Lisbon Earthquake 1755

Lisbon_Earthquake_1755[December 1755] Saturd 27.  A Snowy day. I went into Town to see the Boston News Paper, which gives an account of the Terrable Efffects of a Great Earthquake in Spain & Portugail.  The famous City of Lisbourn Destroyed.  Ye Houes all Shaked down but 3.  & Thousands of Pple killed.  The fire on the hearths burnt all ye houses & Rubbish. & Some places Swallowed up &c. 

Here in 2011 we have all been horrified and transfixed by the pictures and videos of the “great earthquake” and Tsunami in Japan that also killed thousands and swallowed up whole towns.  Back in 1755 this kind of terrible news was not immediate, and not visual of course, but it still had the power to shake those far away who read about it, and Joshua, always a news hound, made a point of heading to town to get his news about the tragic earthquake in Lisbon, which destroyed the city by shaking, flooding and fire – very similar to the situation in the towns and cities along the coast of northeastern Japan.  Knowing as we do, the difficulties facing the population of Japan in 2011, we can only imagine the chaos and the fear of those affected in 1755.

The University of California Berkeley’s Earthquake Information Center has a short article on the event that includes this information: “The earthquake began at 9:30 on November 1st, 1755, and was centered in the Atlantic Ocean, about 200 km WSW of Cape St. Vincent. The total duration of shaking lasted ten minutes and was comprised of three distinct jolts. Effects from the earthquake were far reaching. The worst damage occurred in the south-west of Portugal. Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, was the largest and the most important of the cities damaged. Severe shaking was felt in North Africa and there was heavy loss of life in Fez and Mequinez. Moderate damage was done in Algiers and in southwest Spain. Shaking was also felt in France, Switzerland, and Northern Italy. A devastating fire following the earthquake destroyed a large part of Lisbon, and a very strong tsunami caused heavy destruction along the coasts of Portugal, southwest Spain, and western Morocco.”

Joshua and his neighbors and fellow New Englanders were no stranger to local earthquakes as he notes several others in his journal, the earliest in 1727 on November 29. Of that event he wrote: “about 10 Clock at night an Earthquake Shook the houses Continued about 1 minute & half. ye Earthquake was Terrible in Boston Colony as here. An Irruption at Newbuy but a Rumbling noise & trembling of the earth & all things.” Several other smaller earthquakes are mentioned in later years and in each he refers back to the 1727 event, which clearly was memorable and mighty scary for our eighteenth-century New London record keeper. A very good account of this earthquake can be found on the website of the US Geological Survey – including information on the “irruption” at Newburyport, MA, where marshes rose up and dried up forever. This was perhaps an event much like the “liquefaction” that occurred in Christchurch, NZ, as a result of the earthquake there earlier this year.




[Oct. 1754] Saturd 5  fair. I was about home all day fitting up Cask for Cyder.  I Rid out to Crossman Lot to water the Cattle.  Thundr & Lightning in the night & a Storm of wind & Rain.

“Thunder and lightning” are fairly common with rain storms in this part of New England all through the summer and into the fall, as they were in Hempstead’s time.  What has changed is our perception of them.

Well into the eighteenth century, it was the thunder that was assumed to be the dangerous part of the combination.  When you think about an age without our capabilities to measure the transmission of sound and light, this makes sense.  If you have ever had a tree or pole near your house struck by lightning, you know that the noise of the thunder accompanying it is impressive—and simultaneous.  Looked at objectively, it does appear that the thunder is more important, since no harm came earlier from clearly visible lightning.

In the earlier parts of the diary Hempstead refers a couple of times to damage done by thunder and lightning.  When the meetinghouse was struck on August 31, 1735, he records “a Terable Clap of Thunder & Lightning Came Struck ye meeting house in Divers places. . .”  By July of 1743 he had changed the order to record “the malocholy News of the Death of 2 Ladds by Lightning & Thunder & the horse. . .”  And in June of 1745 he records a thunder and lightning storm and says “the Lightning Struck Mr Stewarts Windmill on Townhill & Shattered the Arms & Shafts & ye Toyle & Stares.”

Hempstead had an inquiring and rather scientific mind, but it is doubtful that he actually thought of lightning as causing damage separately from the thunder.  Although he does not use it, the term “thunderbolt” was in common usage well in to the nineteenth century.  And we still generally refer to “thunderstorms” even now that we know what part of the storm we really need to worry about.

Being a modern person (even if I haven’t yet mastered Facebook), when indexing the diary I indexed lightning but not thunder.  I assumed, of course, that lightning had struck the meetinghouse, rather than the “Terable Clap of Thunder. . .” that Hempstead and his contemporaries knew had caused the damage and injuries.

