The soldiers of Andrew Jackson’s army and the Native American families resisting them suffered from bitter cold 200 years ago today as one of the latest spring freezes ever to hit Florida swept across the future Sunshine State.
This article is part of a series commemorating the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Click to read other stories from the series timeline.
The main column of the army was on its way back to St. Marks from the Battle of Old Town on the Suwannee and had camped near Steinhatchee Falls on the afternoon of April 21, 1818. The cold front struck during the night:
…The Spring of 1818 was the coldest that has been known in Florida for many years. On the 22d of April a frost of most destructive kind blighted all the young vegetation along the southern frontier from Mobile to Sahwanne and probably to the Atlantic. It was followed by several days of excessively cold weather in which a large fire, even in the middle of the day, was far from uncomfortable. [I]
The effect of the freeze on the homeless Seminole, Miccosukee and Red Stick Creek people must have been devastating. The army had destroyed their burned their homes, towns and fields and they were starving in the woods and swamps to which they had escaped. The cold increased their misery. Sickness and death likely followed.
The soldiers were better equipped to handle the cold but suffered as well. Sickness was growing in the ranks of the army as the troops suffered from exposure to the elements as well as a diet that consisted largely of parched corn and under-cooked raw pork. Their water came creeks and springs along the line of march, which followed the same route they had taken to reach the Suwannee.
The Freeze of 1818 must have been incredibly severe. Capt. Hugh Young of Jackson’s staff saw its results as the army marched from St. Marks to Pensacola over the next month:
…The effects of this frost, which I noticed on the whole route from the St. Marks to Pensacola were singularly various in situations and appearance. On some of the high grounds, the vegetation was scarcely effected, whilst in places much lower, and apparently sheltered, the frost had the same appearance as the blasting of a fire among the low bushes and shrubs. Even large trees had their small leaves partly withered and the foliage of some young oaks presented a singular motley show of russet and green. [II]
The average low temperatures in communities of the Big Bend region of Florida range from 51 to 58 degrees in April. A frost severe enough to kill back vegetation – including even oak trees – would mean temperatures into the 20s in 1818.
There were no newspapers in Florida at the time but publications in Georgia commented on the weather. The Milledgeville Reflector, for example, reported that “crops of cotton, wheat, corn, &c. which were forward, have sustained much injury from the late frosts.” [III]
The army continued its march 200 years ago today, retracing its route from the Steinhatchee to the vicinity of the Econfina. The bodies of Peter McQueen’s dead warriors likely still littered the battlefield there (please see Battle of the Econfina).
This series will continue.
[I] Captain Hugh Young, “A Topographical Memoir of East and West Florida with Itineraries,” 1819, Records of Reports, July 3, 1812-October 4, 1823, pp. 292-336, Records of the Chief of Engineers.
[III] Milledgeville Reflector, April 27, 1818.