[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.

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.