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The Great Colonial Hurricane: One of New England's Strongest Storms Ever

The following is an excerpt from the book "Tropical New England", which was written by me here at New England Storm Center. This book will be released in full on Wednesday, April 26. In this book, you will find the most complete and comprehensive history on tropical cyclones in New England.

On August 25, 1635, one of the most powerful storms in New England history struck. This is also the first hurricane to hit the region in recorded history. This storm struck only fifteen years after Plymoth Plantation was settled.

While the exact track of the hurricane is unknown, estimates on the track have been made based on storm reports collected at the time. The hurricane is believed to have made landfall near the Connecticut-Rhode Island border, with winds of 125-130 mph. The storm likely moved east northeast over central Rhode Island and then across Massachusetts's south shore. The storm then most likely returned to the ocean and paralleled the Maine coastline, remaining offshore.

The storm was first recorded the day before, on August 24, as it passed through Virginia's Jamestown Colony. There were no reports of damage in Jamestown, most likely because the storm moved quickly and stayed to the east of the colony.

Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the time, John Winthrop, kept a journal of his experiences in Boston. Winthrop wrote a lot about the weather. He documented the various seasons in New England and compared them to the seasons in England. He also kept meticulous records on every storm that passed through the region. He wrote the following about the 1635 storm:

“...about midnight [the wind] came up at northeast and blew with such violence, with abundance of rain, that it blew down many hundreds of trees, overthrew some houses, and drove the ships from their anchors.”

Others also wrote about the storm. William Bradford, a Plimoth Plantation historian, had this to say about the storm:

“...such a mighty storm of wind and rain as none living in these parts ever saw…it caused the seas to swell to the south wind of this place above 20 feet. It took off the boarded roof of a house which belonged to this plantation at Monomet, and floated it to another place. It began in the southeast and parted toward the south and east.”

Winthrop's and Bradford's accounts of wind direction provided modern storm analysts with clues about the storm's path. With northeast winds recorded in Boston and southeast winds recorded in Plimoth at the same time, the storm's center passed between these two locations, with the eye passing through or very close to modern-day Cohasset, Massahchusetts.

At least 46 people are believed to have died as a result of this storm. Other accounts of the storm and the damage it caused are similar to the 1938 hurricane, which made landfall in Connecticut as a category three hurricane.

The great debate over the Great Colonial Hurricane

There is much debate about whether or not this event occurred, and if it was as bad as it was described in journals and records. When they hear about it, many people are skeptical. Many people believe that a hurricane of this magnitude cannot strike New England, and they do not trust journals and records from the 1600s. The NOAA has been re-analyzing historic hurricanes that occurred prior to the establishment of the Atlantic Hurricane Database. This is being done to make more accurate records of these early storms. NOAA's Brian Jarvinen conducted the re-analysis of the Great Colonial Hurricane.

He determined that the Great Colonial Hurricane was a strong category three storm, specifically a 3.5. When it passed through southern New England, the pressure ranged from 939 to 941mb. The storm was moving at 40 miles per hour. Storm surge in Rhode Island reached 14 feet and 20 feet in Buzzards Bay. Storm surge was 2-4 feet along the east coast of Massachusetts. He concluded his research by stating that this was most likely the most powerful hurricane in New England history.

Along with extensive records from the time and the hurricane reanalysis project, which confirmed that this was a very intense hurricane, paleotempestology studies have discovered evidence of this storm. Evidence of this hurricane was discovered in sediment at Succotash Marsh in East Matunuck, Rhode Island, and Lower Mystic Lake in Medford, Massachusetts, as stated in the pre-colonial era section. All of this suggests that the Great Colonial Hurricane not only existed, but that it was, indeed, one of the worst in New England history.



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