Canada’s Year Without A Summer

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On April 10, 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in the largest observed volcanic eruption in recorded history. The explosion was so loud that it was heard 2,600 kilometres away and it would send 41 cubic kilometres of dust and rock into the atmosphere, weighing 10 billion tonnes. On the Volcanic Explosivity Index, Tambora registered as a seven, one down from the highest rating, which is megacolossal. For comparison, Mount St. Helen’s and Vesuvius were rated as a five, while Krakatoa was a six. In human history, no volcanic eruption has registered as an eight, the closest being 26,500 years ago. It is believed the initial eruption of Tambora killed 70,000 people initially, followed by hundreds of thousands in the next two years.

Why am I talking about something that happened in Indonesia on a podcast about Canada? Well, today’s episode is all about the Year Without A Summer and despite Canada being 13,000 kilometres from Indonesia, the effects of that eruption were still felt. For Canada, this was not only known as the Year Without A Summer, but the Poverty Year.

The winter of 1815-16 was a normal winter for eastern Canada, but that wasn’t the problem. It was that the winter didn’t seem to end.

The impact of the volcanic eruption wouldn’t come to Canada in 1815. It would be a year before Canada started to see that something was different about the weather that year. In a news report on April 18 in Quebec City, it was stated, “The country has all the appearance of the middle of winter, the depth of snow still between three and four feet. We understand that in many parishes, the cattle are already suffering from a scarcity of forage.”

People, and newspapers, began to notice that something was wrong with the weather by May. On May 14, the Quebec Mercury reported “We had a fall of snow this morning, the weather continues cold.”

During April and Month, temperatures were barely above freezing. At 8 a.m. on April 10, the temperature in Quebec City was -12, and the temperatures at 8 a.m. remained below freezing from April 15 to 18. In Montreal, the temperature was below freezing from April 10 to 17.

In Quebec City, the coldest 8 a.m. temperature for the month was -12.2, while the coldest 3 p.m. temperature was 5.6.

On May 28, the newspaper was reporting on the theories coming out of the United States for the lingering cold weather. It was believed that the spots observed on the sun were causing the unusual cold weather on Earth.

The next day in Quebec City, snow was falling, something that had happened in the city on May 1 as well.

For May in Quebec City, the coldest 8 a.m. temperature was -1.1, while the coldest 3 p.m. temperature was 2.2.

By June, things were not improving and in central Ontario, where the temperature was still hovering around below zero. For the sheep in Quebec who were recently free of their wool, this was bad news as they began to die in the cold. The Montreal Herald began warning people that they had best start planting potatoes because it was possible the wheat crops of the summer could fail.

Ice, described as thick as a dollar, killed vegetation, trees lost their leaves and many newborn livestock died from the cold. The Montreal Gazette described migratory birds dropping dead in the streets in the cold.

On June 7, Reverend Fredrick Dibblee of Woodstock wrote in his diary the following:

“Cloudy and cold as winter. Snow squalls all day. The snow fell last night so as to cover the ground, terrible indeed, never knew snow in summer before, never was there such weather. People ploughing and harrowing with their great coats on.”

That same day, the wife of Sir John Sherbrooke, the Lt. Gov. of Nova Scotia, Lady Katherine, wrote in her diary about walking in her garden with a friend and how it was as cold as winter.

Also on that day, two days of snow had finished in Quebec and the Quebec Mercury stated in an article, “we had a pretty heavy snow yesterday for an hour and a half. Some has fallen today. The wind is northerly and heated stoves are not uncomfortable. Several birds have been found perishing in the streets.”

The temperature during the two days of snow averaged between 1 and 2 degrees.

Montreal also reported snow on June 7 and June 8, while Kingston stated there was snow on June 6.

On June 8, Tredway Thomas Miles of New Brunswick wrote in his diary, “wonder to behold. The snow covers the face of the earth one inch deep. Peas up in the garden but appear very much alarmed at the sight of snow.”

Four days later, Thomas Mills, a farmer in Maugerville, would write in his diary:

“Cucumbers killed by the frost, very little grass. The cattle can hardly subsist.”

On June 10, the temperature was starting to rise in Quebec City, reaching 14 degrees but it would not last long.  

