The Little Ice Age and Colonial Virginia


The Little Ice Age was a climatic period, lasting from about 1300 to 1750, when worldwide temperatures cooled slightly, leading to extreme weather that, in turn, affected the colonizing ventures of Europeans in America. Before their arrival, Europeans assumed America’s climate would match that of lands situated along the same lines of latitude elsewhere. Instead, the New World was both hotter and colder than they expected. And as a result of the Little Ice Age, the weather was marked by wet springs that led to flooding, hot summers that led to long droughts, and particularly cold winters. Scientists disagree over the causes of the Little Ice Age, although an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia has pointed the finger at human activity. Regardless, scientists agree that the effect on weather was pronounced. In January 1607, a massive flood struck southwestern England even as the Thames River was frozen over. Both the areas around Roanoke and Jamestown were suffering from millennial droughts when the colonists arrived demanding food from local Indian populations. The resulting scarcity of food contributed to disease and conflict, both of which ended the venture at Roanoke and threatened the survival of Jamestown.


Universalis Cosmographia

European explorers developed their expectations of Virginia’s climate largely based on its latitude. In the second century AD, the Greek polymath Claudius Ptolemy wrote his eight-volume Guide to Geography (AD 127–155), which mapped the known world along a grid of imaginary lines of latitude and longitude. Ptolemy theorized that lands located along the same line of latitude experience similar climates, and that belief was carried into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, the Italian-born chronicler of Spanish exploration, wrote in his epic history De Orbe Novo (1530) of a land discovered under the auspices of Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón in 1521. It was “situated the same distance from the pole, and under the same parallel as Vandalia in Spain, commonly called Andalusia.” The territory Ayllón claimed for his king was located at about thirty-eight degrees north—the same latitude as the Chesapeake Bay. It turns out, however, that the Spaniard actually had sailed well to the south. But when seeking new funds, he cleverly pushed the location a few degrees of latitude to the north, so that it paralleled Andalucía, a Spanish region rich with pearls, gold and silver, grapes, and olives. Although the king responded enthusiastically, Ayllón never did find the Chesapeake. He died instead on or near the island of Santa Elena, off the coast of present-day South Carolina, in 1526.

A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia

More than half a century later, Thomas Hariot, in A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588), noted with optimism that the site of the Roanoke colony and the Chesapeake Bay, which he had also visited, were located at approximately the same latitudes as Japan, China, Persia, Cyprus, “the South parts of Greece, Italy, and Spaine, and of many other notable and famous countreis.” He assumed his readers would understand the significance of these geographical similarities: the resources available in these parts of the world would now be available for English exploitation.

Hariot’s goal, like Ayllón’s before him, was to sell his masters on the value of the land he described. He testified to “the excellent temperature of the ayre there [in Virginia] at all seasons, much warmer then in England”—London sits at about fifty-one degrees north latitude—”and never so violently hot, as sometimes is under & between the Tropikes, or nere them.” (Englishmen such as Hariot believed that their bodies were adapted to their own particular climates and that there would be a physiological price to pay for living in a tropical climate.) What Hariot and many of his peers strategically failed to mention was that Virginia was both hotter and colder than Ptolemy had led them to expect. “What they were experiencing,” the historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman has written, “was the difference between a maritime climate, seen in countries lying to the east of great oceans, and the continental regime that prevails in lands to their west.” Large bodies of water allow temperatures to remain relatively stable; as a result, the prevailing winds, traveling from west to east, keep the west coast of North America relatively mild. By contrast, large land masses both absorb and give off heat easily, meaning that the winds moving from the west into Virginia often bring with them widely varying temperatures.

Another phenomenon, what climatologists have dubbed the Little Ice Age, exacerbated this effect and had important consequences for colonial Virginia.


Nova Virginiae Tabula

The Little Ice Age refers to a period beginning about AD 1300 and lasting until the middle of the eighteenth century in which the average worldwide temperature may have cooled by as much as 0.1 degrees Celsius. Despite its name, this period “was far from a deep freeze,” the scholar Brian Fagan, writing in 2000, has argued. “Think instead of an irregular seesaw of rapid climatic shifts, driven by complex and still little understood interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean.” Some climate scientists contend that the term “Little Ice Age” is an exaggeration; others dispute the beginning and ending dates. (Historians have suggested that severe weather during the American Civil War may have been an effect of the Little Ice Age.) But nearly all agree that the seventeenth century—when the English founded the Virginia colony at Jamestown—was one of the coldest in the last thousand years.

The cause or causes of this cooling is subject to vigorous debate. Scientists have pointed to the Maunder Minimum, a period between 1645 and 1715 when the number of observed sunspots decreased, indicating a reduced level of solar activity; however, opponents of this theory argue that the resulting decline in solar irradiation was not sufficient to cause the Little Ice Age. During this cooling period, the tilt of the earth’s axis also changed. Such changes may profoundly affect ocean circulation, which, in turn, affects climate. Still other scientists have suggested that volcanic eruptions—such as one in the southern Philippines in 1642—may have had an impact on the cooling, causing chemical reactions in the atmosphere that blocked or redirected sunlight.

Warren F. Ruddiman, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia, has argued that humans may have caused the Little Ice Age. After the previous ice age peaked about 11,000 years ago, the levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere began to decline as oxygen-producing trees replaced ice. This kept temperatures generally cool. But, according to Ruddiman, the levels of carbon dioxide began to increase again about 8,000 years ago, with methane levels following suit about 3,000 years ago. He attributes these changes to human activity. Burning forests to clear land for agriculture, especially in the Americas, produced carbon dioxide, while planting rice paddies in Southeast Asia produced methane. Both of these activities, suggests Ruddiman, contributed to a worldwide warming of temperatures.

