The arrival of U.S. ships in Apalachicola Bay was not the only worry affecting life at Prospect Bluff in July 1816.
Strange weather conditions had descended across much of the Northern Hemisphere, the result of a volcanic explosion thousands of miles away from Prospect Bluff in the Pacific Ocean.
This post is part of a continuing series marking the 200th anniversary of the U.S. campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff (or “Negro Fort”). You can access other articles in the series at the bottom of this page.
The seven-year time span from 1811-1818 was one of remarkable natural phenomena. The series of bizarre events began with the arrival of the Comet of 1811. Its was thought to hold great mystical significance by many whites, blacks and Native Americans. The comet figures prominently in the Tecumseh legend as 19th century white writers claimed that he warned the Creeks to watch for his “arm of fire” in the sky after they rebuffed him at their annual council.
The “arm of fire” legend is just that, a legend, since the Comet of 1811 was visible in the Southeast well ahead of Tecumseh’s speech to the Creek Council at Tuckabatchee.
The comet was followed by the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812. These massive quakes are believed to be the largest in American history. Although centered near New Madrid, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, they were felt as far away as New York, Washington, Savannah, St. Augustine and New Orleans.
The third phenomenon in this unusual natural trilogy was the arrival of the three-year time period widely remembered today as the “Year without a Summer.” It was the cold and gloomy summer of 1816 that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.
The Year without a Summer brought unusual extremes of both hot and cool temperatures to the Apalachicola River region just as the African-American settlement at Prospect Bluff was entering its second year of being self-sufficient. The pattern started in the spring and summer of 1816 and continued through the spring and summer of 1818.
Reports from across the eastern United States in 1816 indicate that an unusual reddish “dry fog” dimmed the light of the sun itself. Snow continued in New England well into June, wiping out crops and causing widespread hunger and misery. River ice occurred as late as July in Pennsylvania while frost was reported throughout August in Virginia. Cold easterly winds swept across the rest of the South, forcing residents to huddle by their fires at times while the temperature would soar above normal at others. The “dry fog” remained despite wind and rain.
The cause was the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora on May 5-15, 1815. Ash from the volcano poured into the atmosphere and spread across the Northern Hemisphere. The light and heat of the sun were blocked sufficiently to cause average world temperatures to drop by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit (or more).
It is difficult to assess the impact of the unusual weather on the Fort at Prospect Bluff and its inhabitants. Newspapers in Georgia describe times of drought and extreme heat interspersed with deluges of rain and cool temperatures during June and July of 1816. Late frosts were reported in both Georgia and Florida until at least 1818, when eyewitnesses described frost-damaged vegetation along the Gulf Coast in April and May.
These late frosts certainly impacted the corn crops not only at Prospect Bluff but in the Creek and Seminole villages of the region as well. The degree to which such crop failures contributed to a migration of some of the bluff’s population to the Suwannee River and South Florida during the spring and early summer of 1816 cannot be determined. All that can be said is that such a migration did take place and that historians have generally not considered weather conditions as a possible cause.
It should be noted, however, that U.S. officials did not capture of large stocks of provisions in the fort after its destruction in late July of 1816. This clearly indicates that food was scarce for the residents of Prospect Bluff even after the normal time for corn to ripen. Food shortages at the bluff may have been responsible for rumors that Garcon and other leaders planned to completely evacuate the position in favor of a new location down the Florida peninsula.
They either changed their minds or didn’t have time to carry out this evacuation, but the population at Prospect Bluff greatly decreased during the spring and early summer.
This reduction greatly impacted efforts to defend the large fortifications there during the American attack. Women and probably even children had to take part in the fighting.
Whatever its effect on the Apalachicola River region during the summer of 1816, the red fog of the Year without a Summer was certainly a foreboding symbol of the disaster that would soon envelope Prospect Bluff.
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July 14, 1816: The Defenses of Prospect Bluff