Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780

Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780

Gregory Gann - August 30, 2017

Hurricane: a term likely derived from Spanish’s “huracan.” The Spanish word, in turn, shares roots with Caribbean tribal words for “Big Wind” and similar terms, e.g. “aracan,” “urican,” and “huiranvucan.”

Category Five Hurricane. Violent Typhoon. Very Intense Tropical Cyclone. Super Cyclonic Storm.

Humans differentiate the Earth’s most powerful storms with variable scales according to their location and strength, but each is synonymous with destruction. Following the advent of reliable meteorological records, weather planes, and satellites, contemporary scientists track and predict a storm’s course and strength with remarkable accuracy. Communities in the path of a dangerous storm receive ample warning time. Residents can reinforce their homes, and authorities can order evacuations.

Sure, numerous people choose to ignore the warnings or orders to evacuate, but that is a relatively new choice. Throughout most of human history, rough seas or approaching clouds was the only warning available to those unlucky enough to be caught in a furious storm’s path.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Google is experiencing a surge of “most powerful hurricanes/storms/typhoons” searches. This list, however, is a collection of stories regarding hurricanes throughout sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Recorded observational data does not exist prior to 1492, and many of the following entries rely on European sources.

1494-1502: Christopher Columbus’ Hurricane Experiences

Christopher Columbus laid out the first European account of a hurricane in a letter to Queen Isabella in 1494, stating “nothing but the service of God and the extension of the monarchy should induce him to expose himself to such dangers.” The storm had made a strong impression on the explorer, and when he recognized the approach of a similar storm eight years later, the experience probably saved Columbus’ fleet. The same cannot be said for one of his rivals, Don Nicolas de Oravando.

Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780
Indian Country Today

Despite warnings to avoid Hispaniola, Columbus stopped at the port on June 29, 1502. He hoped to send missives to Spain and trade one of his ships. Shortly before his arrival, Columbus spied a storm that looked suspiciously familiar. He attempted to seek shelter on the southern side of Hispaniola in Santo Domingo. Don Nicolas de Oravando, the local governor, denied Columbus, and his fleet, access to the port, but permitted the explorer to send his letters and personal effects along with an outgoing “treasure fleet.” Columbus warned de Oravando of the storm’s approach, advised him to delay the treasure fleet’s departure, and promptly moved his ships to the island’s west side, interposing the land between his fleet and nature’s incoming fury. Orvando sent the ships anyway.

The hurricane crashed over Hispaniola on June 30, 1502. Wind and rain ripped Columbus’ ships from their anchors, but all of his fleet survived. The treasure fleet, however, had sailed directly into the storm, departing shortly before the hurricane’s arrival. Sources disagree on the size of the fleet, but at least twenty ships (possibly twenty-four or twenty-five) sank outright, either three or four returned to Hispaniola, and one ship successfully made it to Spain. Roughly five hundred of Orvando’s men died, but this was not the worst slap the disaster had in store for the governor.

Prior to Columbus’ departure from Spain, the King and Queen allowed him to appoint an accountant to tally his gold during his final voyage. Columbus chose Alonso Sanchez de Carvajal, an accountant and accomplished sea captain. Acting out of spite, Orvando assigned de Carvajal, and Columbus’ gold, missives, and personal effects, to the Aguja, the most pitiful ship in his fleet. Ironically, the Aguja was the ship that arrived in Spain safely.

Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780
Artist rendering of seventeenth century ships fighting a storm. Pinterest

September 19, 1559: Florida Hurricane Ruins Spanish Settlement

On August 15, 1559, Spanish conquistador Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano landed near present-day Pensacola, establishing one of the earliest European settlements in the continental United States. Building a colony is not an easy task, and unlike other attempts, de Luna was extraordinarily prepared. He arrived with a fleet of eleven to thirteen vessels, two hundred and forty horses, five hundred soldiers, at least one thousand civilians, and ships laden with supplies. Luna immediately dispatched a galleon back to Vera Cruz, carrying news of his safe arrival and a factor to arrange his site’s resupply. Exploration parties moved inland to scout the area, and Luna waited on their return to begin unloading the colony’s supplies. Three weeks later, two scouting parties had not returned, but others reported that the region was sparsely populated, and Luna prepared to unload colony’s supplies.