Out in New Brunswick, itself only 33 years old at this point, the colony government had to send money out to the counties that were dealing with severe financial shortfalls. At the time in some counties, the cost of goods was skyrocketing with a barrel of flour costing $30, or $545 today. Usually, a barrel cost $1, or $18 today. Many farmers in the colony couldn’t feed their livestock and were forced to sell them rather than have them starve.

In Nova Scotia, the ground was frozen hard enough in swampy areas for horses to walk on the ground without sinking.

On June 17, the Montreal Gazette began to feel optimistic about the summer finally arriving after a few days of warm weather. The report in the newspaper stated, “the weather has assumed within these few days a favourable change, and we now begin to be sensible of the influence of the summer sun.”

Out west in the area of Manitoba, Peter Fidler, a notable explorer for the Hudson’s Bay Company, witnessed a terrible cold spell on June 5 that he described as, “a very sharp frost at night…killed all the barley, wheat, oats and garden stuff above the ground except lettuce and onion. The oak leaves are coming out as if they are singed by fire and dead.”

The frost through the summer would kill the three grain crops of the new settlers to the Red River area, barley, wheat and oats.

Things seemed to improve in some areas of Canada from mid-June to early-July, at least slightly. The Montreal Gazette would write on June 10, “The season has been retarded to a later period than remembered by the oldest inhabitant. We had a little snow on Saturday, yesterday was more mild and the sun had the influence in the beginning of May, but it was very cold during the night. Serious apprehensions are to be formed of our ensuing crop.”

In Quebec City, the coldest 8 a.m. temperature in June was 1.1, while the coldest at 3 p.m. was also 1.1.

Throughout July, the cold continued and the growing season by this point was three weeks behind. In order to prevent starvation, the Governor of Lower Canada banned the export of crops such as wheat, flour, beans and barley until Autumn. In order to bring in crops, which were barely coming in at ports, Canadian harbours removed all tariffs on imports of wheat from the United States.

That optimism would not last and by the beginning of July, the snow had returned. The Quebec Mercury would report on July 9 that the cold weather had come back and lasted for four days.

Throughout the month, cold waves would hit at various times, falling down to one degree at some points. Food was becoming scarce enough that there were reports of people eating mackerel, pigeons and raccoons.

On July 15, the Montreal Gazette printed a proclamation from Major General John Wilson, the administrator of Lower Canada. It forbid the exporting of wheat, flour, biscuit, beans, peas, barley and grain until Sept. 10. Prince Edward Island would do the same, putting in a restriction for three months. At the same time, as 600 immigrants arrived at St. John’s, Newfoundland, they were turned away due to a lack of food in the community.

That same day, the Quebec Gazette stated, “we are sorry to learn from unquestionable authority, that great distress prevails in many parishes throughout this province from a scarcity of food. Bread and milk is the common food of the poorer classes at this season of the year, but many of them have no bread. They support a miserable existence by boiling wild herbs of different sorts, which they eat with their milk.”

While all this was happening, people were trying to figure out why the weather had turned so cold. Some felt that it was the sun cooling and summer would not be something experienced again, while others felt it was the punishment of God for people deserting farms for seaport jobs during the War of 1812.

At the end of August, Lady Sherbrooke was on a tour of Upper Canada with her husband and would write that there were two cold waves on Aug. 21 and Aug. 30, describing very cold mornings, but no mention of snow. Recordings on the mornings of August. 21 and August 29 show that the temperature was two degrees and four degrees.

The terrible cold seen through the summer can be seen by the detailed recordings of the weather observers in Canada. I am going to look at two of the most detailed here.

The first is Reverend Alexander Spark of Quebec City, who had arrived in Quebec in 1780 to work as a teacher and recorded daily weather readings from December 1798 to March 1819, missing only 20 days.

In his recordings, he shows very cold temperatures from June 6 to June 9. In an entry he writes, “the sixth, seventh and today, bleak cold very uncommon weather for the season. On the seventh, it snowed a little the whole day. At 10 at night, the ground was completely covered.”

