affect it. The extent of our northern seas, with the ice which continues
there from year to year, gives to every wind which blows over them an
intense cold. A chain of gigantic mountains spread their snow-capped
58 GENERAL DESCRIPTION
summits throughout the heart of our continent. The winds which blow
over them become deeply surcharged with cold, whose piercing severity is
not diminished until it has extended far down upon our southern sea coast.
Our daily experience attests the truth of this fact.
The climate of Virginia has not been stationary. To trace its character-
istics is to follow the varying passions of the coquette — now enticing by
seductive smiles — and now chilling by capricious frowns. Yet it is the
clime under whose genial influence we have been bred, and we can easily
forget its vicissitudes in the glittering canopy of life and beauty which it
throws around every scene. Those who have dwelt amid the sunny clime
of Italy — -the fierce heat of Spain, and the elastic air of France, can appre-
ciate from the test of comparison, the softness of a Virginian day — and how
splenetic soever we may be, it never has gloom enough to make us "damn:
it as a lord."
Captain John Smith, in his faithful and spirited History of the Colony of
Virginia, makes many allusions to its climate, and Avith a proper allowance
for his zeal in coloring the advantages of a settlement in the colony, we
may receive his statements as the honest opinions of a careful and accurate
" The sommer (says he) is hot as m Spaine, the winter cold as in France
or England. The heate of sommer is in June, July, and August, but com-
monly the cool breezes asswage the vehemency of the h^ate. The chief
of the winter is halfe December, January, February, and halfe March. The
cold is extreme sharpe,. but here the proverbe is true 'that no extreme long
continueth.' Sometimes there are great droughts, other times much raine,.
yet greater necessitie of neither, by reason we see not but that all the raritie
of needful fruites in Europe may be there in great plentie by the industrie of
man." In an earnest appeal to the friends of the colony, he again recom-
mends it for the "mildnesss of the ayre and the fertilitie of the soyle "
This sketch of the colony is studiously silent as to the existence of marsh-
es, though much of the ill health of the first emigrants, may be traced to
them.* In giving an account of the bays, rivers, and brooks, our author
incidentally remarks that "by the rivers are many plain marshes contain-
ing some twenty, some one hundred and some two hundred acres. But lit-
tle of grasse there is but what groweth in low marshes." In the advance of
population and agricultural improvement, these marshes were gradually 're-
duced. Mr. Nathaniel Caussey, who had lived in Virginia with Captain
Smith, states in the year 1627, "that whereas the country was heretofore
held: most intemperate and contagious by many, now they have houses,
lodging, and victuals, and the sun hath power to exhale up the moist vapors
of the earth where they have cut down the woods, which before it could not,
being covered with spreading tops of high trees, they find it much more
healthful thanbefore." Captain Butler, a gallant pioneer of the new world,
and at one time governor of Bermuda, on his return to England from Vir-
ginia in the year 1624, presented to Charles I. a pamphlet entitled, " The
unmasked face of our colony in Virginia as it was in the winter 1622,"
In this work he draws a lamentable picture of the struggles of the infant
colony, and asserts "that the English plantations are generally seated on
marshes, lakes, and infectious bogs, which have subjected the planters to the
* In the reply of Governor Berkeley to the enquiries of the Lords Commissioners
ot Foreign Plantations, in 1671, he states " that all new plantations are for an a^e or two
unhealthy, until they are thoroughly cleared of wood." 2 Hen. Stat, at Large 515
OF VIRGINIA. 59
inconveniences and diseases prevalent in the most unhealthy parts of Eng-
land." This pamphlet excited much hostility against the Virginian Com-
pany, which was artfully fermented by Charles I. who was then secretly
planning the ruin of that noble and patriotic association. Some of the
members of the company who had been in Virginia united in an address to