Luna immediately dispatched a galleon back to Vera Cruz, carrying news of his safe arrival and a factor to arrange his site’s resupply. Exploration parties moved inland to scout the area, and Luna waited on their return to begin unloading the colony’s supplies. Three weeks later, two scouting parties had not returned, but others reported that the region was sparsely populated, and Luna prepared to unload colony’s supplies.

Luna’s caution, however, cost the conquistador dearly. On 19 September, a “great tempest from the north” rolled over the newfound colony, bringing heavy rains and intense wind for twenty-four hours. The storm devastated his fleet, sinking seven of the anchored ships outright, destroying a smaller barque ship sent east to scout the coast, and pushing a caravel “farther ashore than the distance of an arquebus shot.” Luna sent one of remaining ships to Mexico for relief, the Viceroy responded with two relief ships immediately, promising additional supplies in the spring.

Spring of 1560 passed, and the promised ships did not arrive. Bereft of supplies, the colonists traveled inland, hoping to find natives to trade with. The region’s low population doomed their attempt, and the survivors returned to Pensacola Bay in November. Tensions between Luna, his officers, and the remaining colonists escalated throughout this time, and messages demanding Luna’s removal accompanied one of his last ships to Mexico.

The Viceroy’s ships finally arrived in April of 1561. They carried both Luna’s gubernatorial replacement and an offer to evacuate any who wished to leave. Most chose to depart; their dreams having been shattered a year and a half before by a massive storm. Only fifty soldiers remained behind, and their departure in August brought one of the most well-prepared colonization attempts to an end.

You May Also Interested: Archaeologists Explore Wreck Off Florida

Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780
French warship foundering in a storm. Pinterest

September 22, 1565: San Mateo Hurricane

In 1564, the French established a small base at Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, an event that did not escape the Spanish’s notice. Located on Florida’s east coast, the colony was in a perfect position to stage raids on Spanish treasure fleets returning to Europe. The French, of course, loved the idea. The Spanish, unsurprisingly, hated it, and the race was on. The colony struggled through its first year, but survived the waves of starvation, native attacks, and at least one mutiny.

Reinforcements, and desperately needed supplies, arrived the following summer under the command of the French Explorer Jean Ribault. Armed with a large fleet, Ribault brought hundreds of soldiers and settlers to the colony. The recently appointed Spanish Governor of Florida, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, arrived with his own fleet within days of Ribault’s landing. Ordered to remove the French outpost, Menéndez moved against the colony immediately. A brief skirmish followed, and Menéndez retreated thirty-five miles south, where his ships landed and founded St. Augustine.

Each side prepared to attack the other. Menéndez decided to attack over land, and marched his forces north. Ribault launched a naval assault, loading most of the colony’s soldiers onto his ships. Prior to Ribault’s departure, his senior aide pointed out the assault left Fort Carolina vastly understrength and warned the explorer that he believed a powerful storm approached. Ribault ignored his aide. Two days later a hurricane swept over the fleet. All of his ships either sank or ran aground south of St. Augustine, and most of the sailors and soldiers died at sea. Left with few options, Ribault gathered his remaining men and marched northwards.

Unlike Ribault’s assault, Menéndez’s attack was a complete success. While the hurricane crushed Ribault’s fleet, Menéndez led a surprise dawn attack on Fort Carolina. The French defenders, numbering roughly 200 to 250, quickly succumbed to the superior Spanish forces. Menéndez executed most of the survivors, sparing about fifty women and children. Victorious, Menéndez marched south, located Ribault and his survivors, and ordered them to surrender. His glorious dreams destroyed by a storm, and believing his men would be well treated, Ribault agreed. Menéndez accepted Ribault’s surrender and executed the French explorer along with most of his surviving men. News of the massacre shocked France, and public enthusiasm for control over Florida waned. Thus, a hurricane, coupled with the bloodthirst of a colonial governor, ended French ambitions in Florida.

Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780
Bermuda Coat of Arms, immortalizing the Sea Venture. Wikipedia

June-August, 1609: Colonization of Bermuda

On June 2, 1609, a seven-ship British fleet departed London carrying 600 passengers and supplies destined for the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. This was the maiden voyage of the fleet’s flagship, Sea Venture, England’s first large, purpose-designed, emigrant ship (A large, brand new ship departs England for its maiden voyage to America. If that isn’t foreshadowing, what is?). The Sea Venture carried several notable passengers, namely, the new governor of Jamestown, Sir Thomas Gates, the admiral of the Virginia Company, Sir George Somers, and the writer, William Strachey.

Two months into the fleet’s, mostly unremarkable, journey, a hurricane washed over the fleet. The storm separated the ships, but six of them arrived at Jamestown throughout the following week. The Sea Venture, however, was not one of them. Blow off course during the storm, the ship appears to have been caught in the maelstrom for a full day. According to William Strachey, the Sea Venture weathered the storm surprisingly well at first. Strachey’s optimism vanished quickly. The new ship had a critical flaw. The timbers had not set thoroughly, and the rough seas forced their caulking out.

The storm finally passed, but the Sea Venture‘s leaks picked up speed. Crew and passengers bailed feverishly, the Admiral jettisoned the starboard guns… and that’s when a second hurricane rolled over the beleaguered ship. Admiral Somers manned the helm throughout the storm, and Strachey wrote, “For four-and-twenty hours the storm in a restless tumult had blown so exceedingly as we could not apprehend in our imaginations any possibility of greater violence…the waters like whole rivers did flood the air…winds and seas were as mad as fury and rage could make them.”

Two days later, water had risen by nine feet in the ship’s hold. Crew and passengers could not bail faster than the Sea Venture leaked. On 28 July, lookouts spotted a rocky coast surrounded by protruding coral reefs. Knowing the ship would soon sink, Admiral Somers deliberately rammed the Sea Venture aground onto a reef. The ship “fell in between two rocks,” and, somehow, all of the passengers and crew evacuated to the nearby island. The land was surprisingly fruitful, and over the next nine months, the marooned settlers and sailors built two new ships, the Deliverance and the Patience. Each of these ships reached Jamestown in 1610, but several passengers chose to stay behind. This marked the beginning of the colonization of the Bermuda Isles.

Eventually, William Strachey returned to England where he shared his written experiences with his friends, one of whom was William Shakespeare. Most Shakespearean scholars believe Strachey’s account of the incident is the source for Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780
Track of the Great Colonial hurricane of 26 August 1635. Wikipedia

August 24, 1635: The Great Colonial Hurricane

The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 hit the Jamestown Settlement and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Scholars believe it was the first hurricanes to have struck the New England colony, occurring fifteen years after the founding of the Plymouth Colony. Although the hurricane’s exact track is unknown, several eyewitness accounts describe the storm.

First sighted on August 24, 1635, witnesses in the Jamestown Colony noted the massive storm as it grazed their colony, and moved rapidly to the northeast. Several days later, the hurricane made landfall near Narragansett, Rhode Island in the early morning, where it produced twenty-foot storm surges, toppled hundreds of trees, and destroyed homes. William Bradford, who lived in Plymouth Plantation, stated the hurricane “was such a mighty storm of wind and rain as none living in these parts, ever saw… It caused the sea to swell to the southward above 20 feet right up and down…” An estimated forty-six people died, including seventeen Native Americans, the storm swept into Narragansett Bay’s rising tides.