Note:  The first chapter of Richard Cullen Rath’s book, How Early America Sounded (Cornell University Press, 2003), addresses the perception of thunder in the seventeenth century, along with other noises of the natural soundscape.

Mowing Down Assumptions

Mowing Down Assumptions

[July 1719] Thursd 16  fair & hot. . .I Stacked Some hay yt grew before ye door.  Thursd 22 [April 1725]  fair.  In ye morning I Sowed Some white Clover Seed betwixt ye Barberry Bush & Cherry trees. . . . Saturd 11 [August 1739] fair. . . Adam Mowed the Little pasture before the Door & Stacked the oats.

Wednsd 13 [March 1751] fair. . .& aftern I Set out for midletown [from Hartford] & bot 2 qrts of Clover Seed for 40s of one Curtiss near the South Side of Wethersfield. . . Tuesd .26 fair.  in the foren I Sowed the oats att home.  7 Bushells & in the aftern I followed the Harrow & Sowed 2 Quarts of hay seed that I bot of Mr Curtice of Weathersfield Near Midletown uper houses.  Tuesd 2d [July] fair.  I was att home foren & aftern I was out to the Cornfield &c.  Raked ye Clover ye most of itt.  Natt Way Mowed itt ys day.

One of the biggest problems in understanding life in times past is our assumptions.  We all carry around mental pictures of objects and activities based on our experiences, which can include reading and watching videos.  Sometimes these assumptions are valid for earlier times, and sometimes not.

Take hay, for instance.  When I think of hay (before the modern rolled-in-plastic version) I think of large stacks dotted around large, open fields.  The grass that becomes the hay is all the same variety and has all grown to the same length.  The stacks will eventually be transported to barns and stowed in the haymow above the animals’ stalls, ready for use all winter.

The picture is all right, as far as it goes, but as usual the reality was more complex.  The diary entries above show that hay was sown in any available space, and that it was not always the long, straw-like grass we think of.  Both white and purple clover were used, as was grass and salt hay, or marsh hay.  And no one was going to hand weed all those acres of hay, which is why Hempstead notes when he pulled up yellow Blossomed Weeds in Smiths lot [June 1730].  St. John’s wort, or hypericum, is apparently harmful for cattle.  Most flowers and other weeds were just left to be mowed also.

Hay was stored wherever the animals were going to spend the winter, in haymows, sheds, fields, and sometimes (in pressed form) on vessels bound for the West Indies that carried horses.  In all cases except out in the fields it had to be completely dry before being stored, so that it did not spontaneously combust.  And just when you were trying to get your hay in (keeping your fingers crossed it didn’t rain—no weather forecasts), so were your neighbors, leading to a greater than usual shortage of available labor.

Actually, “keeping your fingers crossed” is another assumption.  Perhaps good Congregationalists of Hempstead’s day would have found that a pagan superstition.

March … brot home the mare & colt

March … brot home the mare & colt

FOAL[1]Tuesd Mar .1. . . .wee got home [from his farm in Stonington] Sun about an hour high and wee buried the Child at Sun down. . . . Saturd 5. . . I was at home al Day. Josh brot home the mare & Colt & left the young Horses. . . Mond .7. fair & Cold & windy.  I went to Groton to John Averys to Assist in an arbitration . . . Tuesd 15 it Snowed & Rained most of the Day.  I was at home foren. afternoon helping measure 100 Rod of Land for Dea. fosdick Hills Lot Next Jno Plumb taken by Execution for Charlots Debt.  Wednsd 16 fair & warm.  I was at home al day. foren helping Adm draw S[t]ones. aftern pruning Appletrees.  Thursd 24. . . I was Laying out Commons . . . I am to Receive 7s 4d of Dea Fox.  the Rest are pd & I Recd 2s 6d for Abel Moors part of Dea Fosdick.

Something that fascinates a good many people about Joshua Hempstead’s life is its variety.  One day he’s at court acting as someone’s lawyer, the next he may be surveying or working on the highways.  It’s very different from today’s specialization.

The month of March, 1736/7, gives a representative sample of this range of activities.  In that month, Hempstead:

  •  attended two funerals, one for an infant grandchild
  • worked for Madam Winthrop by making up accounts with a tenant and renewing that lease, and assisting in an arbitration involving tenants
  • spent three days in Norwich at a court
  • performed a marriage
  • spent several days surveying commons and land taken for execution of a debt
  • spent another several days engaged in agricultural work such as pruning apple trees, breaking dung, toppoling a fence, and gathering stones and making part of a wall
  • paid the minister’s “rate,” or tax, for two towns where he owned property
  • held a court of probates one day
  • sold some land and wrote the deed of sale; purchased bass and sent money to Guilford to purchase flax
  • shipped two horses to Long Island
  • received news from London
  • attended meeting every Sunday and recorded the publishments (announcements of marriage intentions)
  • spent several days “at home,” with no further explanation.

