The worst Kentucky winter was spawned by a global-event beginning about 1350 A.D. in medieval Europe, lasting until the 19th century or early part of the 20th century, known as the “Little Ice Age.” It was not a true ice age, but an inter- thermal cooling event where the earth’s temperature declined below normal for 400 years. It cooled in Western European countries like France, England, and in North American New England, all the way to South Carolina. This cooling has been postulated as caused by advancing glaciers, and perhaps some volcanic activity. Its termination began about 1837 with the coronation of Queen Victoria, ending about the time of her death on January 22nd, 1901. Note: This takes in the period of 1861 through 1865, and may be one reason the uniforms worn by both sides during the Civil War were made of woolen material, now considered too hot and uncomfortable for summer wear.
Everyone has read the stories of how George Washington’s men suffered at Valley Forge, that was the winter of 1779-1780, during the height of the little Ice Age. In that winter, New Jersey had 6 blizzards and 20 snowstorms. The New York Harbor froze over with ice so thick, British soldiers marched from Manhattan to Staten Island on the harbor ice. In November of 1779 there was a foot of snow on the ground in November at Morristown, New Jersey. That winter was so cold, every saltwater inlet froze solid from North Carolina to Canada.
This brings us to Kentucky, and what was happening here, in 1779. With the American revolution underway the British were stirring up Indian support for their cause along the frontier where forts and posts had been outlawed by the English in their treaties with the Indians. Many Tories (those loyal to the Crown) were leaving North Carolina and Virginia to settle in Kentucky and get away from the fighting back east. This caused concern by those settlers favoring the colonials fighting the British. In late October of 1779, Boone brought a large party of settlers, around 100, to Boonesborough, which had fallen in disrepair and was described as smelling like an English sewer. Earlier, Boone had rescued the Calloway girls and Jemima Boone from the Shawnee Indians, and now Richard Calloway was guiding English Major Henry Hamilton, the “Hair Buyer,” who paid the Indians for the scalps of the settlers. Amongst this internal upheaval, came the worst winter in Kentucky history.
The winter of 1779/1780 was forever after named the “hard winter.” The settlers began repairing the fort working in a foot of snow. For shelter, they built at nearby Boone Station what was known as half-faced cabins. They had three sides and were open on one. These could be hastily built for temporary shelter but were certainly not warm. On December 19th, John Floyd wrote a letter to Col. William Preston that the day was so cold the ink froze in the quill before he could commit it to paper. It was so cold men found it hard to load their rifles. Wild turkeys were suffocating because the mucus in their nose slits froze solid and they died. Snow became so deep it was difficult for the wild animals to move in the woods as well as those who hunted them. Trapping was halted. Many people were literally starving, but the dead turkeys fell from their perches and were picked up thawed, cooked and eaten.
The buffalo were so poor, in February, the settlers at Boones Station, found a grove of Maple trees where the sap had begun to rise, and they began tapping the trees and boiling the sap. The buffalo began licking the sap because they were starving. They were so desperate for food the settlers could not drive them away. Daniel Boone had brought back a supply of corn to be used for seed and meal but divided it with all of the settlers until it was gone. Then he invented meat sandwiches. It was a slice of buffalo between two slabs of wild turkey, and there wasn’t a lot of that.
By comparison, when we think of 32-degree weather as cold, and six or eight inches of snow too deep, and complain about simple fare like sandwiches, soups, and bread to eat, it makes me ashamed. When things get really tough, and they always do, remember what Papa Bryant admonished his family: “Look to the Bible, Job took worse punishment.”