The storm arrived in Boston near midnight, blanketing the sea surrounding the region, and catching a small ship in its fury. Prior to the storm’s arrival, twenty-one Puritan settlers, including Anthony Thacher, his cousin Avery, their families, and friends, boarded a small ship in Ipswich, which was bound for Marblehead. It was a short journey, but the hurricane caught the ship near the city of Gloucester. The sailors attempted to drop anchor and ride out the storm. The anchor, however, was no match for the intensity of the hurricane’s winds and rough seas. The storm tossed the ship about until smashing it against the rocks of a small offshore island. The hurricane swept the sailors away, and Thacher and his family clung to the rocks as the remains of the ship washed into the ocean.

Thacher later wrote that he said to cousin, “I am willing and ready here to die with you and my poor children. God be merciful to us and receive us to himself!” The waves continued to pound at the desperate survivors, but the powerful swells ripped the families from the rocks and washed them into the sea. The current carried Thacher and his wife to the island, but no one else survived. The small island still bears the name “Thacher’s Island” in memory of the disaster.

Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780
Satellite image of dual tropical cyclones. Pinterest

September 6, 1667: The Dreadful Hurricane of 1667

First sighted off the Lesser Antilles on September 1, 1667, the “Dreadful Hurricane of 1667” remains one of the most devastating storms in Virginia’s history. The hurricane moved through the Outer Banks of North Carolina on September 6th, and made landfall just outside of the Jamestown Colony. The massive storm lashed at the colony for twenty-four hours, and violent winds ripped through the settler’s homes, farms, and livestock. Unfortunately for the colony, this was only the first stage of their disaster.

Colonial Secretary Thomas Ludwell wrote to Virginia Governor Lord William Berkeley stating, “It was accompanied with a most violent rain but no thunder. The night of it was the most dismal time I ever knew or heard of, for the wind and rain raised so confused a noise, mixed with the continued cracks of failing houses…..The waves were impetuously beaten against the shores and by that violence forced and as it was crowded into all creeks, rivers and bays to that prodigious height that it hazarded the drowning of many people who lived not in sight of the rivers, yet were then forced to climb to the top of their houses to keep themselves above water.” The secretary estimated the storm destroyed 10,000 homes, and the crops, the lifeblood of the colony, sustained severe damage.

Coupling the battered the colony’s woes was the rain that followed. The hurricane passed, but heavy rains continued for another twelve days and nights. Scholars suspect a second hurricane, stalled near the coastline, deluged the colony in the aftermath of the first storm, and Secretary Ludwell wrote that the colony was “reduced to a very miserable condition.”

The sustained, intense, rainfall devastated the colony’s remaining crops, and records show that Jamestown produced less than one-quarter of the previous year’s harvest.

Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780
Artist rendering of a 17th century ship in stormy seas. Pinterest

September 14, 1700: The Rising Sun Hurricane

The Rising Sun Hurricane of 1700 struck Charleston, South Carolina in early September. Typical of a powerful hurricane making landfall, the storm cut a swath of devastation through the region. This hurricane, however, is best remembered for the eyewitness account detailing the destruction of the storm’s namesake: the Scottish warship, Rising Sun.

The Rising Sun was on a return trip to Scotland. The passengers were the remnants of a failed Scottish colony at Darien (modern-day Panama). The ship ran afoul of a powerful storm, and probable hurricane, while sailing through the Gulf of Mexico. The fierce weather dismasted the Rising Sun, and the ship limped northward, seeking a port to repair the damage.

On the morning of September 3, the Rising Sun arrived outside of Charleston Bay, but an underwater sandbar prevented the heavy warship from entering. The Captain dropped anchor, set the crew to lighten the ship, and allowed a few passengers to go ashore in a small boat. The hurricane arrived on the ship’s heels.