This trend shifted, however, in the 1500s, coinciding with the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the introduction of European diseases to native populations. Scholars estimate that between 1492 and 1650, 95 percent of all the inhabitants of the Neotropic ecozone, a region that includes Central and South America, died of disease. As a result, deforestation ceased and oxygen levels in the atmosphere increased, cooling the worldwide temperature by as much as 0.1 degrees Celsius. Many scholars have disagreed with Ruddiman’s assertions, arguing that this human activity was insufficient for such an effect. And even if it were sufficient, the effects of the Industrial Revolution would have caused more than what scientists have calculated as an increase in worldwide temperatures of 0.6 degrees Celsius in the last 150 years.


Plaque Commemorating 1607 Flood

Whatever the cause or causes of the Little Ice Age, scientists and historians agree on its effects: unusually wet springs that caused flooding, hot and dry summers that led to droughts, and particularly cold winters. On January 30, 1607, a massive flood, possibly caused by a tsunami, struck southwestern England, killing as many as 3,000 people. One contemporary account describes a scene in Somerset County in which an infant “was found swimming in a Cradle, some mile or two fro’ ye place where it was knowen to be kept, and so was preserved, for the Cradle was not of wicker as our are here [in London], but of strong thicke bordes, closely jointed together, and that saved the infants life.”

Droughts were the greater problem in America. When Jesuit missionaries, led by the Virginia Indian Don Luís de Velasco (Paquiquineo), arrived on the James River in the autumn of 1570, they encountered dry conditions and hunger. “We find the land of Don Luis in quite another condition than expected,” one of the missionaries wrote, “not because he was at fault in his description of it, but because Our Lord has chastised it with six years of famine and death, which has brought it about that there is much less population than usual.”

Indian Corn

When Thomas Hariot, John White, and the other English colonists landed at Roanoke in 1585, they found a land in the midst of unprecedented drought. The years 1587, 1588, and 1589 were the driest in the previous 800. The “corn began to wither,” Hariot wrote, and the Indians worried that the drought was somehow connected to the arrival of the English. Conditions were just as bad when the English sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in 1607. Tree-ring studies conducted by scientists from the University of Arkansas, who examined a bald cypress near Jamestown, discovered that the colonists arrived at the beginning of a seven-year drought (1606–1612), the driest period in 770 years.

Cold weather, meanwhile, was a constant threat. The Thames River froze over above London Bridge during the winter of 1607–1608, leading to the first of the so-called Frost Fairs, or festivals held on the river. The cold also caused hunger, as a contemporary writer—in an imaginary dialogue between a country man and a city man—reported: “The poor ploughman’s children sit crying and blowing their nails,” the country man says, “as lamentably as the children and servants of your poor artificers. Hunger pinches their cheeks, as deep into the flesh as it doth into yours here. You cry out here, you are undone for coals: and we complain, we shall die for want of wood.”

That winter in Virginia was no less severe. John Smith wrote of a cold so miserable that “a dogge would scarce have indured it.” The colonist Francis Perkins, writing to a friend in England on March 28, 1608, described a cold “so intense that one night the river at our fort froze almost all the way across, although at that point it is as wide again as the one at London. The ice in the river froze some fish which, when we took them out after the ice was melted, were very good.”


The manner of their attire.

The extreme weather wreaked terrible consequences on both the Indians and Europeans in Virginia. As the Spanish Jesuit pointed out, Indian populations decreased during times of drought, likely because of the scarcity of food. Such scarcities also led to conflict—among Indian communities and between the Indians and Europeans. The English at Roanoke had neither the intention nor the ability to feed themselves off the land, and a cold winter and drought conditions led them to place pressure on the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Ossomocomuck to share their already depleted supplies. This, in turn, led to warfare. Indian towns were destroyed and a weroance, or chief, beheaded.

Such interaction also increased the transmission of diseases. Colder weather suits the Anopheles quadrimaculatus, or malaria mosquito, which the Europeans may have spread among the Indian population. Whatever the cause, Thomas Hariot observed “that within a few dayes after our departure from every such Towne about twentie, in some fourtie, and one six score” people would die, “which in trueth was very many in respect of their numbers.”

The same pattern of conflict, scarcity, and death was repeated at Jamestown. The drought contributed to a low water supply for the Englishmen, who had unknowingly located their fort in an ecological zone (oligohaline) where the exchange between fresh and salt water is minimal. According to George Percy, the first men began to die of disease—”Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers”—on August 6, 1607. The Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco offered some food assistance, but after the settlers took more than what they were given, sometimes by force, war resulted. During the winter of 1609–1610, the Indians attempted to starve the English out of their fort and very nearly succeeded.

Quo Fata Ferunt

The upheaval caused by the weather and the English led some Indians to assume that malevolent spiritual forces were to blame. Hariot wrote that some of the Indians of Ossomocomuck, noticing that the English had no women among them and did not die of disease, concluded that they must therefore be “men of an old generation many yeeres past, then risen againe to immortalitie.” The Indians also pointed to a solar eclipse and a comet as possibly being associated with the English and the troubles they brought. The English were no less superstitious, describing the flood of 1607 as “Gods Warning to his people of England,” attributing the storm that wrecked the Sea Venture in 1609 to God’s will, and taking careful note, as did George Percy en route to Virginia in 1607, of “a blazing Starre, and presently a storme.”

While the Little Ice Age affected the entire world, leaving significant numbers of people to subsist on little food, its impact on Virginia was particularly sharp. It raised the stakes for both Indians and Europeans, making survival more difficult and conflict more likely.

  • Fagan, Brian. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300–1850. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. The Jamestown Project. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Ruddiman, William F. Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. The Little Ice Age and Colonial Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/little-ice-age-and-colonial-virginia-the.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "The Little Ice Age and Colonial Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2023, June 08
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