the public, in which they state "that they had found the air of Virginia to
be as wholesome and the soil for the most part as fertile as in any part of
England." The House of Burgesses in a curious memorial of resentment,
ill humor, and personal sarcasm, pronounced the charges of Capt. Butler to
be false and slanderous, and informed the king "that no bogs have been
seen here, by any that have lived here twice as many years as Capt. Butler
did weeks in the country — the places which he so miscalls being the richest
parts of the earth, if we had a sufficient force to clear their woods and to give
the fresh springs which pass through them a free passage. The soil is gen-
erally rich and restores our trust with abundance. The air is sweet and the
clime healthful, all circumstances considered, to men of sound bodies and
In 1624 the Virginian Company in petitioning parliament for encour-
agement and protection, earnestly recommended the colony "for that tem-
perature of climate which agreed well with the English." Smith often
makes similar comparisons, and it is evident from the writings of our ear-
liest historians, that the climate of Virginia differed but little from that of
England. The immense mass of vegetation which overshadowed the coun-
try, filled it with fogs and vapors, assimilating it to that of England, and
iendering it extremely cold in its winters, and tardy in its summers. It was
less affected by the standard temperature of the sea than England, and was
marked with more striking vicissitudes. The cold winter of 1 607, which
was felt throughout all Europe* was, in the lauguage of Smith, found "as
extreame in Virginia." There were also many unseasonable years, and
others singularly propitious to the agriculture of the country. The year
1610 was long recollected by the epithet of the starving time, while in the
Vear 1619 two crops of rare-ripe corn were made. Among many of the
acts of the House of Burgesses regulating the trade of the country, we find
one which prohibits the exportation of Indian corn " on account of the un-
reasonableness of the last two summers."
As the country was gradually cleared of its forests and undergrowth, the
climate became dry, temperate, and warm. The act of the House of Bur-
gesses of 1705, which directed the capitolto be built at Williamsburg, re-
cites, "that this place hath been found by constant experience to be healthy
and agreeable to the constitutions of this his majesty's colony and domin-
ion, having the natural advantages of a serene and temperate air, and dry
and champaign land." A correspondent to the Royal Philosophical Socie-
ty, who wrote an account of Virginia about this period, says "that the win-
ters are dry and clear — the spring is earlier than that of England. Snow
falls in great quantities, but seldom lies above a day or tAvo, and the frosts,
though quick and sharpe, seldom last long. July and August are sultry
hot, while September is noted for prodigious showers of rain. _ The north
and N. W. winds are either very sharp and piercing, or boisterous and
stormy, and the S. E. and south hazy and sultry."
* In this vear at Paris the beard of Henry IV. was frozen in bed cum regina, Sul-
Jy's Mem. Vol. IV, '26*2.
60 GENERAL DESCRIPTION
From the want of accurate observations, and those careful collections of
meteorological facts which elucidate the character of all climates, our spe-
culations on that of Virginia must be necessarily vague and indefinite, and
for the nicer shades of its changes, we are forced to substitute the broader
features of its outline. Our climate is uniform only in its sudden vicissi-
tudes. Its consistency is impaired by many causes, which have produced
a difference of temperature dependant on the deeply marked geographical
distinctions of our sea board, tide water, valley, and mountainous regions.
My observations have been principally confined to that intermediate country,
between the Chesapeake and the South West Mountains, on the low and
moist lands of the Matapony, in latitude north 38° 6', and about seventy
miles south of Washington City. While I am forced in my examination
of the temperature of other parts of the state, to rely on statements often in-
accurate in their conception and irrelevant in their details.
