Volcanic Eruption Led To Illinois Statehood

Feb 23, 2015
Originally published on February 23, 2015 5:02 am

What does a volcanic eruption in Indonesia 200 years ago have to do with Illinois?  In addition to killing 100,000 people and eventually leading to cholera outbreaks across the globe, that eruption may have led to Illinois becoming a state.

It was the eruption of Tambora in 1815,  and the plume from the massive volcano spread across the globe causing climate change around world the next few years. Climate change so severe that the northeastern United States experienced two years of crop failures due to the extremely cold temperatures along the eastern seaboard.  1816 was known in folklore as the "Year Without Summer" or "18-hundred and Froze To Death".    

University of Illinois English professor Gillen D'Arcy Wood discusses the impact of the disaster in his book "Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World". It might have created a famine we'd be reading about in history books, if not for Midwestern farmers shipping grain to New England.

"So grain prices skyrocket. Farmers make a bundle out here. It becomes the land of Oz. And you have entire villages in Maine and Vermont picking up, hopping on their wagons and heading out west to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois in order to make their fortunes", says Wood.

The University of Illinois English professor says those people moving west led to Illinois becoming a state when it did.

"Thomas Jefferson himself described the level of westward migration during these years, 1816,1817,1818, as like an avalanche. There was a massive demographic movement westward, really the first in American History."

Wood says from just before the volcano through 1821, six states were added to the union. Most of those can be attributed in part to the westward migration out of the east cost cold.

 If this volcano had such an impact on Illinois statehood why isn't it better known?

David Brady is a local historian in the Springfield area. He says there is not much writing about Illinois history prior to the civil war and Lincoln's assassination. That overshadowed pre-war history.

"Everyone had family who knew someone who fought in the civil war and  Abraham Lincoln was from Illinois, so there was money in it. If you wanted to make money as a writer you wrote books on things you knew people would buy."

And both Lincoln and the Civil war remain best selling topics all these years later.   Now Brady says you can find letters where people talk about the cold weather out east causing people to move to the central United states.     But it wasn't discussed much in history books.   Brady says  attention to issues like an eruption  overseas contributing to Illinois statehood get more attention now because science and history are much more intermingled these days:

"And it seems like more and more science is being injected into history. So they're discovering things now. They are looking at what happened scientifically with climate change and then they're researching and finding that led to movements of people who were starving," Brady said.

There was the panic of 1819, an economic crash linked to the Tambora volcano. All those people who made off well with the high grain prices and had speculated in land saw those prices plummet when things returned to normal and European imports were heading to the east coast. The financial situation forced the state $100,000 at the time to stay solvent.

For Wood there's a lesson from mother nature in all of this.

"When thinking about an event, a major geological-environmental event like Tambora you need to think about causality in sort of an extended way. That thee are consequences both indirect and direct of the eruption, There's kind of domino effect and the American example is a good one", said Wood.

Wood’s interest in the volcano was stoked when he took an atmospheric science class.  He had long studied the early 19th century music and literature and, with the class, found climate change occurring “smack dab” in the Romantic period.  The deadliest volcanic eruption in history ended up spreading both climate and cultural changes across the globe.

The climate change may have led to literary changes as well.   Because of the cooler weather, what was supposed to be summer boating and picnicking for writers Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron.   Wood says they ended up spending much of their Swiss vacation indoors huddled by the fire.  It led to a ghost story contest of sorts for the group.   That is when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and Byron wrote some of his well-known poems at the time as well.

Wood's book is published by Princeton University Press.


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