How Did People Survive These Kinds of Winters?

While up in northern Minnesota this past weekend, it was certainly cold along the North Shore. Wind chill temperatures hovered at low single digits.

In general, winter always makes me wonder…how did people survive a winter like this hundreds of years ago?

It truly is staggering for me to think about. Hundreds of years ago, Native populations surviving temperatures without our modern comforts. Being draped in robes of fur and even greasing themselves in animal fat for cold protection.

Tettegouche State Park

Colonists later faced the same. William Bradford’s famous journal Of Plymouth Plantation outlined what it was like for settlers in the famous settlement: “And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men? and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not.” Several times in the journal the word “foul” is used to describe the weather. And certainly the natural obstacles of the land still existed, on top of the harsher weather.

And do you hate showering in the cold? Well, even later in the colonial period, bathing in the New England area would not only be a hassle, it would essentially cease to exist. Charles Francis Adams (grandson of John Quincy Adams) wrote, “When the temperature of a bed-room ranges below the freezing-point, there is no inducement…to waste any unnecessary time in washing.”

Jamestown, the first permanent settlement, endured a period so harsh it is referred to as the “Starving Time”. Conditions got so dire and food so scarce, colonist George Percy wrote that not only did colonists eat their horses and other animals but also “boots, shoes, or any other leather some could come by”. Research suggests the possibility of cannibalism as well.

However, iconic Virginian William Byrd was said to swim in rivers during the winter “without being discouraged by frost or Snow”, even to help rid himself of impending ill health. He further alludes to how if everyone did the same, it would “starve all our doctors”.

Time to turn the heat up.

NOTE: this is an edited version of a post that appeared on January 13th, 2015.

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4 Responses to “How Did People Survive These Kinds of Winters?”

  1. TomH.

    There was, and is, no choice. If you wanted to stay alive, you did whatever you had to do to keep alive, and to prosper. Granted, it was harsh weather sometime. With summer’s as hot as the winters were cold. All you could do was the things during the seasons to prepare for the next. That time there was no anything like we have now. Everyone did whatever they had to. Even little kids worked. Some searched for fire wood, hauled water. even hunted for small animals. They did these things every day. Whether they wanted to do it or not. They did experimented with different things to keep their home warmer during winter and to keep it cooler in summer.

    It was a hard life, but they wanted it. They came from the U.K., Europe and Asia. The came because they wanted a better life for themselves and their children,

    • James

      Tom, that’s a great point. It was what HAD to be done…if it’s all you know, you know you have to do it to survive. Thanks for sharing!

  2. James Perovich Sr.

    Are Founding Fathers were indeed a rough group of settlers. No crybabies there.