“There Was Nothing that Could Stand Its Fury” — From GREAT STORMS OF THE CHESAPEAKE (History Press 2012)
One of the first major storms to impact early settlers around Chesapeake Bay was the Great Hurry Cane of 1667. No weather records or official observations existed at that time. But from the descriptions that survive to this day, there is little doubt that this was one of the Chesapeake’s worst storms, historically speaking.
Early on the morning of September 5, 1667, the red ball of the sun rose on a hazy horizon. Those going about their morning chores may have hoped for a breath of wind to stir the morning air. It had been unusually hot in the Chesapeake, as the newly settled region was called.
The Chesapeake regions of Maryland and Virginia are defined as subtropical climates with humid summers and relatively short winters—albeit winters that can have weeks of intense cold. This was a steamy region, indeed, in comparison to the damp, gray, chill weather of England. Summer heat began early and stretched deep into September or even October. The humid air could get so thick that you could almost feel it weigh on your shoulders, making every chore that much more difficult.
The climate and the living conditions could be hard on newly arrived settlers, who still came decades after the Ark and the Dove first landed at St. Mary’s City in March 1634. Lord Baltimore’s colony had expanded greatly since then, but living conditions had not improved much.
Newcomers often went through an adjustment called “seasoning.” The new arrivals’ immune systems were adapted to European climates and illnesses. Settlers almost always fell ill from a combination of the new diseases inherent to the Chesapeake, particularly fevers of one sort or another. Those who survived might later fall victim to recurring malaria or what writers of the time called “grypes of the gutt”—basically sickness caused by spoiled food or contaminated water.
Then there was the heat and humidity and allergies to new forms of pollen, plus a sparse diet that left the new settlers weak. Some did not survive this seasoning, and those who did were not always robust. Few men lived beyond their forties, and an amazing seven out of ten immigrants died before reaching age fifty. Women fared no better, with childbirth and burns from cooking fires being the leading causes of death. In the Chesapeake, orphans were far more common than children with one or two surviving parents. Writing inMaryland: A Middle Temperament, historian Robert J. Brugger notes that just 6 percent of fathers in the Chesapeake lived to see their children grow up. Harsh conditions, to be sure, but ones that newcomers were willing to endure for the opportunities offered by the New World.
Extreme weather of one kind of another did little to lessen the misery of the Chesapeake’s early European inhabitants. The hot summers and cold winters likely only hastened the deaths of settlers already in a weakened condition.
It is perhaps a testimony to this hard life that so few of the Chesapeake region’s early houses survive. Most were of post-and-beam construction that has long since rotted away. Another century would pass before the substantial brick homes of the Tidewater gentry appeared. Chesapeake houses of the 1600s were practical and transient. “The dwellings are so wretchedly constructed that if you are not so close to the fire as almost to burn yourself, you cannot keep warm, for the wind blows through them everywhere,” noted one early traveler.
This was the setting that the sun rose upon that morning before the storm nearly four hundred years ago. The settlers must have noticed the sunrise in passing, and a few old sailors may have grumbled about how a red sky at dawn was a portent of foul weather to come, but for the most part everyone in those hardworking days had more immediate concerns. Water had to be hauled, cattle had to be brought to pastures for grazing and firewood needed splitting.
Except for the very wealthy—of whom there were few in the Chesapeake—the simple labor of living was constant. Life wasn’t easy, but the settlers were well aware that it could be worse. At least there was peace with the Nanticokes and the Susquehannocks, although wary Marylanders kept an eye on the settlers from the Virginia colony, who were constant rivals and no friends of Maryland’s largely Catholic population. Settlers in the Chesapeake did not have to contend with wolves, bears or other dangerous predators, aside from the occasional fox in the henhouse.
The storm blew up quickly, with little warning. From the descriptions of the event and the autumn timing, it was almost certainly a hurricane. There was little or no understanding of the nature of storms in that era. The hurricane ravaged the Chesapeake Bay region and its hardscrabble settlers. “A mighty wind destroyed four-fifths of our tobacco and corn and blew down in two hours fifteen thousand houses in Virginia and Maryland,” noted one account.
According to weather historians, this was one of the worst storms ever to reach our shores then or now, and its impact was felt across the Chesapeake region at a time when the struggling population was especially vulnerable.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): The “great storm” first struck the northern Outer Banks of North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. The wind turned from the northeast to due south and finally to the west, which suggested a track similar to the August 1933 hurricane, a benchmark storm for the Hampton Roads area in the 20th century. This 1667 hurricane lasted about 24 hours and was accompanied by savage winds and flood tides.
In addition to the widespread crop damage, thousands of houses and buildings were destroyed, which must have been almost total devastation considering the small population of the region. Cattle, horses and other livestock—not to mention people—drowned in the flooding brought on by torrential rains and a reported twelve-foot storm surge.
The system greatly impacted weather for days, much as a “modern” tropical storm system might. Reports say it brought twelve days of rain to Virginia, Maryland and beyond. Considering the length of the storm, however, weather historians speculate that a second hurricane or tropical storm system may have passed by close on the heels of the first, thus producing a period of extended rain.
This account of the Great Hurricane was published in London not long after the storm:
“Sir having this opportunity, I cannot but acquaint you with the relation of a very strange tempest which hath been in these parts (with us called a hurricane) which had began August 27th (September 6th Julian calendar) and continued with such violence, that it overturned many houses, burying in the ruines much goods and many people, beating to the ground such as were any wayes employed in the fields, blowing many cattle that were near the sea or rivers, into them, whereby unknown numbers have perished, to the great affliction of all people, few having escaped who have not suffered in their persons or estates, much corn was blown away, and great quantities of tobacco have been lost, to the great damage of many, and utter undoing of others. Neither did it end here, but the trees were torn up by the roots, and in many places whole woods blown down so that they cannot go from plantation to plantation. The sea (by the violence of the wind) swelled twelve feet above its usual height drowning the whole country before it, with many of the inhabitants, their cattle and goods, the rest being forced to save themselves in the mountains nearest adjoining, while they were forced to remain many days together in great want. The tempest, for the time, was so furious, that it hath made a general desolation, overturning many plantations, so that there was nothing that could stand its fury.”