Edward Hyrne, resident of Charleston, detailed the events that followed in a letter to his wife. Safe in a home overlooking the bay, Hyrne watched as the storm wreaked havoc among the ships throughout the bay, writing, “the greatest mischief fell amongst the shipping, of which about a dozen sail of all sorts were riding at anchor before the town, some of which were driven on shore and broke all in pieces, some were carried a great way up into the marshes and one (a brigantine of about 80 tons) driven clear over the point of land which parts two rivers into Ashley River, in her way breaking down a pair of gallows (from which eight pirates at once were hanged since my coming here).”

The fate of the Rising Sun, in particular, caught Hyrne’s eye, and he noted, “The greatest and most deplorable loss of all was that of a great Scotch ship called the Rising Sun, which … was riding at anchor [outside the] bar, with design to come in here and refit…. The storm rose and she foundered at anchor, the captain and all the Scots on board, is about 100, miserably perishing.” The hurricane had thrust the warship up onto the beach, slammed it into pieces, and the entirety of the Rising Sun‘s passengers and crew swept out to sea where they drowned.

Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780
Areas affected by Great Hurricane (excluding Bermuda). Wikipedia

October 19, 1749: The Coastal Hurricane of 1749

On October 19, 1749, one of the most powerful hurricanes in recorded history smashed into the coast of Virginia. Although the exact size of the storm is unknown, residents in New York and Rhode Island recorded an immense uptick in local winds, and scholars suspect this system was a class four hurricane. Unlike most devastating Atlantic storms, this hurricane’s story ends on a positive note.

The storm made landfall throughout the Chesapeake Bay between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm. Survivor’s recorded harrowing accounts of the storm’s intensity. A family in Williamsburg drowned when the furious rains unleashed a flood that washed their home away. Hampton residents wrote that water rose to four feet in the city streets, and described forests of uprooted, broken, trees. Waterfront buildings throughout the Bay area washed into the ocean when the sea rose fifteen feet.

James Barron, the future Commodore of the Virginia State Navy, recorded a detailed description of the storm’s fury, and an astonishing sight following its passage. Stationed at Fort George, Barron wrote, “One could hear the sand picked up by the wind from the beach outside and blasted against every object that still withstood the gale.” And, “Shortly afterwards the seawall lurched and sank at the point where it was exposed to the wave fury of the storm. Finally the outside wall of the fort gave way, and the filling of sand poured out, leaving the inner wall exposed to the blast without support.”

The storm passed before the fort disintegrated, and the following morning, Barron finally understood what raging winds of sand created. A massive sand spit rose out of the ocean, one built up by numerous storms throughout the years that followed, and is known today as the Willoughby Spit, a resort neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia.

Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780
Artist rendering of colonial hurricane destruction. Pinterest

Great Hurricane of 1752 and the Second Hurricane of 1752

If you’ve ever wondered whether the universe hates you, rest assured that you’re not alone. Everyone residing in Charleston throughout September of 1752 probably felt the same way. Of course, being ravaged by two hurricanes in the same month probably gives Charleston a stronger case.

September 14, 1752 – First Hurricane of 1752

On the evening of September 14, violent gusts of wind blew into Charleston, buffeting the city throughout the night. Residents claimed the dawn showed a ‘suddenly overcast’ sky, followed by drizzle, and then rain. The powerful gusts of wind strengthened until their ‘violence was so great that no person could stand against it without support.’ As mid-morning approached, the sea surged in through the bay ‘like a bore’, flooding the harbor area in moments, and smashing ships, sloops, and schooners into the homes along Bay Street.

Cattle and hogs drowned in the suddenly flooded streets, and the storm drove a nearly arrived ship across the bay, and into the marshes near James Island. Residents eventually dug a ‘channel a hundred yards long, thirty-five feet wide and six feet deep’ to drag the ship back into the sea. A wooden house on Sullivan’s Island was ‘carried six miles up the Cooper river.’ Witnesses stated the floodwaters reached ten feet above the harbor high-water mark as it poured into the surrounding homes.