The standard temperature of every country is regulated by that of the le-
vel of the ocean. According to the researches of Professor Leslie, the
mean temperature at the level of the sea, in our latitude, is between 67°
and 71°, which gradually diminishes from that level, until it reaches the
point of perpetual congelation. Pure air is not heated by the sun's rays
which pass through it. The solar rays must be stopped by the earth, col-
lected and reflected before any heat can be given to the atmosphere. In tak-
ing a standard, we assume the sea, which affords a fairer criterion of uni-
form temperature, than the mean heat of springs and wells. Neither does
the sea retain the extreme of heat or cold which we find in the earth. A
cold wind blowing over this volume of salt water, necessarily cools its sur-
face, which from its increase of specific gravity, sinks and gives place to
an inferior warmer wave. The action of the wind in rippling the surface
of the water, and the influence of tide and currents conspire in bringing
the warmer water to the level of the sea to mitigate the coldness of the
wind: this action continues till the whole water is so far cooled that it be-
comes susceptible of frost. When frozen it is no longer warmed from the
inferior water, but blows on with increased rigor. A warm wind takes a
portion of cold as it passes over the surface of the sea, and becomes reduced
to the mean temperature of that body. The sea breeze so prevalent in Eas-
tern Virginia is cool, as much from the standard heat of the ocean, as from
its rapidity of motion. It is cooler in Virginia than in the West Indies,
and often since the opening of the country, spreads its elastic freshness to
the foot of the South West Mountains, there is a sensible and striking
difference between the temperature of Eastern and Western Virginia. The
former from its vicinity to the sea coast, becomes tempered into°more gen-
tleness; while its earlier vegetation shows the greater power of its soil to
retain heat. In the latter the winters are longer and more severe, yet the
farmer may there admire the wisdom of that providence, which in increas-
ing the rigor of the frost, mellows and crumbles the land for the purposes
of agriculture, Avhile the light soils of the east require no such agency.
In the course of five years, from 1772 to 1777, Mr. Jefferson made many
observations on the temperature at Williamsburg, and having reduced them
to an average for each month in the year, he has given us the results of the
greatest daily heat of the several seasons.* I have before me a series of
careful observations compil ed by that accurate thinker, and accomplished
* Notes on Virginia, Query 7,
scholar, the late David Watson, (of Louisa county,) in a similar period of
five years, from 1823 to 1828. His residence was near the South West
mountains, and in a country comparatively thickly covered with wood. The
result of his observations and those of Mr. Jefferson, making a distance in
time of 52 years, and of southern latitude in favor of Williamsburg, is here
The coolest and warmest parts of the day were separately added, and an
average of the greatest cold and heat of that day was formed. From the
averages of every day in the month, a general average for the whole month
was deduced. In following this mode of analysis, there are many slight
features of discrepancy between the statements of Mr. Jefferson and Mr.
Watson, which considerably impair the correctness of the comparison. Mr.
Watson's thermometer was suspended in a passage, far removed from the
action of fire, in a house constructed of wood; and the calculation of his
table is based on observations made between the hours of 10 A. M. and 3
P. M. Mr. Jefferson is silent as to the situation of his thermometer, while
it appears that he has reckoned from the hours of 8 A. M. to 4 P. M.
The hottest period of these five years, observed by Mr. Watson, was in
July, 1825, when the thermometer on several days rose above 90°, and the
hottest month was in August, 1828. The coldest period was during the
month of January, 1827, and the warmest winter was in 1828-29.
My own observations made during a period of four years, from 1829 to
1834, cannot be calculated for an average temperature. Many days and
even months from my absence from home, were necessarily unnoticed.
Those periods which are recorded differ but little in their particular and
daily results, from those of Mr. Watson ; while I have noticed his singular
omission — the prevalence of the winds, and the "fantastic tricks" with which
our climate so playfully disports. From my observations, I am induced to
place the mean temperature of our climate at 55°; thus varying according
to natural and artificial causes several degrees from the standard tempera-
ture of the sea.
The year 1831 was characterised by many vicissitudes of heat and cold.
On the 27th February the mercury sunk to 7°, while in July and August
it frequently rose to 86° and 94°. The ensuing winters of 1831 and 1832
were uncommonly rigorous, snow fell in great quantities, and in many places
continued on the ground till the 4th of March. Early frost did much inju-
ry to vegetation, while the cold was but slightly removed from the earth
62 GENERAL DESCRIPTION
until late in the ensuing summer. The spring of 1834 was attended by-
severe frosts, which resembled in their destructive character, those which
had rendered the year 1816 proverbial. They committed great devastations
in April, and on the 15th, 16th, and 17th of 'May, the Indian corn on our
low lands, and the leaves of the garden and forest trees were scathed and
blighted to a degree precluding, in many cases, all hope of restoration.
