On August 25, 1635 the colonies in New England were struck by what was one of the strongest hurricanes ever to make landfall in New England. It is quite possible that it is the strongest hurricane to hit that far north, period. It is generally considered to be the first hurricane to actually be recorded in North America. Surprisingly, there are numerous detailed accounts of this event that survived and give us a glimpse at the early colonists’ first encounter with an historic east coast hurricane.
The leaders of the Jamestown colony in Virginia wrote about the storm a day or two prior to its arrival at Plymouth. There aren’t any accounts of damage in that area, so it is believed that the hurricane passed far enough to the east to spare Jamestown. They were probably just off the western fringe and saw maybe some outer bands; this was noted as just a big storm in their journals. Had it been more of a hit, it undoubtedly would have been noted differently.
This is 14 years after the settlers first landed in the Plymouth area. We have all read about or seen the movies about the early days of the colony. During these 14 years, more people were arriving and the colonists were branching out and trying to establish new towns and settlements. This means that we have accounts of this hurricane and its effects throughout coastal New England from a few different perspectives. We know it was moving extremely fast. It brought very strong winds and torrential rain. The storm surge was unbelievable on the southern facing coastlines, likely 15-20 feet. The waves along the coast were huge, and compounded with the storm surge caused a very dangerous situation for mariners.
The storm sunk and damaged many vessels. Homes were destroyed by the winds. Crops and livestock were lost. Trade goods and supplies were swept away or sunk with the ships. There were fatalities among the colonists as well as the native population. There was an account of several members of a coastal tribe drowning in the storm surge while fleeing their homes; others were reported to have climbed trees to escape the waters. Two large colonial families was caught trying to ride out the storm on a small boat. The entire group of men, women, and children were lost with the exception of two survivors. It was a very intense hurricane and it just unleashed on these people who weren’t familiar with or prepared for such a storm.
The NHC did a reconstruction of this hurricane and came up with the best estimate of all the details. This hurricane happened before the invention of the barometer and there were no measurements of any kind available from 1635. Everything we know is from the perspective of early 17th century settlers; their accounts of pretty much anything are surprisingly objective and clearly stated. These people were not generally given to hyperbole or exaggeration. This storm is believed to have originated as a Cape Verde storm. It was probably a category 4 or 5 prior to gaining latitude. It arrived in New England as a category 3, with estimated sustained 130 mph winds. It was moving very quickly, with an estimated speed of approximately 35 mph. The only hurricane to even compare it to is the 1938 New England hurricane, and it is believed that the colonial hurricane was slightly more intense.
The European settlers would have been completely unprepared and ill equipped to predict or recognize what was happening. There were probably a very few sailors or adventurers who might have been familiar with hurricanes in the colonies at that time. However, the majority were farmers or tradesmen from rural England. A hurricane is not something they would have encountered previously and this would have taken them completely by surprise with its arrival and effects. The violence of a strong hurricane is one of the scariest things to go through now, with modern structures and technology. I can only imagine what it would be like trying to get through it while sitting in a small building made of earth and wood. The local native tribes were undoubtedly familiar with coastal storms, so they probably knew a storm of some kind was on the way at some point. But a category 3 hurricane just isn’t common that far north, so even the locals were surely caught off guard by the strength of this storm.
Like most historical weather, this can be seen as an indicator of what we can expect in the future. This storm occurred during the earliest days of colonialization; there simply weren’t that many people or very much infrastructure at that time. While undoubtedly devastating and terrifying for those who had to endure it, a hurricane of similar intensity would obviously be exponentially more destructive were it to happen now. The 1938 hurricane was pretty similar and that storm was very deadly and costly. A slight shift in track and a storm like this could wreak havoc on several extremely vulnerable and highly populated cities. There will always be a storm that will rewrite the record books sooner or later. Thankfully, we won’t ever have to endure storms like the earliest European settlers did - basically exposed to the elements. Still, a hurricane this strong or stronger would be absolutely devastating for such a densely populated part of the country.