Pilgrims Botch First Weather Forecast
Centuries before the word “forecast” entered the English language, the Pilgrims made a terrible prediction about the New World’s weather.
by Eric Pinder
The first weather forecast for New England was misleading. The year was 1620 and the Pilgrims had just landed at Plymouth Rock, 40 miles south of the area that would one day be known as Boston. They were expecting a warm, subtropical paradise, much like Spain. What they found was altogether different.
“They had no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies,” colony founder William Bradford wrote in his journal. “What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness?”
Seasickness was one of the many hazards faced by passengers on the Mayflower. Fortunately, waterspouts like these were not. The weather didn’t turn fatal until after the Pilgrims reached Plymouth. Illustration comes from the very useful NOAA photo library, historical archives.
“It was a bad time of year to arrive,” explains curator Steve Angel of historic Plimoth Plantation, a modern museum where actors and historians play the role of Pilgrims in a town-sized replica of the first English settlement in Massachusetts. The actors get to go home at night to warm beds and electric heat. The original Pilgrims weren't so lucky. A series of delays in England, a leaky ship, and poor navigation brought the Pilgrims to the coast of Massachusetts in late autumn, rather than early summer as originally planned.
The colonists weren't worried—yet. “So many of the explorers had come back to England with stories about how warm America was because they were here in the summertime on the coast,” says Angel. “They were talking about how it was paradise. So a lot of the Pilgrims sold their winter clothes and came without any, thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to this beautiful place where you won't have to worry about the weather at all.’ Then they arrived late in the year and had a nasty shock.”
By the end of the first winter, half the colonists had died of hypothermia or starvation—all due to the first botched weather forecast for New England.