200 years ago, our ancestors experienced what historians call "the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world" - food in both America and Europe became scarce, resulting in widespread famine and economic crises in many areas.
Agriculture struggled because the normally stable summer temperatures of New England, Central Canada and Western Europe were highly abnormal in 1816. Overall, global temperatures fell significantly and the aforementioned areas experienced frost, snow and cold temperatures during the prime crop-growing months of the years.
The world was already in a long period of global cooling since the 1300's, known by climate historians as "The Little Ice Age." This larger period in history was already causing agricultural trouble for humans and in 1816 the issues were exacerbated to an extreme degree.
Mysterious red fog plagues America
In the spring and summer of 1816, many throughout the eastern United States observed a strange "dry fog" that persistently hung around. The fog dimmed sunlight and bathed everything in a strangely red light - it wasn't moist, and couldn't be dispersed by rainfall or wind.
The price for a bushel of wheat increased over 700% from 1815 to 1816
All throughout New England, temperatures dropped below freezing in May, June, July and August. The grounds froze and the fields were as barren as they were in winter. Towns located at high elevations - where farming was difficult even in good conditions - suffered the most.
Early residents of New England struggled to survive even in good years. In 1816, it was nearly impossible.
Corn was hardly worth harvesting, and many wheat crops were devastated, making bread-products very scarce. This resulted in sky-high prices for food and many from the lower classes risked starvation. For instance, a bushel of oats cost the equivalent of $1.55 today in 1815 but increased to the equivalent of $12.83 today in 1816. That's an increase of over 700%!
An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people emigrated from Vermont, including the family of Joseph Smith.
While the western United States did not suffer, transporting food at this point was very difficult - the country had yet to be linked together by reliable rail transport, forcing most communities to rely on local production for food supplies.
How Joseph Smith and your ancestors were affected
The struggles in New England caused a mass emigration from the area and greatly sped up Westward expansion in the United States. If your family migrated west around this time, it's very possible that they moved due to these agricultural struggles or food shortages.
Western New York and the Northwest Territory (now the Great Lakes region) were very popular destinations for families with ruined land. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people emigrated from Vermont, including the family of a young Joseph Smith.
The Smith family moved to Palmyra, New York, to join other members of their family. It was here that Smith began his path to founding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - in a strange way, this climate disaster played an indirect role in initiating Joseph's journey.
Beautiful sunsets and Frankenstein: Cultural positives
Interestingly, in the same way high levels of air-born pollution today can produce some marvelous sunsets, the mysterious dry fog that covered the land did the same thing. English landscape artist J.M.W. Turner likely drew inspiration for some of his work from the sunsets of this year and elevated landscape painting to prominence through his brilliant paintings, paving the way for Americans like Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School.
The amazing sunsets and sunrises of 1816 likely inspired some of Turners most famous paintings, like this one.J.M.W. Turner, The 'Fighting Temeraire' tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up 1838-39
Elsewhere in Europe, the dreadful weather resulted in the creation of an iconic literary monster. Mary Shelley and her future husband Percy Brysshe Shelley were visiting Lord Byron in Switzerland in the summer of 1816, and the constant rain and cold precipitated a chain of events that led to Shelley writing an initial draft of Frankenstein.
What caused the climate change
Climate historians and climatologists hypothesize that this change was brought on by a massive volcanic eruption in 1815 in the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia). The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora was the biggest the world had seen for 1,300 years and resulted in between 70,000 and 100,000 deaths in the South Pacific due to the immediate effects.
This enormous eruption brought on a volcanic winter (a reduction in global temperatures due to volcanic ash and sulfuric acid in the atmosphere obscuring sunlight) that resulted in the disaster of 1816. In addition, global weather patterns were affected, ushering in wildly different seasonal temperatures:
A 2014 depiction of the 1816 weather patterns by Dr. Nicholas Klingaman at the University of ReadingDr. Nicholas Klingaman, 2014
In tracing your family's journey through time, don't overlook major events like the Year Without a Summer when constructing their story. Understanding this climate phenomenon may give you some explanation for the migration of your ancestors.