The second was Thomas and John McCord of Montreal began recording the weather in January 1813, continuing until 1842. In their records for June 1816, most of the daytime temperatures were just above zero to 10 degrees Celsius. The lowest temperature recorded in the day was 1.1 degrees on June 7, with the warmest temperature coming during a brief warm stretch from June 22 to June 24, when the temperature ranged between 24 to 28 degrees Celsius. These would be the three warmest days of the summer. On June 25, the temperature fell heavily down to 15 degrees.

Thanks to these weather observers, as well as the Hudson’s Bay Company, we can see today that from March to October 1816, each month registered an average temperature below the ten-year average. The months of March, April, May, June, July and September were the coldest ever recorded to that time, and possibly to today. Those months, in Quebec City at least, had average temperatures of -6.9, 2.7, 9.4, 17.5, 20.8, 17.8 and 12.5.

In September, things had not improved and the summer had come and gone without there being a summer to speak of. Lower Canada by this point was dealing with total crop failure with four out of five crops ruined, and frost leaving the crops that remained small and of poor quality. For many farmers, the only way to get food was to sell their cows to buy bread, or survive on wild herbs. The only crop that seemed to survive was rye and only for farmers who practiced trial and error plantings throughout the summer.

In the Red River Colony, the price of grain rose heavily and caused severe distress for the poorer individuals of the colony.

On Sept. 12 in Nova Scotia, a frost would arrive after a few warm days and destroy nearly all the grain in the fields.

From July to September in Quebec City, the coldest temperatures for each month at 8 a.m. were 7.8, 7.2 and 2.2, while the coldest 3 p.m. temperatures for each month were 11.1, 13.3 and 10.

In the winter, New Brunswick banned the export of any food harvested in the colony in order to keep its own citizens from starving.

The Halifax Chronicle reported in December that, ‘it has been given us from the most authentic sources, that several parishes in the interior parts of Quebec are already so far in want of provisions as to create the most serious alarms among the inhabitants.”

Every month of 1816 registered frost, which is incredibly rare.

The effects of the eruption would diminish in the coming years although snow was still seen in June in 1817. In that year, New Brunswick implemented a law that mandated the size and price for loaves of bread. The law stated that shilling wheaten loaf had to weight 2 pounds and four ounces.

It was reported that the St. Lawrence froze faster and farther downriver than at any point in the previous 50 years in 1817. It was also reported in the Nova Scotia Royal Gazette that men could sleigh far into the Northumberland Strait without seeing open water, which it described as something not within memory of the oldest settler in the place.

That winter would see many deaths. In Quebec City, the daughter of Marie Louisa Beleau would be found dead in the small home she lived in with her mother and sisters. The home had no windows, a hole in the roof for the chimney and earth floors. The child died of a violent sore throat and cold produced by exposure to the frigid weather.

Through this terrible winter, governments did what they could to help. Governments did provide relief, with the government of Lower Canada providing about 15,000 Pounds, or $2 million today in food. Newfoundland would purchase 100,000 pounds of flour  and Lower Canada also set aside a loan fund for farmers needing to buy seed. It wasn’t always good will though. When the Legislative Council of Lower Canada was told that the people of the Kamouraska region had eaten the last of their cattle and were starving, the speaker of the assembly argued that they should only receive an interest-free loan and that the region had enough to buy food of its own. 

The winter of 1817 lasted well into May, leaving 20 per cent of the population of Canada with not enough food to eat. On May 1, 1817, the citizens of Quebec City rode across the frozen St. Lawrence River in sleighs and carts and planted maypoles in the ice. Three days later, the ice broke and soon 20 ships from Montreal appeared with seed grain for the eastern part of Lower Canada.

Governor General Earl Dalhousie would say once fall came along, “A finer season for seed time and crops generally never was known. All Canada, as well as this Province, rejoices in the prospects we have at present.”

Things would not return to the true normal people were accustom to until 1818 when the average monthly temperatures for March to September began to reach their usual averages.

Information comes from Canadas History, Niche Canada, Early Canadian Weather Observers and the Year Without A Summer, Wikipedia, Readers Digest, CBC, History Of The Methodist Church, Red River Colony, MacLeans, Weather Network, Canada’s Anglo-Celtic Connections

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