PLANTER PROBLEMS – DROUGHT IN 1761 (September 5/16)

Meteorologists are calling this summer’s dry weather the worst drought in more than a decade – and they’re hinting that with global warming, more dry spells like this are on the way. However, if you look at the historical records, you’ll find this is nothing new; there have been many dry summers here since farming began on the Annapolis Valley floor centuries ago.

In fact, Valley farmers have coped with many intensive droughts since the Planter’s arrived, circa 1760. Of course, there were droughts in the Valley before the Planters came. While there are few or no records to confirm this, drought conditions likely hit the Acadians hard as well.

The first drought, one of the worst to strike the Planters since it came when they were barely settled, occurred in 1761. This is well chronicled – in the provincial archives and in various papers and books dealing with the early Planter period – and we know exactly how it was coped with and the effect it had.

But first, some background. To attract New England settlers to the Valley, Nova Scotia’s governing body (the provincial council) offered free land, free transportation and for some settlers (those less affluent as they put it) free provisions for up to a year. The governing council may have regretted this precedent-setting generosity when in the summer of 1761 a drought paralyzed Planter settlements around the Minas Basin. “A great summer drought blasted the government’s hopes and the settlers’ crops,” writes James Stuart Martell in the thesis he submitted to Dalhousie University in 1933. “There was enough hay …. to supply the needs of the stock, but one story was common for every community around the Minas Basin: the crop of corn was ruined for want of rain.”

Government aid was imperative due to this drought, Martell says. By midsummer, the governing council found it had no choice but to purchase about 3000 bushels of corn to distribute to farmers in Cornwallis, Horton and nearby areas. Then, on top of the drought, early frosts hit the Valley, decimating what little remained of the crops after the summer hot spell. The government now found that the 3000 bushels of free corn it had distributed wouldn’t be enough to get the settlers through the coming winter.

Historical records tell us the settlers made it through that first drought, thanks partly to the distribution of free corn. Originally the government stated that the 3000 bushels of corn was as far as they could go to assist the settlers but the early freeze-up changed everything. Once it was obvious the situation was serious, the government offered to supply more corn on credit – in Martell’s words, to cover the cost of additional corn, the “government decided to make a loan to the settlers.”

Without this aid, the free provisions in the form of corn and a government loan to purchase additional food, the fledgeling settlements in Cornwallis and Horton townships would have been in trouble. The drought of 1761 came close to shutting down attempts to settle land once farmed for generations by the Acadians.

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