The First Fifty Years of Recorded Weather History in Minnesota (1820-1869) – A Year-by-Year Narrative Account
by Charles Fisk*
The following links access year-by-year descriptions of the major weather events, patterns, and trends experienced over the settled areas of Minnesota for the fifty-year period 1820 through 1869, inclusive. This is the earliest half-century segment of one of the longest continuous climatic records of its kind in the United States. The research was originally donated in 1994 to the Minnesota Historical Society under the title: “The First 50 Years of Continuous Recorded Weather History in Minnesota (1820-1869)- A Narrative Chronology” (Minnesota Historical Society Call: QC984.M6 F47 1994) and appears here in online form.
Information from military and Smithsonian Observer meteorological registers, history texts, and contemporary newspapers are consolidated to describe the period’s climatic events down to the sub-monthly level.
Prior to the Territorial period, which commenced in early 1849, the only official meteorological observations of any consequence were made by the military in the Fort Snelling vicinity, a minor exception being observations at Lac Qui Parle for a brief interval during the mid-1840’s. After Territorial status was achieved, a rapid increase of other weather chroniclers, local newspaper editors, and Smithsonian Institution volunteers began recording their impressions and observations. Not until the early 1870’s, though, a full half-century after the initial Fort Snelling observations commenced, did the State’s first weather bureau offices began operations.
For each year, the presentation consists of detailed descriptions emphasizing spells and extreme events. Monthly mean temperature figures (Fort Snelling or St. Paul) are also cited to give a general sense of the month’s thermal character. These are not the originally reported statistics, but adjusted ones, based on conversion of the 1820-69 fixed time scheme daily temperature observations (e.g., 7AM, 2PM, and 9PM; or Sunrise, 9AM, 3PM, and 9PM) to midnight-to-midnight maxima/minima approximations [Fisk, 1984].
Local precipitation figures (rain-day counts only prior to mid-1836) are also cited frequently, along with those from other outstate areas when they are of a magnitude worthy of mention. The rainfall/rain-day statistics are included as originally reported, reflecting the possibility of instrumentation problems and/or failure to note a rainfall/snowfall event.
Background on Fort Snelling and its Meteorological Record- The existence of a military-based meteorological history, the commencement of which predate Minnesota civilized settlement by nearly 30 years, was the result of three developments: 1) The Louisiana Purchase of 1803, 2) a U. S. strategic plan of the 1810’s to establish a system of forts along its fringe, and 3) the need to understand the climates at these outpost sites. Such knowledge was considered critical to the chief medical officers of the Army, as the potentially adverse effects of climate on soldiers’ health had to be assessed and prepared for [National Archives, 1981].
Fort Snelling was one of these planned outposts, the military’s presence here intended to secure the frontier from British influence, capture fur-trading profits for the United States, and keep the peace between the skirmishing Sioux and Chippewa Indians [Ziebarth & Ominsky, 1970]. In 1818, the Surgeon General of the United States issued an order for each Army post Surgeon to “keep a diary of the weather …. noting everything of importance relating to the medical topography of his station” [National Archives, 1981]. The initial observational format consisted of thrice daily temperatures readings at 7AM, 2PM, and 9PM local time; a “Weather” entry, usually a single word characterizing general conditions for the day, wind direction, and a “Remarks” column, denoting character and/or intensity of precipitation, force of the winds, and other information of interest. Through the April 1858 closing date (the Post reopened in 1861 as a Civil War training facility), the hourly format would be changed several times. In 1836, the 7AM observation time was replaced by an “A. M.” time (most likely Sunrise); then, in 1843, an explicitly stated “Sunrise” observation was adopted. In mid-1855, however, the 7AM observation time was reinstated. The 2PM mid-afternoon observation was replaced by a 3PM one beginning in 1843, but in mid-1855 a switch back to 2PM was made.
Events began to unfold in August 1819 when the Fifth Infantry of the U. S. Army arrived by keelboat to a spot near the present junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, preparatory to construction of a large fortress atop an adjacent 100-foot bluff. The initial encampment (called “Cantonment New Hope”) was not on the bluff but in the bottomlands on the right bank of the St. Peter’s (Minnesota) river near the southeast end of the present-day Mendota bridge [Ziebarth and Ominsky, 1970]. Weather observations commenced as early as October, but for this month, as well as November and December, only the original monthly mean temperature statistics survive. Continuous daily records start with January 1820.
