rest of the month, numerous nights dropping into the 30’s; the 17th was 32 F at sunrise. Adding to the general unpleasantness, a heavy rainstorm dropped 3.05 inches on the 19th, another series of storms over the 25th-27th drenching the Post with 6.10 inches more.

Cincinnati Riots of 1841:

On 1 August 1841, the black leaders held ceremonies to commemorate the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that abolished slavery in the British colonies (except for India). Their celebration was viewed with hostility by many whites. That month the city experienced a drought and heat wave that caused the Ohio River to drop to the lowest waterline yet recorded, putting many men out of work who were dependent on river traffic. Idled and hot, men grew testy and argumentative.

Tensions mounted, with several scuffles between whites and blacks in their crowded neighborhoods.[3] On the evening of Tuesday, 31 August, a group of Irish men got into a fight with some blacks. On Wednesday, the fight resumed. A mob of white men armed with clubs attacked the occupants of a black boarding house. The brawl spread to involve occupants of neighboring houses and lasted nearly an hour. Although several people were wounded on both sides, no one reported the incident to the police and no arrests were made. Another encounter took place on Thursday in which two white youths were badly injured, apparently with knives.[4] That day, bands of angry whites were roaming the city. An eyewitness said blacks were "assaulted wherever found in the streets, and with such weapons and violence as to cause death."

Nikki Marie Taylor (2005). Frontiers of freedom: Cincinnati's Black Community, 1802-1868. Ohio University Press. p. 199ff. ISBN 0-8214-1579-4. Retrieved 2010-10-29.

July 16, 1841, Indiana American, Brookville, Franklin County, Page 3:


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