Americas,  ER,  United States

The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635

The James unloading after a somewhat more serene trip than it had during the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635. Photo Credit- New England History Society

Hurricanes are a part of life if you live on the Eastern Seaboard or Gulf Coast of the US or the Caribbean. What we tend to forget is these powerful storms have been around longer than the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. We discussed a few such hurricane in our posts about the 1900 Galveston Storm (Please see this post for more information:…/ ) and one that destroyed the young city of New Orleans (Please see this post for more information: ). There was even a hurricane that possibly stopped Washington DC from burning in 1814 (Please see this post for more information: ) However, hurricanes have been plaguing the residents of the East Coast of the US for much longer. One such storm has been dubbed The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635.

It was fifteen years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, and the settlements at the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay and Jamestown Settlement had weathered brutal winters, disease and other natural disasters. However, they had never seen anything like the terrible storm that came up from the south. This is thought to be the first hurricane ever experienced by the colonists. The Jamestown Settlement in Virginia Colony was brushed by the winds. It is first mentioned by chroniclers there on August 24, 24, 1635 moving quickly to the east of the colony with the Plymouth Plantation in its sites.

At the many seaports, there were ships unloading full of settlers who made the perilous crossing of the Atlantic from England. One of these ships was the James, and on it was Reverend Richard Mather. Travelling with Reverend Mather were his wife, father-in-law and four children, one of which was Increase Mather, who became a famous minister in his own right. The James and its companion ship the Angel Gabriel arrived on August 25, 1635. Another smaller ship arriving was the Watch and Wait travelling from Ipswich, Massachusetts to Marblehead, Massachusetts. On it was the Thacher family- Anthony and his wife and four children. Unfortunately, arriving at the same time as these ships was the hurricane. It blew into the New England coast on August 26, 1635. Putting together journal accounts from settlers, Nicholas K. Coch, a professor of geology at Queens College, has estimated the storm’s path with the help of Brian Jarvienen at the National Hurricane Center. Using the Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) computer model, they estimate the storm passed over eastern Long Island then moved north into New England. After hitting the New England colonies, the storm moved back into the Atlantic.

John Winthrop, the head of the Massachusetts Bay group, wrote in his diary

“[the hurricane] blew with such violence, with abundance of rain, that it blew down many hundreds of trees, overthrew some houses, and drove the ships from their anchors.” He also wrote of Native Americans killed by the storm surge while “flying from their wigwams.”

William Bradford, head of the Plymouth group, also wrote

“Such a mighty storm of wind and rain as none living in these parts, either English or Indian, ever saw,” he wrote. “It blew down sundry houses and uncovered others … It blew down many hundred thousands of trees, turning up the stronger by the roots and breaking the higher pine trees off in the middle.”

He also reported loss of life in the Native American community of seventeen people.

The James and the Angel Gabriel were forced to try to weather the storm off the coast. The Angel Gabriel offloaded most of its passengers at Pemaquid, Maine. It’s a good thing as by the morning of the 27th, the Angel Gabriel had been torn from its anchor and reduced to rubble. Crew and passengers who stayed onboard were lost and along with most of its cargo. The James was a bit further south and fared somewhat better. The anchors were lost when the captain tried to dock at the Isle of Shoals. The ship was driven towards the rocks by the strong winds, but they were saved when the hurricane moved northeast. The James was able to limp into Boston harbor. Richard Mather recorded in his diary,

“When news was brought to us in the gun room that the danger was past, oh how our hearts did then relent and melt within us! And how we burst into tears of joy amongst ourselves, in love onto our gracious God, and admiration of his kindness in granting to his poor servants such an extraordinary and miraculous deliverance.”

Postcard showing Antony Thacher’s Monument. Photo Credit- Boston Public Library

The Watch and Wait did not fare as well. The storm caught it off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. As with the other ships, it was torn from its anchor trying to ride out the winds. The Watch and Wait crashed upon the rocks of an island off shore and was destroyed. Anthony Thatcher and his family were cast into the sea along with the rest of the crew. He wrote later he said to his cousin,

“O cousin, it hath pleased God to cast us here between two rocks, the shore not far from us, for I saw the tops of trees when I looked forth. I am willing and ready here to die with you and my poor children. God be merciful to us and receive us to himself!”

Eventually, they lost the rocks they were holding on to and were swept into the sea. Anthony and his wife made it safely to the shore, but the rest of the family was lost. A passing ship found them and took them to the mainland. The island is named after him, and the rock they clung to is named Avery’s Rock after his late cousin Joseph Avery.

It has been estimated that the storm would have been categorized as a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which meant there were winds up to 130 miles per hour and moving at a speed of 30 miles per hour. Coch and Jarvinen also estimate the storm surge to have been large as well- up to 21 feet at Buzzards Bay and 14 feet at Providence, Rhode Island. The tides at Narragansett Bay were reported as 20 feet higher than normal. A few miles change in the track could have wiped the growing colonies of map, reducing the British influence in the New World. Also, the settlers had never seen a storm of this magnitude and were convinced it was a sign of the apocalypse. No one would have blamed them if they had packed up and left. However, they didn’t. They stuck it out and changed history.