Summer Returns for This Weekend! Also, A Look Back at a Really Bad Summer In 1820

Today felt like a "Dog Day" & it will feel like that even more during the weekend. However, 1820 saw a really bad summer.....talk about heat & drought!

Posted: Aug 3, 2018 10:12 PM
Updated: Aug 4, 2018 10:55 AM

Highs today were 82-88.  It was muggy with a few isolated storms eastern Tippecanoe to Clinton counties.

Some fog is likely tonight-Saturday morning.  An isolated shower/storms is still possible to around the midnight period.

Saturday will be hazy, hot & humid with some scattered building cumulus clouds with 88-92 & heat indices 94-99.  There will not be much of a breeze!

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A major drought & extensive area of heat occurred over the region during the summer of 1820 with rivers & streams “alarmingly low”, according to some early European settlers crossing the region near the Wabash River. It was reportedly very hot (“truly alarming”) with springs & streams dried up & no water to quench thirst per settlers passing in west-central Indiana & east-central Illinois in summer-early fall 1820. Even here, springs reportedly dried up & unusual warmth began with one wave in February, then set in from late April through September. This followed an unusually harsh 1819-1820 winter, which was regarded as the worst until 1835-36, as the 1820s turned overwhelmingly mild during the cooler months. 

The drought actually peaked in 1820, but had origins in 1816, gradually worsening & expanding eastward.  This 1818-20 (continued to 1822 east of our area) drought episode actually followed the "Tambora Aftermath (Stahle, Cook)" drought of 1816-17 that saw drought to Exceptional status through our entire region (more on that in new posts soon).  1816-20 could be considered all one drought, but could be split in two due to two main peaks: 1817 & 1820.  To attest to the long period of dryness & the widespread nature of the drought, even a September 4, 1819 letter from Bucks County, Pennsylvania to a colleague in Vincennes, Indiana says, "the drought continues, and surpasses any ever recollected here before.  We have not had a rain to wet plough deep since April; and for the last six weeks not sufficient to lay dust..................water is extremely scarce also; and if we are not blessed with rain shortly, I know not what the consequence will be."

Vincennes, Indiana reported a thermometer reading of 100 “in the shade” at 1 p.m. on June 21, 1820. On the front page of the June 24, 1820 edition of the Indiana Centinel newspaper at Vincennes, it reports of that summer so far being “the hottest, dryest [driest] season that has passed in many years” & “vegetation…..destroyed by excessive heat & aridity…….of long continuance”. It also reported “there have been almost two or three months of almost uninterrupted dry and warm weather and for the last month, the heat has never been exceeded in this country.”  Also, it makes mention of "almost

They make mention of “at the beginning of the 17th century, the summer of 1704 was so excessively hot and dry, that it is said, the grass was burnt up & continued dry till the 15th of August 1705.” This information not being attributed to anyone, however, as there were no settlers around. It may have been an account from Native Americans residing in the Vincennes area at the time. There is also mention of a brutally cold winter in 1740-41, then a hot, dry summer of drought in 1741. This is verified in diaries & thermometer readings in settlements in the Northeast U.S. & at Charleston, South Carolina.

On August 13, temperature was 100 north of Cincinnati, at College Hill, Ohio. At Old Shawneetown, Illinois, temperature measured 106 “in the shade” in August 1820. Even in July, temperatures were reported at or above 100 at Cincinnati & September saw a reading of 95 at 2 p.m. April saw a maximum 2 p.m. temperature of 89 & after a max temp of 73 in March, February’s 77 was the warmest for the month in the entire College Hill 1810-1888 data set.

Overpeck, Woodhouse, Cook & Krusic in their drought reconstructions, show the 1820 drought stretching from Vermont to California with Nevada to Washington to Montana & Florida wet with Alabama to South Carolina “normal”. The heart of this major drought stretched from Ohio, through our viewing area to Kansas & Oklahoma during the growing season. According to Blasing & Duvick (1984) in their research, 1820 was equal to the 1934 & 1936 droughts in the Corn Belt of Iowa & Illinois. In Iowa, only 1816-1825, 1735-44, 1696-1705 & 1664-1673 were drier than 1931-40 in Iowa as a whole in the 1640-1982 period (per tree ring & other data) (Cleaveland & Duvick, 1982). 1549-1577 (Stahle et. Al. [1985]) was found to be the worst drought of the 1445-1985 period in Arkansas. Stephen H. Long’s exploration described extreme Plains dryness in 1820 calling it “The Great American Desert” (Stalle, 2013). Jacob Fowler noted that on his way to Santa Fe in 1821, the sand hills along the Arkansas River in south-central Kansas were “distetute of vigetation as they are Bald” (Muhs and Holliday, 1995). 

