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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Wonderful Winter of 1779

By Thomas Jones (1731–1792)

[From History of New York. First published from the MS., edited by E. F. de Lancey, 1879.]

THE WINTER of 1779 was the severest ever known in the middle colonies. It may not be amiss to take some notice of it. The snow began to fall about the 10th of November, and continued almost every day till the middle of the ensuing March. In the woods it lay at least four feet upon a level. It was with the utmost difficulty that the farmers got their wood. The towns in general were distressed for the want of fuel, the garrison in New York particularly so…. All the wood upon New York Island was cut down. The forest trees planted in gardens, in court-yards, in avenues, along lanes, and about the houses of gentlemen by way of ornament, shared the same fate. Quantities of apple trees, peach trees, plum trees, cherry trees, and pear trees were also cut down. The situation of the army and inhabitants in this distressful season was a sufficient justification for the proceeding; necessity required it. This the proprietors well knew, and as necessity has no law, they never complained, grumbled, or even murmured. They were, however, never paid. It was an emolument to the barrack-master. The Crown was charged. John Bull paid his debts.

This winter was intensely cold; the rivers, creeks, harbors, ports, and brooks were all frozen up. The bay of New York, and from thence up the North River to Albany, was mere terra firma. It was equally so in the East River for a long way up the Sound. It was so strong that deserters went upon the ice to Connecticut from Lloyd’s Neck, upon Long Island, the distance more than 12 miles. The Sound at New Haven, which is 30 miles from Long Island, was frozen over, about two miles in the middle excepted, and these two miles were congealed and filled with particles of ice. A particular event is striking. From New York to Staten Island the distance is about ten miles. From Long Island to New Jersey the bay is about six miles wide.

The tide from Sandy Hook to New York, through the Narrows and the bay, is violently rapid. No man living ever before saw this bay frozen up. Yet so intense was the cold this winter, and the bay so hard frozen, that 200 sleighs laden with provisions, with two horses to each, escorted by 200 Light Horse, passed upon the ice from New York to Staten Island in a body. In many places large quantities of water-fowl were picked up by the inhabitants, so frozen as not to be able to take wing. A very remarkable story, if true, was told. I do not aver it as a fact; the report was current, and as the man bore a good character, it was generally believed. He was a substantial farmer upon Staten Island, his name Goosen Adriance. The case was this: He went out in the morning upon his farm, which adjoins the water, and going along the shore he observed a parcel of ducks sitting erect and in their proper posture. Not moving as he approached, it surprised him. He walked up to them, found them stiff, and, as he supposed, perfectly dead; he carried them home, threw them down upon the table in his kitchen, where a large wood fire was burning, and went into the next room to breakfast with his family. Scarce was the breakfast over when a great noise and fluttering was heard in the kitchen. Upon opening the door, how great the surprise! The supposed dead ducks were all flying about the room.

A gentleman who had been a prisoner in Connecticut, and returned from thence the very last of April, said that the snow on the north side of the fences, from Middletown to New Haven, was more than a foot deep. This was never known in that part of America before, at least after the English settled there. The harbors, rivers, and waters about New York were frozen up. Not a ship could move. Had the rebels thought of an attack, now was their time. The ice was strong, hard, and firm. The rebel army, with their heaviest artillery, stores, provisions, and baggage, might have passed the Hudson with as much ease as they could have marched the same distance upon dry land.