The role of climate change in 17th century Sowams

We know that the Pilgrims encountered a brutal winter, and half of them died during that first winter. But, was that weather typical of the time? Was it what they expected to find? in this 22-minute video Sowams Heritage Area Coordinator describes the effect that changes in climate had on both English colonists and members of the Pokanoket Tribe. Click here for a 22-minute video.


During the heart of the period known as the “Little Ice Age” during the 17th Century, temperatures were extremely low in much of Europe and what would become the eastern United States. Some scientists peg the coldest period even more narrowly, between 1645 and 1715. During that period the average winter temperatures in North America fell two degrees Celsius.


The Plymouth colonists wrote little about their early experience of the weather. They complained about the first winter, but this was apparently one in which the late November–early December weather was hard and the rest of the winter mild and rainy. Whatever the cause or causes of the Little Ice Age, scientists and historians agree on its effects: unusually wet springs that caused flooding, hot and dry summers that led to droughts, and particularly cold winters. Historian Geoffrey Parker has written extensively about the world-wide influence of this change in climate on war, famine and other major catastrophes in his book, Global Crisis.


Historians argue the Little Ice Age also created the conditions for King Philip’s War 40 years later. The cooler climate reduced crop yield, so the colonists demanded more and more land. Metacomet, or King Philip, had to surrender some of his land in lieu of a fine levied by the Massachusetts General Court in 1671. Unfortunately for Metacomet, the unusually cold winter of 1675-76 caused many of his people to starve. It also led to one of the Indians’ worst defeats in the war the Great Swamp Massacre.

Click here for the 22-minute video of the presentation.

Click here for Climate and Mastery of the Wilderness in Seventeenth-Century New England

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