What didn’t Hempstead do that month?  Well, he didn’t letter any gravestones, an activity that provided income now and then throughout his adult life.  He didn’t write a will for anyone.  He didn’t hold any justice of the peace courts at his house, although he did perform that marriage, also a justice function.  But overall this month gives a very good picture of the scope and variety of Hempstead’s life.

wee Run the Line & marked Trees

wee Run the Line & marked Trees

Surveying_1 [February 1738] Tuesd 6 fair. I went with Josh to Mr Wm Wheelers & he went with us & wee Run the Line & marked Trees & put heaps of Stones in Every 20 Rod from the Wallnut Tree by Stantons fence the N E Cornner of Fannings 100 Acres & a Side Line of Mr Wheelers (that was Robert Fannings 30 acres.) unto the great White oak on the Hill the S E. Cornner of fannings 100 acres. I sold my old ox to Mr Wheelar for £12 10s 0d & ye other to Stephen Bennet for £11 10s 0d. Wee Lodged at Stephen Bennets. I hear that my old uncle Greenfield Larabee aged 90 Last april Died on Saturday Night last & was buried a Monday.

Winter, of course, was the ideal time to do survey work in the field. With the leaves off the trees, one’s sight line could be much improved. How Hempstead learned the art of surveying is not mentioned in the diary, but he does make reference in 1722 to buying a needle for the compass and the wire to make the surveyor’s chain, these being the two most important pieces of equipment necessary for the task. The chain is made up of 100 links and is equal to 4 rods of 16 ½ feet, for a total of 66 feet. Thus 80 chains would equal one mile. Surveying_2

Of course there are other tools to measure lines and angles in the field, including stakes to mark the end of one chain and the beginning of the next as one surveys a line more the 66 feet in length, and poles to help provide a clear sight line where things are obscured by changes in elevation. People too were necessary, as this is a task which could not be performed alone; there need to be at least two other people to carry the chain while the surveyor stands at the compass to sight down the line. Hempstead usually notes in his diary the assistance of Joshua, his grandson, and sometimes Adam, his slave.

The piece of land being surveyed mentioned in this diary entry is one that Hempstead is familiar with. This is land in Stonington adjacent to Hempstead’s property which boundaries he needed to renegotiate and reestablish in 1720. Being able to measure land is not the only skill required in this process. As Pat Schaefer points out, “All of this activity needed judgment and negotiating ability as well as surveying skills. … there was much back and forth about the terms of ownership and the exact amounts of land involved.”

We have a copy of Geodaesia, the Art of Surveying, printed in London in 1783 in our collection. A researcher trained in surveying read it recently to see if she could identify some practices common to 18th century surveyors. “Not much has changed,” was her judgment, well, that is before GPS.


A Hurrycane

A Hurrycane

[August 1713] Wedensd 19 Rainy. I workt on bord Capt Hutton all day. itt Rained a Little in ye day & att night a violent Storm of Rain & wind. Robt Millers wife died Last night. was buried to day. Thursd 20. A Storm or Hurrycane. I was about home & in town all day. A Hurrycane which blew down Several Building and fruit trees Such as hath not been known. It blasted or withered ye leaves & Like a frost though warm weather.

Hurricane is a word that originated in the Caribbean in the 16th century as Spaniard and Portuguese explorers adopted the Taino word for a violent storm. It came to English directly from the Spanish. With the many connections between New London and the Caribbean it should not be surprising to see Joshua Hempstead using it to describe a violent storm with rain and wind. But he uses it here almost tentatively, perhaps just learning it himself. A couple of years later he actually uses the word hurricane incorrectly, on 12 March 1714/15, describing a storm with high winds and snow. With our modern weather forecasting those of us who live near the east coast are well aware of huricane season from June through November.

storm at sea

I have witnessed the withering of the leaves of trees Hempstead described. Sailing into Nantucket after a hurricane several years ago, I noticed that the leaves on all the trees had turned brown, looked like fall even though it was late August. I learned that it was the salt in the spray blown off the ocean by the wind that had caused this premature autumn.

Hempstead, who was trained as a boat builder, spent more than a month cutting timber and then working on board Capt. Hutton’s boat. On 11 September he writes, “finished almost.”  Then on the 12th, “wnt into Town to make up with Capt Hutton.” And again on the 14th, “I was in Town making up wth Capt Hutton.” On the 16th he writes, “I sold 4 lb hay to Capt Hutton and he hath not paid for itt.” (I suspect “lb” should rightfully be “ld,” shorthand for load.) On the 17th he records, “I was in Town in ye foren. Capt. Hutton Sayled for Barbados in ye aftern.” I expect Hempstead probably got paid for his hay first.

See an index all the Joshua Hempstead Blog postings.