J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, January 29, 2022

“The Poor, frozen in their Houses”

Like every American, I grew up hearing stories about the Continental Army’s hard winter at Valley Forge.

In fact, my most viral tweet was a snarky comment on Valley Forge National Historical Park having to close for winter weather. More than 2,000 “likes” showed how many people got that little joke.

However, Revolutionary War history buffs know that the winter of 1779-1780, when the Continentals camped in Morristown, was much harsher. Colder temperatures, more snow. But fewer deaths in camp because the army had learned more about building warm cabins and preserving public health.

Not until I read this essay by Blake McGready from the Gotham Center for New York City History did I think about how people experienced that same harsh weather inside British-held New York. Already reliant on ships to bring in food and firewood, how did the Crown authorities manage when the harbor was blocked up with ice?

Here’s a bitter taste of McGready’s article:
The winter’s fuel shortage, in particular, underscored the city’s geographic isolation, shaped British military and political strategy, and caused environmental transformations. In order to provide New Yorkers sufficient fuel, the British relied on their military outposts at Staten Island and Paulus Hook. But the unprecedented ice blocked the city’s access to timberlands beyond Manhattan.

New York required six hundred cords to warm the city a week, and at times, the British only counted seventy in their reserves. “We often hear of the Deaths of the Poor, frozen in their Houses,” [William] Smith reported. A rebel newspaper claimed that New Yorkers “are so necessitated for fuel, that near 100 of them have perished during this inclement season for want thereof.”

In order to sustain the meager supply, soldiers saw their fuel rations reduced multiple times. The commandant restricted the operations of distilleries for lack of wood. Military officials purchased old ships and hulks to distribute the wood to soldiers and the poor. Profiteering abounded in timber-rich areas. Staten Islanders reportedly hoarded fuel in order to raise the price, a practice that ended when authorities seized roughly 1000 cords.
An environmental historian, McGready also explores how the weather affected food supplies, sanitation, and even animal hunting grounds. 

Somehow a detailed article about dealing with rough winter weather seemed appropriate today.

(Wilson Freeman captured the photograph above during a reenactment at Princeton a few years back and shared it on his Daily Reenactor page. Also well worth a look.)

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