Stephen Long also reported in his expedition reported land Nebraska & Kansas to Arkansas "totaly unfit for cultivation" due to the drought.

From May 9-June 6, at Fort Snelling, Minnesota (modern-day St. Paul/Minneapolis area) only one single brief light rain occurred. There was no drought relief until the second week of June (Fisk, 2006). The unusually low water on the Mississippi prevented scheduled construction of a sawmill by early European settlers near present-day Minneapolis (Minnehaha Falls) until 1821 (Ford & Johnson, 1962). Continued low water ended up causing the construction to be moved to St. Anthony Falls, Minnesota in 1821 (Neil and Williams, 1881; Fisk, 2006). However, it should be noted that welcome frequent rainfall & much cooler temperatures dominated the Fort Snelling site in July 1820.

The spatial extent of the 1820 drought was similar to not only those extreme 1930s droughts, but also the historic 1850s to 1860 droughts, the 1881, 1887 droughts, 1854 & recently, 1988 & 2012.

Weather records for far northwestern Illinois (Rock Island), August 1820 are below…..notice the hot temperatures recorded & the remarks regarding the lack of rainfall (99 at 2 p.m. on August 2 & other days in the upper 90s [& probably reached 100 or slightly higher])…………..credit for providing this goes to Jim Angel of the University of Illinois & Illinois State Climatologist:

The 1820 drought shows up in the southeast Kansas data set (notice dip in blue line to the south of the red line to the right of the “1800”………these Palmer Drought Severity Index reconstructions are based on tree rings from ancient oak trees there that have been cored) (Lazell, Evans, 2013 [Kansas Geological Survey]):

Regional droughts worse than 1820 & the Dust Bowl in the U.S. coincide with civilization collapses:

Data from Columbia University:

According to State of the Union History:

Author Allen Coggins reported "that Tennessee woods 'were uncommonly dry. For two weeks, the woods burned and he whole atmosphere was so darkened by smoke that a person could not see for 200 yards.'

And a more detailed accounting of the drought can be found in a letter from former president James Madison to Edward Coles on September 3rd, 1819. In this letter Madison describes a drought that was more severe than anything he could remember. There was no rain, or scarcely no rain in June, July or August of that year. Madison's two farms received no rain at all, and because of this there would be not a "tythe of a crop". In other words, the crops this year would not even amount to one-tenth of a normal crop (as a tithe of income given to the church defined by Mosaic law). Madison, went on to describe his understanding of the impact on the Tobacco Districts of Virginia where there would be very little crop this year. Aside from the lack of rain, it was also unusually hot that summer. Madison reported that the 'coolest part of my largest room was on two days, at 92 degrees, for several at 90 & 91, and generally from 84 to 5-6-7-8'.

Unfortunately, the drought was not the only difficulty America faced that year. There was an illness such as Yellow Fever in many of the major cities, and a 'derangement' in the 'moneyed institutions' (Panic of 1819). President James Monroe opened his 1819 State of the Union addresses with good news that all three crises had passed, the 'health of our cities is now completely restored', the crops 'will not only be amply sufficient for home consumption, but afford a large surplus for the supply of the wants of other nations', and 'the derangement in the circulating paper medium' had diminished. Unfortunately, the drought continued, at least in Virginia through 1820 and 1821 and was only ended in 1822 when a Hurricane struck the Richmond, Virginia area causing 200 or more deaths. Yet, as Monroe would soon find out, it was the last crisis, the 'Panic of 1819' that would have the greatest impact on the country and his policies. Much more on that to come.

'In bringing you to view the incidents most deserving attention which have occurred since your last session, I regret to have to state that several of our principal cities have suffered by sickness, that an unusual drought has prevailed in the Middle and Western States, and that a derangement has been felt in some of our moneyed institutions which has proportionably affected their credit. I am happy, however, to have it in my power to assure you that the health of our cities is now completely restored; that the produce of the year, though less abundant than usual, will not only be amply sufficient for home consumption, but afford a large surplus for the supply of the wants of other nations, and that the derangement in the circulating paper medium, by being left to those remedies which its obvious causes suggested and the good sense and virtue of our fellow citizens supplied, has diminished.'

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Some snow Wednesday to Wednesday night.....
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