In Virginia the transitions from heat to cold are sudden, and sometimes
to very extreme degrees; often in the day lime the mercury will stand at
94° or 81°, and will fall in the course of a few hours to 60° and 50°. Mr.
Jefferson informs us that the mercury has been known to descend from 92°
to 47° in thirteen hours. I have frequently noted vicissitudes of a similar
kind, and when the change is accompanied by a S. E. wind and rain, the
air becomes cold, raw and disagreeable. We have few summers in which
a fire is not often required. On the 1st of May, 1827, there was a light
fall of snow at Gloucester Court House,* while it is not uncommon to see
slight frosts in August. In our winter the cold weather, though severe, is
short, and the frequent snows of the night are generally removed before the
sunset of the ensuing day. Water in ponds is slowly congealed, and rare-
ly makes ice thick enough for preservation, until it has been chilled by a
fall of snow — again, its production is very rapid; rivers half of a mile in
breadth, will be frozen over in the course of one night, sufficiently firm to
bear men and horses. f In the month of January, 1827, many of those
short yet wide salt streams, which wash the shores of Gloucester county,
were frozen to the extent of thirty or forty feet from the land. This rigo-
rous cold is rarely of much duration. Sustained, and principally created
by north and northeastern winds, it quickly yields to the shifting of the
wind to any other point. Some of our winters are so temperate and mild,
that the cattle can find a support in the woods. Vegetation has been ob-
served in all the winter months, and in the latter part of December diminu-
tive pears, peaches and apples, fully ripened, have been gathered from the
trees. A rose, exposed in an open garden, bloomed throughout the whole
winter of '28 and '29. In this winter the peach tree bloomed in the latter
part of January, and produced in its regular season a plentiful crop of fruit.
Many of our coldest days are succeeded by gentle and moderate evenings;
our severest cold is about the latter part of January, generally commencing
after a hard rain, and continuing on an average about six days, thus realis-
ing the truth of that old Virginian proverb, "that as the day lengthens the
cold strengthens; a rapid thaw, often accompanied with rain and east winds,
then takes place, while warm days and moderate nights soon reduce its se»
verity, and open the way for the premature approach of spring. "Halfe
of March" is no longer winter. Spring has already scattered her vivid
mantle o'er the scene, while the whole air is redolent of life and fragrance.
Yet even its brightness is momentary — an unexpected frost often shows that
the frown of winter still lingers on the land, and we too frequently find a
practical illustration of Shakspeare's metaphor,
" The tyrannous breathings of the north,
Checks all our buds from blowing."
* Dr. Rush in his essay on the climate of Pennsylvania, mentions a fall of snow at
Philadelphia on the night between the 4th and 5th May, 1774.
tMr. Jefferson tells us that in 1776 York river was frozen over at York town, and
in 1780, Chesapeake bay was solid from its head to the mouth of the Potomac. The
cold winters of 1784 and 1814 still live in the recollections of tradition.
OF VIRGINIA. 6 3
It is now stormy, variable and cold ; now calm, gentle and warm, and now
dry, peaceful, and serene. Until the middle of May our climate presents
one incessant tumult of rain and drought, frost and heat; yet a spring uni-
formly cold is far more favorable to our agriculture, than its usual uncertain
temperature for suppressing vegetation, it protects it from the blighting frosts
of March and April. Often during the spring months the weather is ex-
cessively damp, cloudy and hazy. In March, 1833, the sun was obscured
for more than thirteen days, while every thing was chilled into gloomy mel-
The vegetation of this season affords us a criterion of the heat of the
spring, which may be received in aid of the more accurate results derived!
from the thermometer. In the course of four years 1 have found these ave-
rage periods of time suststained by careful observations;'
Peach blooms from March 7 to March 14.
Apple blooms from March 20 to March 29.
Cherry blooms from March 13 to March 17.
Plum blooms from March 26 to March 31.
