Americans have worked to minimize winter's impact

Patrick Allitt, associate professor of history, gave a preview of his latest book in progress during a Nov. 18 history department lecture on "The History of American Winters." He noted that the project's scope of 400 years and the vastness of differences in weather in the United States is making his project a challenge.

"The onset of winter in the first 200 years of colonization of America saw drastic changes in the work, diet, illnesses, sleep, transportation and social and leisure activities of the colonists," said Allitt. "Over the last four centuries, Americans have been able to impose uniformity on seasons, to minimize the unpredictable qualities of winter.

"When the first European settlers arrived, they were amazed at how cold it was in North America," said Allitt. "They knew they were further south than in England, but they didn't know about the Gulf Stream that warms England. Yet in America, they were amazed too at the longer daylight hours of winter and the abundance of firewood. England had been stripped bare over the centuries, and this abundance was a symbol to them of the plenty and riches of North America."

In his lecture, Allitt first took a look at the living conditions of the early colonists. "The Europeans were astonished at the way native Americans greeted and dealt with the winter," said Allitt. "The Indians seemed ill-prepared, yet they didn't starve. They survived on dramatic variations in the intake of food; for example they would not eat for eight to 10 days and then if the hunters were successful, they would eat eight or 10 times in one day. The Indians also knew it was easier to hunt in the winter because the moose would get stuck in the snow, and the food was easier to keep once a kill had been made."

Allitt read from the diary of a Catholic priest who spent the winter of 1633-34 in southern Canada. "He wrote about how appalling the cold was and the ordeal of the smoke in the wigwam," said Allitt. "European settlers were determined not to live that way and immediately began to make winter more palatable."

Allitt said that logging was a seasonal activity in the winter until the 1850s and 60s. "In the Colonial period, one had to wait until winter to move anything not near a river to take advantage of low-friction sleighs," he said.

Allitt noted that by the mid-1700s efforts to conserve fuel had begun. "The forests were retreating from towns and more efficient stoves began to be developed, the most famous of which is the Franklin stove."

Allitt said that the invention of the railroad was significant in minimizing the impact of winter. "The railroads promised to provide year-round service, yet it took a lot of ingenuity to prevent snow from closing the railroad down," he said. "The railroads cut down on the isolation of villages during winter. Once the railroads existed, from the 1860s onward it became possible to move all kinds of things year-round. The meat packing magnates organized the ice cutting business to create refrigerated cars so they could ship meat year-round."

Allitt also talked about the efforts of Great Lakes shippers to minimize the impact of winter on the iron ore shipping and steel-making industries, noting that ice cutters began in 1971 to keep the Great Lake shipping channels open year-round.

"By post World War II, winter had receded to the background," he said. "Americans were aware of it, but drastic changes were not required."

--Jan Gleason

Return to the December 2, 1996 contents page