These days, we track storms and hurricanes with planes, radar, and satellites. We all have experience watching big storms pass over Caribbean islands and head for the U.S. mainland, gaining alphabetical and increasingly inclusive names along the way.
Before radio, however, storms seemed to blow out of nowhere. People couldn’t track a hurricane at sea in real time. Any ship lucky enough to survive an encounter with such a storm would limp into port after the storm itself had arrived or passed by. Only in retrospect might scientists string together a series of reports from various islands, ships, and seaboards and posit that they were all about the same storm.
There’s just such a series of reports of bad weather from the late summer of 1775, starting in Santo Domingo and the Outer Banks of North Carolina in late August and then moving to Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston in early September. But the British colony hit worst by far was Newfoundland, where 4,000 people died on 9-11 Sept 1775, mostly fishermen. Waters rose so high there, in fact, that some latter-day scientists suggested there was an undersea earthquake and tsunami, though no one reported shaking.
That storm was labeled the “Independence Hurricane of 1775” in David M. Ludlum’s Early American Hurricanes, 1492-1870. The label might be older, but I haven’t found it in earlier books. It doesn’t seem appropriate to name Canada’s deadliest natural disaster after a political development in the U.S. of A., but that’s cultural imperialism for you.
Tony Williams heard about that storm on television, got intrigued, and started researching it. The result was a book published last year, Hurricane of Independence: The Untold Story of the Deadly Storm at the Deciding Moment of the American Revolution. It tracks the 1775 storm that from its appearance off Santo Domingo to rainstorms in Newfoundland on 4-5 September.
And then the book argues that a second, more destructive hurricane hit Newfoundland a few days later, causing all those deaths—more than 90% of the total. The first hurricane, Williams posits, kept going north from Philadelphia and blew itself out in upstate New York and Upper Canada. So we might have a use for both labels: America’s “Independence Hurricane” and Canada’s “Newfoundland Hurricane of 1775.”
Hurricane of Independence attempts to justify its title by tying the meteorology to the development of the American independence movement. For instance, Chapter 15 is titled “General Washington Battles the British and the Weather.” There’s an ongoing discussion of how Washington and his contemporaries thought of “providence,” a way of thinking about both natural and political events that seemed beyond humans’ control.
The problem with that approach is that this hurricane really didn’t affect the American independence movement. Its biggest impact on the war? A Royal Navy ship called the Otter was washed ashore in Hampton, Virginia, and some locals plundered and burned it.
There was rain in Philadelphia, but the Continental Congress wasn’t in session and that city didn’t see any deaths. In the main military theater around Boston, here’s how the weather played out according to the diary of Pvt. Caleb Haskell of Newburyport:
September 3rd, Sunday.—This morning there was a storm of rain. In the afternoon had several shells thrown at us from Bunker's Hill. Our guard killed and 15 of the enemy.Big whoop.
September 4th, Monday.—This morning is thick and stormy. Clears off pleasant in the afternoon.
September 5th, Tuesday.—A pleasant morning after a long storm. All still here. At night I went on guard at P[rospect]. Hill.
On the 11th Haskell left with Gen. Benedict Arnold on his march north through the Maine wilderness. In October that column encountered terrible weather, but the “independence hurricane” was long gone.
It’s also difficult to see how early September 1775 was “the Deciding Moment of the American Revolution,” as the book’s subtitle would have it. That was about five months after the war had started, three months after the Congress had adopted the army around Boston and sent Washington north, and half a year before the colonies moved toward independence. What big events occurred in that month, and how did the storm affect them?
Hurricane of Independence spends many pages on quick summaries of what led up to the Revolutionary War, which are generally what we find in many other books. (One glitch: Page 178 mixes up Dr. Samuel Prescott with Col. William Prescott.) But I didn’t see evidence that the hurricane(s) of September 1775 affected even one American’s thinking about the political conflict, or for that matter about providence.
In sum, the old label “hurricane of independence” seems more hysterical than historical. That storm happened to hit a number of American ports near independence, and got a great publicity boost about two centuries later. Williams didn’t come up with the “independence” label, but it was what intrigued him about the topic, so he was stuck with it. He might have been better off setting it aside and looking at how some storms really did shape the Revolutionary War.
TOMORROW: How some storms really did shape the Revolutionary War.