As we enter the hurricane season in the Northern Hemisphere, perhaps we should stop and think a bit about hurricanes that affected our ancestors. They had no Weather Channel, no special live reports from the scene and, indeed, no advance warning at all. In fact, for centuries nobody knew that storms moved. The transplanted Europeans of the 1600s knew almost nothing of hurricanes, an entirely foreign phenomenon. They thought storms happened in only one place and were caused by an angry God. Their fears of approaching death were reinforced when a lunar eclipse followed the natural disaster.
The Great Colonial Hurricane of August 1635 most likely was a category 3.5 hurricane that probably stayed off the Atlantic coast, causing little damage, until it got to New England. Colonists often wrote about weather in their journals. The first recorded mention of the Great Colonial Hurricane was on August 24, 1635, at the Virginia Colony at Jamestown. It was mentioned as a big storm in journals of the early residents but no major damage was reported. Today’s historians are guessing that the eye of the hurricane probably passed east of Jamestown, well out to sea. It then most likely passed over uninhabited easternmost Long Island before moving north into New England.
Governors John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay Colony and William Bradford of Plymouth Colony both wrote about the storm. Governor Bradford wrote that the storm drowned seventeen Native Americans and toppled or destroyed thousands of trees. The town of Plymouth suffered severe damage with houses blown down. The wind cut great mile-long sections of complete blowdown in the woods near Plymouth and elsewhere in eastern Massachusetts. Residents in Rhode Island reported 22 foot waves in storm surges along with today’s estimates of winds of 130 mph. More than 40 people died and there was much damage.
Sailing ships were often caught in hurricanes with terrible results. The Angel Gabriel was a 240 ton English passenger galleon, commissioned for Sir Walter Raleigh’s last expedition to America in 1617. She sank in a storm off Pemaquid Point, near the newly established town of Bristol, Maine, on August 15, 1635, apparently in the midst of the Great Colonial Hurricane. All one hundred-plus passengers aboard the James survived as land was nearby. They managed to make it to Boston Harbor two days later. More information may be found in the The Wreck of the Angel Gabriel, 1635 in the Maine State Government’s web site at http://goo.gl/MIV2o0.
The Rev. Anthony Thacher, his cousin and their two families were headed by boat on a short trip from Ipswich to Marblehead. The fast-moving storm smashed their craft on the rocks, dooming all aboard except for the preacher and his wife, who somehow survived the storm as 21 others perished.
The Hurricane Research Division of the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory of NOAA has examined the National Hurricane Center’s data about historic hurricanes. In association with the Project, Brian Jarvinen, formerly of NHC, used modern hurricane and storm surge computer models to recreate a storm consistent with contemporary accounts of the Great Colonial Hurricane of August 1635. Jarvinen concluded the hurricane may have caused the highest storm surge along the east coast of the U.S. in recorded history: 20 feet (6.1 m) near the head of Narragansett Bay. He concluded that “this was probably the most intense hurricane in New England history.”
“We could have a catastrophic situation with national repercussions,” reports Nicholas K. Coch, a professor of geology at Queens College and one of the nation’s foremost hurricane experts. “If the track of a future [hurricane] moves 25 miles to the west of the ‘Colonial Hurricane,’ the dangerous right side could pass right over Boston and Providence. That’s why we study old hurricanes in the Northeast.”