Strawberry blooms from March 24 to March 31.*
About the latter part of May our summer has commenced : the air be-
comes dry, warm and elastic, and the verdure of the forest assumes a more
deepened hue of vivid green. The superabundant moisture of the earth
acquired during the winter, is now thoroughly evaporated, and the tempera-
ture of the season in dispelling lassitude, invigorates into activity. Sum-
mer burns on with a bright and glowing splendor, alternately relieved by
gentle showers and refreshing breezes. Occasional droughts of many weeks
in duration, parch the luxuriance of the vegetation — they are succeeded by
copious and heavy showers of rain, which quickly restore the withered
prospect. The approach of autumn is marked by heavy fogs in the morn-
ing and evening, which are soon dispelled, leaving that calm and serene
temperature, which gives to this season all the beauty of tranquil repose. In
every season there is a large and constant exhalation from the earth in the
shape of vapor, its volume being proportioned to the heat of the day. We-
do not often observe this exhalation when the heat of the atmosphere differs
in a small degree from that of the earth ; whe* the temperature of the air'
is considerably lower, this vapor so soon as it has arisen is deprived of s
part of its heat, while its watery particles are more closely attracted into
union and become visible in the shape of kg. In the autumn of Virginia^
the heat of the day is sufficient to produce' a large ascent of vapor. Undis-
turbed by currents of wind it easily condenses, and is thickened by calm and
chilling nights into a heavy mist, which in the guise of a cloud finds its
resting place on. the earth. Autumn of all other seasons, is least liable t&
sudden and extreme vicissitudes. -The approach of winter is alike gradual
and uniform, and though we ha?e frequent light snows, the mildness of au-
tumn is rarely wasted away until late in December.
In reasoning from the researches of philosophy, Ave are taught to place
but little reliance on the uncertain narratives of tradition ;■ they, however,
with a slow yet steady advance, acquire respect, and often mould theory into
fact, and fashion opinion into fixed principles. The common belief that our
*■ ■ — — «... in. — — ■■
* At the residence of R. G. Esq. near the Natural Bridge in the valley of Virginia,
these fruit trees in the vear 1834, bloomed at the following periods:
Peach April 1. Plum April 1.
Apple March 30. Strawberry April 15,
64 GENERAL DESCRIPTION
climate has been changed into a milder temperature, has taken most of its
certainty from the statements of our old people, who are uniformly consist-
ent in this particular. The bloom of the orchard trees formerly restrained
by a protracted winter from premature expansion, rarely failed arriving at
the maturity of fruit ; the earth remained covered with snow for many
weeks, and the winter did not, as now, dally with the wantonness of spring.
The marshes, uncleared lands, ponds and lakes, which conspired to absorb
the heat of the earth,* have been almost obliterated or greatly reduced.
There is a lesser quantity of snow, and more of rain, while the frequency
of violent storms of wind in the spring and summer, distinctly prove the
great mass of our local heat, and accumulated electricity.
The winds of Virginia are singularly fickle and capricious, possessing
neither the uniformity or regularity of those which blow at the tropics. Our
prevailing wind is the south west, which assumes, alternately, gentle and
severe characteristics. The frequency of southwestern winds above the
latitudes of the trades, flows as a necessary consequence, from the continu-
ance and direction of the vast currents of air. It moves unconfmed and
unresisted over the sea, until it reaches that unbroken range of mountains,
which towers from one extremity of our continent to the other. It strikes
against them, and from its elasticity rebounds with great velocity, in a direc
tion opposed to the forcing powers of the trades, taking in its oblique move-
ment all those features which mark our southwestern wind.
During the spring the N. E. is the most common wind. The huge mass-
es of snow and ice at the north pole, are gradually melted by the heat of
the sun; great quantities of vapor during this time are exhaled and remain
suspended, augmenting both the weight and bulk of the atmosphere. That
wonderful and mysterious agent, electricity, in dispelling the vapor and
converting it into elastic air,f gives an impetus to that wind which issuing
from the poles, takes a northeastern direction as it advances southerly, (its
■diurnal motion being less than that of the earth,) and falls surcharged with
snow and rain on every portion of our country.
Mr. Jefferson made 3698 observations on the various points from which
our winds blew, noting their changes two or three times in each day. The
prevalence of the S. W. winds, over those from other quarters is thus nu-
merically stated by him-:
South West, 926. North, 409.