DECADAL AND YEAR-BY-YEAR NARRATIVE SUMMARIES
- The 1820’s – Cool First Half, Warmer Second with Closing Drought.
- 1820 – Cool, Sharp Seasonal Transitions.
- 1821 – Cold Winter & Spring, Uneven Summer Heat.
- 1822 – Late Spring & Early Autumn Frosts, June Deluges, Historic December Cold.
- 1823 – Incoming Winter & Summer Temperature Extremes, Droughty Spells.
- 1824 – Cool Spring/Early Summer, Mild December.
- 1825 – Exceptionally Mild Winter/Early Spring.
- 1826 – Backward April with a Great Flood, but Unseasonable May Heat.
- 1827 – Mild Winter & Spring, Very Warm Late Summer.
- 1828 – A Trend to Drought after Mid-Year.
- 1829 – “The Dry Year”.
- The 1830’s – Warm and Dry First Half, Colder and Wetter Second.
- 1830 – Continued Dry, Oppressive July, Abnormally Warm October/November.
- 1831 – Dry with Late & Early Frosts, Bitter December.
- 1832 – Contrasting Winter Temperatures, Mild Spring & Fall.
- 1833 – More Relative Warmth and Dryness.
- 1834 – Continued Mostly Warm, Wet Summer.
- 1835 – Unseasonably Cool After Mid-Year.
- 1836 – Backward Early Spring, Cool Late Summer & Fall.
- 1837 – Cool Spring & Early Summer, Wet Autumn.
- 1838 – Temperature Extremes, Wet Summer.
- 1839 – Warmest Year to Date.
- The 1840’s– Abnormal Cold Lapses, “Open” Winters.
- 1840 – Warm and Dry First Half, Cool and Wetter Second.
- 1841 – Premature Spring Heat, Very Cold Early Autumn.
- 1842 – More Abnormal Cold Lapses. – Coldest June and November in history
- 1843 – Coldest Year in History. – Also Coldest March and October
- 1844 – High Waters in Spring, Late Spring and Early Autumn Killing Frosts.
- 1845 – Much Warmer.
- 1846 – Warmest Recorded Year of Nineteenth Century (tie with 1878).
- 1847 – Much Cooler, Dry Winter & Fall.
- 1848 – Abnormally Cold after Mid-Summer.
- 1849 – Long Cold Winter, Heavy Spring & Summer Rains.
- The 1850’s – Cold Winters, Occasionally Droughty Summers.
- 1850 – Heavy Winter Snows, Spring & Summer Floods.
- 1851 – Forward Spring, Unseasonably Lingering Heat in September.
- 1852 – Colder, Very Dry and Abbreviated Growing Season.
- 1853 – Drawn Out Winter, Wetter Growing Season.
- 1854 – Bitter January, Mild Spring & Fall, Hot Summer.
- 1855 – Heavy Winter Snows, Dry Growing Season.
- 1856 – Another Severe Winter, Dry Summer.
- 1857 – Deep Winter Snows, Backward Spring, Dry Mid-Summer.
- 1858 – January Rains, Early Spring Breakup, Hot Early Summer.
- 1859 – Cool, June Floods.
- The 1860’s – Coldest Decade in All History, Precipitation Extremes.
- 1860 – Early Spring Breakup, Favorable Growing Season.
- 1861 – Backward Spring with Floods, Cool Summer.
- 1862 – Severe Winter, More Spring Floods, Fall Drought Signs.
- 1863 – Drought, Summer Frosts.
- 1864 – Continued Drought.
- 1865 – Heavy Summer Rains Break the Drought.
- 1866 – Abnormal Spells and Deadly Storms.
- 1867 – A Year of “Freshets”.
- 1868 – Forward Spring, Sweltering July, Dismal Fall.
- 1869 – Torrential August and September Rains.
* Member, American Meteorological Society