As the northeast United States experiences record cold temperatures this winter, I have been reading about how the brutally freezing European winter of 1709 led to the immigration of a number of my ancestors from the southwest area of Germany known as the Palatine region. The surnames of Palatine Germans on both my maternal and paternal family trees include Vosseller (later Vosler), Teeple, Dederick, Jong, and Mancken.
Due to poverty, continuing warfare with France, and local religious conflicts in the early 1700s, large numbers of German laborers were deciding to immigrate to the American colonies, via England. What may have given them the final push to take that huge leap was the winter of 1708 – 1709, which proved to be the coldest winter in the last 500 years. Temperatures well below freezing persisted for about three months straight, leading to massive deaths from cold and famine. The winter was referred to as The Great Frost in England, and Le Grand Hiver in France. Accounts from the period paint a frightening picture, including details such as
- travelers freezing to death on the road
- chicken’s combs freezing and falling off
- trees frozen to the point of “exploding”
- rivers and lakes froze over; even the lagoon of Venice was hard enough to allow Venetians to walk across it
- wolves in Switzerland came down into its villages
- livestock froze to death in their barns
- bread was frozen solid and could only be cut with an axe
- millions of small birds and fresh water fish perished
Even the Duchess of Orlean complained about the cold in the Palace at Versailles. She wrote in a letter,
“I am sitting by a roaring fire, have a screen before the door, which is closed, so that I can sit here with a sable fur piece around my neck and my feet in a bearskin sack and I am still shivering with cold and can barely hold the pen. Never in my life have I seen a winter such as this one.”
The damage wreaked by the deep freeze was felt through the summer of 1709, leading to a famine that killed about one million people across Europe. This natural disaster contributed to the group referred to as the Palatine Germans leaving their homeland in search of a better life in the American colonies. My ancestors were among the families that landed in New York City in 1709 and 1710, then settled for several years along the Hudson River. Some later moved on to Pluckemin in New Jersey, Montgomery County NY, and western Pennsylvania.
So okay – even though we are feeling the cold in 2015, it’s really nothing compared to what Europeans went through in 1709. It was enough to make some leave their ancestral homes and take a big chance on a new life.
- The Apricity: A European Cultural Community, “1709: The year that Europe froze”. 2009
- Under the Hill, “Europe went sudden ice age for 3 months in… 1709”. 2009
- The History of the Great Frost in the Last Winter 1703 and 1708/9 by the Reverend Mr. W. Derham, Rector of Upminster, F.R.S., from Philosophical Transactions 1708-1709 vol. 26, pages 454-478. The Royal Society Publishing. 1708