September 30, 1752 – Second Hurricane of 1752

Two weeks later, the city’s rebuilding efforts steamed ahead. Residents cleared the wrecked ships, repaired homes, and struggled to overcome their losses. The storm’s chaos was fading, and order was taking shape in its wake. That, of course, is when the second hurricane roared through Charleston.

This hurricane was not as powerful as the first, but what the storm lacked in strength, it more than made up in speed. It raced through Charleston in only a few hours, ruining many of precious remaining crops, killing livestock, and smashing the Onslow County courthouse (along with its records) as it headed northward. This devastated the year’s already weakened harvest, and winter was fast approaching. Officials clamped down on exports, “corn, pease and small rice,” to ensure the city’s survival. The colony produced 82,000 barrels of rice in 1752, but following the dual hurricanes, the city’s records show that only 37,000 survived the storms.

Mother Nature’s Fury: 10 Devastating Historical Hurricanes, 1502-1780
Known tracks of the 1780 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Wikipedia

The Extraordinarily Destructive 1780 Hurricane Season

1780 is less about stories of death and survival and more about mother nature hating on humans. This is one of the most active, and destructive, hurricane seasons on record. Between the months of June and October, no less than five hurricanes made landfall throughout the United States and Caribbean islands.

June 13, 1780: St. Lucia Hurricane

On June 13, a hurricane swept over through the Caribbean, striking St. Lucia, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The storm caused “deaths and losses” in Puerto Rico, killing roughly 4,000 to 5,000 people, and an unknown number at St. Lucia and the Dominican Republic.

August 24, 1780: New Orleans Hurricane

In late August, a massive hurricane rolled over New Orleans, Louisiana. Boasting wind gusts estimated between 160 and 180 miles per hour, New Orleans resident Count de Lafrenière recorded that the storm destroyed nearly every building on Grand Isle, La., damaged the Crescent City, ruined crops, induced flooding, and spun off tornadoes. The storm killed at least twenty-five people.

October 1-3: Savanna-la-Mar Hurricane

This hurricane started off by sinking a British transport ship, the Monarch, killing several hundred Spanish prisoners and the ship’s crew, on its way to Jamaica. On October 3rd, the storm crashed into the Jamaican port Savanna-la-Mar, utterly destroying the city. Numerous witnesses gathered near the coast to watch the destruction, and they had a close-up view of the twenty-foot storm surge that swept in unexpectedly, engulfing the onlookers, docked ships, and many of the town’s buildings. In the nearby village Lucea, 400 people perished, with 360 more in the town of Montego Bay. The hurricane went on to ravage Cuba and the Bahamas, before heading out to sea. Estimates place the storm’s death toll around 1,100.

October 10, 1780: The San Calixto Hurricane

The storms of 1780 seemed to enjoy teaching humanity a lesson in humility, but none more so than the San Calixto Hurricane. Scholars suspect that its winds exceeded 200 mph as it passed over Barbados, Martinique, and St. Lucia, where it flattened nearly every building, and killed at least 19,500 people. The storm lashed at Puerto Rico’s coastlines, crossed over the eastern regions of the Dominican Republic, before it finally turned to the northeast, and into the middle of the Atlantic. Throughout the Lesser Antilles Islands, the total death toll is estimated at 27,500; the deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record.

October 18-21: Solano’s Hurricane

Apparently, 1780 hurricanes hated European Naval fleets. Rough waves and storm surge decimated the British fleet at St. Lucia. Forty French ships capsized at Martinique during the San Calixto Hurricane. This hurricane, however, was equal opportunity and sought out a Spanish war fleet enroute to attack Pensacola. Commanded by José Solano, the fleet of sixty-four vessels was caught by a fast-moving storm from behind. The hurricane crossed over western Cuba, captured Solano’s fleet, and proceeded northward toward the Florida panhandle. Solano’s ships had 4,000 men aboard, but only 2,000 survived.