Thursday, July 18, 2013

Weather in the Time of John Sevier

Thanks to our volunteer, Kristin Brig, who researched and wrote this blog entry for us!

Today, the sun is shining, the clouds are scattered across a silky blue sky, and the weatherman, who predicted rain this morning, turns out to be wrong in his prediction. But we still have a weatherman we can rely on in dangerous weather, just a click away on the living room television. In John Sevier’s time, no weathermen existed in times of danger, no less televisions to issue warnings. Instead, Sevier, like so many other American colonists, personally had to learn the art of predicting weather, colonial style! 

Unlike today, the colonists had only a few weather tools to use for predicting the weather, among them weather vanes and thermometers. Although the first thermometer reached America in 1715 in Philadelphia,[1] people along the frontier usually solely used wind vanes and almanacs.[2] Almanacs attempted to accurately predict the weather through use of temperature and wind direction tables, which helped farmers decide where and when to sow seed and put plants in the ground. Yet colonists along the frontier like Sevier could more easily find out wind direction via wind vanes: “The settlers often found the weather of their new home rather challenging, so they made ample use of weathervanes to predict the weather and improve their farming practices.”[3] In large towns or cities the town hall usually held the wind vane for the town. If not, farmers would own their own wind vanes, as Sevier might have done at Marble Springs.

From entries in his diaries, Sevier probably had neither a thermometer nor an almanac, as he often recorded daily weather patterns but not exact predictions or temperatures. At times, he solely records the day’s weather from his own observations; for example, in March 1799 Sevier writes about the daily weather and nothing else for nine days straight![4] As a farmer, Sevier had to watch the weather closely. As such, he put weather descriptions in his diaries every so often to keep up with the ever-changing frontier weather. Sometimes, it wasn’t even for the farming- he would also remark on the weather during his time as a Congressman in Washington, DC. During his time in DC, many times he focuses more on the weather than visiting with foreign ministers and heads of state! On March 13, 1813, he wrote “Visited the President [Madison]. Cold and windy.”[5]

If you want to see the weather descriptions for yourself (in edition to a few “cures” Sevier had for ailments), you can access his diaries here:

[1] Thomas L. Purvis, Colonial America to 1763 (New York: Facts on File, 1999), 1.
[2] Fae Moller, “Predicting Weather in the Eighteenth Century,”
[3] “History of Weathervanes,”
[4] John Sevier’s Diary, March 1799,
[5] John Sevier’s Diary, March 1813,

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