Wild Weather Wednesday: The Washington and Jefferson Snow Storm of 1772

WildWeatherWednesdayThis historic storm, called the Washington and Jefferson Snow Storm of 1772, was one of the largest snow storms to ever hit the northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. area . At the time, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were prominent landowners and both were interested in the weather and how it affected their agricultural interests.  We know this because both future presidents recorded weather details in their personal diaries.

Even when Washington was away from his Mount Vernon plantation he still received a weekly summary of weather conditions.  His overseer made sure he received those reports in a timely manner so he could judge how the weather was affecting his crops.  In late January of 1772, George Washington was home and witnessed this epic storm with his own eyes.  His weather diary entries read like this:

January 26 – Raw, cold, and cloudy with the wind though not much of it Northerly

January 27 – A snow which began in the night and was about 5 or 6 inches deep this morning kept constantly at it the whole day with the wind hard and cold from the northward

January 28 – The same snow continued all last night and all this day with equal violence the wind being very cold and hard from the Northward drifting snow into banks.

January 29 – Fine pleasant morning without any wind – but before 11 o’clock it clouded up & threatened snow all the remaining part of the day – being full three feet deep everywhere already.

In his regular diary Washington recorded the 27th as “dreadfully bad” and that day and the following he was confined to his home.  On the 29th “with much difficulty” he rode “as far as the Mill, the snow being up to the breast of a Tall Horse everywhere.”  One newspaper account in the Maryland Gazette of January 30, 1772 confirms the observations of future president Washington:

The Winter here has been in general very mild until Sunday Evening last, when it began to snow, which continued without Intermission until Tuesday Night.  Yesterday Morning we had again the appearance of fine moderate weather, but in the Evening it began again to snow very fast, which continued all the Night; ‘tis supposed the Depth where it has not drifted, is upwards of Three Feet, and it is with the utmost Difficulty People pass from one House to another.  The Quantity of Snow has also chilled the Water to such a Degree, that though the Frost has been severe for these few Days past, yet our Navigation is entirely stopped up by the Ice.

Farther south in Williamsburg, the Virginia Gazette announced the postponement of the General Assembly and a delay in mail delivery due to the weather.  It would be another month before mail delivery was resumed.

The_Virginia_Gazette_Thu__Feb_6__1772The storm made its way to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia where Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello was situated.  Just weeks before Jefferson had married on New Year’s Day.  He and his bride had taken their leisure returning home to Monticello following the wedding in Charles City.  It appears from his diary entries that he and his bride were returning home late on the evening of the 26th, the day when the snow had started falling.   About eight miles from Monticello they were forced to abandon their carriage and travel the remainder of the way on horseback.  This, as it turned out, was about the time the storm increased in fury.

By the time they arrived home, the fires had been extinguished and their servants retired for the night.  Jefferson’s daughter later noted that the experience of returning to such a dreary and cold house was a topic of conversation for years to come.  In his diary Jefferson noted that it was “the deepest snow we have ever seen.  In Albemarle it was about 3. f. deep.”

Jefferson later started writing his own weather observations (Weather Memorandum Book) in 1776 after purchasing a thermometer in Philadelphia on July , and just before the historic signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Years later a column in the June 27, 1818 edition of the United States Gazette further verified the storm’s record-setting snowfall.  That article claimed that the depth had been measured at 2 feet 9 inches.

One hundred and fifty years later to the day after the so-called Washington and Jefferson Snow Storm, the  Knickerbocker Storm of 1922 (see article here) was patterned similarly.  Like the 1772 storm, the 1922 storm stayed south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

George Washington began keeping temperature records in 1785, regularly recording three readings daily – morning, noon and sunset.  On February 5, 1788 he noted that the weather was so cold that the mercury didn’t rise out of the bulb of the thermometer all day.  Indeed, it was one of the coldest days on the eighteenth century with Philadelphia recording a record low of -17.

His temperature records don’t indicate whether the temperatures he noted were indoor or outdoor so historians aren’t sure whether he sometimes recorded one or the other and perhaps didn’t make the distinction.  It might not have been very accurate but at least he was consistent.

On April 30, 1785 his entry noted that while away on a trip he had his wife Martha record the temperature: “Mercury (by Mrs. W’s acct.) in the Morning at 68 – at Noon 69 and at Night 62.”  He doesn’t appear to have ever made an attempt to record barometric pressure, although he occasionally mentioned “falling weather”.  Perhaps his most prized weather instrument, however, was the weather vane which still sits atop the cupola at Mount Vernon.

MtVernon_VaneHis weather observations continued throughout his presidency, and when George Washington left Philadelphia on March 9, 1797 he was finally returning to his beloved Mount Vernon.  He noted in his diary: “Wind changed to No. Wt. blew very hard & turned very cold” and “Mer. at 28. Left Phila. on my return to Mt. Vernon–dined at Chester & lodged at Wilmington.”

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2015.

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