You Think This Winter's Bad? Looking At 17th Century Winters

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For a couple of weeks now, it seems as if we're starting every show with news about the snow. Well, of course we are, because winter storms and their aftermath have dominated much of life in New England for the past month.

And that goes for Gov. Charlie Baker, too, who's been dealing with storm cleanup efforts practically since he took office. He made that known over the weekend when he met with FEMA officials to discuss the possibility of a "major disaster declaration," which — if approved by President Obama — would send federal dollars to Massachusetts communities for storm cleanup.

"The federal government has a policy in place where they typically will reimburse up to 75 percent of the costs of snow removal," the governor told reporters Monday. "If you just look at the cost of snow removal from the first snow, here in the Commonwealth, that was north of $80 million if you added up all the state and local spending on snow removal."

We're feeling the cold from our toes to our pocketbooks. But there are a lot of flinty New Englanders out there who just want to say, "Quit your complaining!"

And they have a point. It may be hard for all of us puffy-down-jacket wearing, central heat loving, gas powered snow blower pushing city folk to believe, but winter in New England existed before FEMA. Before synthetic ice melt, before all those smart phones could alert you about canceled commuter trains.

Basically, for centuries, the Native peoples of New England — and the settlers who came later — had to live through winters that were long, dark and hard. How did they do it?


Robert Allison, professor and chair of history at Suffolk University. He tweets @historyofboston.

Darius Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program.


On how the Native peoples of Massachusetts survived winter in their homes:
Darius Coombs:
"We had houses like people have houses today. Normally, the roofing for our houses was on tree bark and in the case of [the] bark you would've seen being used, [it] would've been a lot of elm and chestnut bark. And the frames for these houses were...usually [made] out of cedar, themselves. You want to use cedar because it takes, probably, 15 to 20 years to rot in the ground, but the way you made the houses was pretty much in a round shape. If you took an egg, cut it in half and put it onto a table, that's the shape of a house we would have...A dome-shaped house, yes. So, I've been inside these houses here at the museum, actually in blizzard conditions and in hurricane conditions, and the winds go right around them. It's very aerodynamic, and if you've been in one of our houses here at the museum, the houses will easily get to be 70, 80 degrees with no problem."

On how Native peoples stayed warm outside during winter:
"We have recordings of Europeans seeing Native people outside during the winter, sometimes with no top on, the men. But, what the men would have on their bodies would've been a lot of black bear fat, a lot of goose fat, and what that does is repel the moisture, keeps the cold out and the warm in. For us as a people, we spent most of our life outside, and as you're outside more and more your body will adjust to a certain degree to the weather. Now, that's not to say we didn't wear fur tops, because we did. We had fur tops, but not like how people wear fur coats today. Normally the hair's going against your body, and by wearing hairs against your body, that keeps your body warmer than wearing the hairs out."

On how European settlers first handled New England winter:
Robert Allison:
"My first visit to Plimoth Plantation was on a bitterly cold day in December, I think. The wind was whipping off of Plymouth Bay and the houses were drafty and cold. You were shivering inside the houses, and then we walked to the Wampanoag village and it was beautiful inside these houses, because the Native people knew how to live in this environment and the Europeans came and tried to import a technological standard that they had that really didn't suit this environment. So, they shivered a lot. They had cold, drafty houses with chimneys that really sucked all of the air out and so the Native people had figured this out — it took the English a long time to make the environment adapt to them, which is what they wanted to do."

On what European settlers did to try to generate heat:
"When Benjamin Franklin was christened in 1706, he was born in January, and the family bundled up the baby and took him across the street and into the Old South Meeting House and they had to chip the ice from the Baptismal font — actually it was solid ice — so they could christen him. They didn't have a heat source in the Old South. And, during the British occupation of Boston in 1775 and 1776, the British did cut down just about every tree in the town and also stripped the shingles and shutters and fences because they needed a source of heat, as well as a way to cook. Now, we think it was mean-spiritedness on their part, [but] if we tried to endure a winter without heat here we would also become pretty desperate."

On how Wampanoag social customs were different in winter:
"Well, during the spring, summer and fall months you would see strawberry festivals happen in June, that's the first fruit of the year. You would have green corn festivals — amateur corn in the month of August, you would see harvest festivals happening. But one bit of cold during the winter, you would probably spend more time inside and that's when you have the elders inside telling stories at night. The women, children might be making small baskets, playing with toys. All of the men were probably outside quite a bit because that's the best time to hunt, that's when the fur's the thickest and the meat's the best. And even during the snow, actually, that's the best time to hunt because [it's easier to] track the animals."

This segment aired on February 24, 2015.


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