Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, the Italian-born chronicler of Spanish exploration, wrote in his epic history De Orbe Novo (1530) of a land discovered under the auspices of Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón in 1521. It was "situated the same distance from the pole, and under the same parallel as Vandalia in Spain, commonly called Andalusia." The territory Ayllón claimed for his king was located at about thirty-eight degrees north—the same latitude as the Chesapeake Bay. It turns out, however, that the Spaniard actually had sailed well to the south. But when seeking new funds, he cleverly pushed the location a few degrees of latitude to the north, so that it paralleled Andalucía, a Spanish region rich with pearls, gold and silver, grapes, and olives. Although the king responded enthusiastically, Ayllón never did find the Chesapeake. He died instead on or near the island of Santa Elena, off the coast of present-day South Carolina, in 1526.
Hariot's goal, like Ayllón's before him, was to sell his masters on the value of the land he described. He testified to "the excellent temperature of the ayre there [in Virginia] at all seasons, much warmer then in England"—London sits at about fifty-one degrees north latitude—"and never so violently hot, as sometimes is under & between the Tropikes, or nere them." (Englishmen such as Hariot believed that their bodies were adapted to their own particular climates and that there would be a physiological price to pay for living in a tropical climate.) What Hariot and many of his peers strategically failed to mention was that Virginia was both hotter and colder than Ptolemy had led them to expect. "What they were experiencing," the historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman has written, "was the difference between a maritime climate, seen in countries lying to the east of great oceans, and the continental regime that prevails in lands to their west." Large bodies of water allow temperatures to remain relatively stable; as a result, the prevailing winds, traveling from west to east, keep the west coast of North America relatively mild. By contrast, large land masses both absorb and give off heat easily, meaning that the winds moving from the west into Virginia often bring with them widely varying temperatures.
Another phenomenon, what climatologists have dubbed the Little Ice Age, exacerbated this effect and had important consequences for colonial Virginia.
The cause or causes of this cooling is subject to vigorous debate. Scientists have pointed to the Maunder Minimum, a period between 1645 and 1715 when the number of observed sunspots decreased, indicating a reduced level of solar activity; however, opponents of this theory argue that the resulting decline in solar irradiation was not sufficient to cause the Little Ice Age. During this cooling period, the tilt of the earth's axis also changed. Such changes may profoundly affect ocean circulation, which, in turn, affects climate. Still other scientists have suggested that volcanic eruptions—such as one in the southern Philippines in 1642—may have had an impact on the cooling, causing chemical reactions in the atmosphere that blocked or redirected sunlight.
Warren F. Ruddiman, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia, has argued that humans may have caused the Little Ice Age. After the previous ice age peaked about 11,000 years ago, the levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere began to decline as oxygen-producing trees replaced ice. This kept temperatures generally cool. But, according to Ruddiman, the levels of carbon dioxide began to increase again about 8,000 years ago, with methane levels following suit about 3,000 years ago. He attributes these changes to human activity. Burning forests to clear land for agriculture, especially in the Americas, produced carbon dioxide, while planting rice paddies in Southeast Asia produced methane. Both of these activities, suggests Ruddiman, contributed to a worldwide warming of temperatures.
This trend shifted, however, in the 1500s, coinciding with the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the introduction of European diseases to native populations. Scholars estimate that between 1492 and 1650, 95 percent of all the inhabitants of the Neotropic ecozone, a region that includes Central and South America, died of disease. As a result, deforestation ceased and oxygen levels in the atmosphere increased, cooling the worldwide temperature by as much as 0.1 degrees Celsius. Many scholars have disagreed with Ruddiman's assertions, arguing that this human activity was insufficient for such an effect. And even if it were sufficient, the effects of the Industrial Revolution would have caused more than what scientists have calculated as an increase in worldwide temperatures of 0.6 degrees Celsius in the last 150 years.
Droughts were the greater problem in America. When Jesuit missionaries, led by the Virginia Indian Don Luís de Velasco (Paquiquineo), arrived on the James River in the autumn of 1570, they encountered dry conditions and hunger. "We find the land of Don Luis in quite another condition than expected," one of the missionaries wrote, "not because he was at fault in his description of it, but because Our Lord has chastised it with six years of famine and death, which has brought it about that there is much less population than usual."
Cold weather, meanwhile, was a constant threat. The Thames River froze over above London Bridge during the winter of 1607–1608, leading to the first of the so-called Frost Fairs, or festivals held on the river. The cold also caused hunger, as a contemporary writer—in an imaginary dialogue between a country man and a city man—reported: "The poor ploughman's children sit crying and blowing their nails," the country man says, "as lamentably as the children and servants of your poor artificers. Hunger pinches their cheeks, as deep into the flesh as it doth into yours here. You cry out here, you are undone for coals: and we complain, we shall die for want of wood."
That winter in Virginia was no less severe. John Smith wrote of a cold so miserable that "a dogge would scarce have indured it." The colonist Francis Perkins, writing to a friend in England on March 28, 1608, described a cold "so intense that one night the river at our fort froze almost all the way across, although at that point it is as wide again as the one at London. The ice in the river froze some fish which, when we took them out after the ice was melted, were very good."
Such interaction also increased the transmission of diseases. Colder weather suits the Anopheles quadrimaculatus, or malaria mosquito, which the Europeans may have spread among the Indian population. Whatever the cause, Thomas Hariot observed "that within a few dayes after our departure from every such Towne about twentie, in some fourtie, and one six score" people would die, "which in trueth was very many in respect of their numbers."
The same pattern of conflict, scarcity, and death was repeated at Jamestown. The drought contributed to a low water supply for the Englishmen, who had unknowingly located their fort in an ecological zone (oligohaline) where the exchange between fresh and salt water is minimal. According to George Percy, the first men began to die of disease—"Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers"—on August 6, 1607. The Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco offered some food assistance, but after the settlers took more than what they were given, sometimes by force, war resulted. During the winter of 1609–1610, the Indians attempted to starve the English out of their fort and very nearly succeeded.
While the Little Ice Age affected the entire world, leaving significant numbers of people to subsist on little food, its impact on Virginia was particularly sharp. It raised the stakes for both Indians and Europeans, making survival more difficult and conflict more likely.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. The Little Ice Age and Colonial Virginia. (2014, August 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Little_Ice_Age_and_Colonial_Virginia_The.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "The Little Ice Age and Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Aug. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 16, 2013 | Last modified: August 21, 2014
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.