Ask Josh Fitzpatrick: What's Indian Summer?

Do you know where the term exactly came from and what it means? Meteorologist Josh Fitzpatrick has the interesting details!

I received a phone call recently from a viewer named Travis who lives in the Greenup, KY area, wanting me to write about Indian Summer.  He wants to know "why it's called that and when does it usually occur?"

Basically Indian Summer is the first unseasonably warm, quiet, hazy spell of weather after the killing frost or freeze.  It usually occurs in late October or November around here.  Last week we had Indian Summer as temperatures got into the 60s to lower 70s for a few days. 

The term "Indian Summer" dates back to the 18th century in the United States. 

Now we come to the origin of the term itself, "Indian Summer."

Over the years, there has been a considerable amount of interest given to this topic in literature. Probably one of the most intensive studies occurred way back around the turn of the century. A paper by Albert Matthews, written in 1902, made an exhaustive study of the historical usage of the term.

Evidently, the credit for the first usage of the term was mistakenly given to a man by the name of Major Ebenezer Denny, who used it in his "Journal", dated October 13th, 1794. The journal was kept at a town called Le Boeuf, which was near the present day city of Erie, Pennsylvania.

Matthews however, uncovered an earlier usage of the term in 1778 by a Frenchman called St. John de Crevecoeur. It appeared in a letter Crevecoeur wrote dated "German-flats, 17 Janvier, 1778." The following is a translation of a portion of the letter:

"Sometimes the rain is followed by an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian Summer; its characteristics are a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness. Up to this epoch the approaches of winter are doubtful; it arrives about the middle of November, although snows and brief freezes often occur long before that date."

Since the writer says, "it is called the Indian Summer", obviously one could argue that term would have had to been used before him and became popular, but by whom, an earlier explorer or possibly an Indian tribe?

Now, after looking at all of this, the question you might ask yourself is, "Does the term 'Indian Summer' really have anything to do with Indians?" Again, there is host of possibilities.

One explanation of the term "Indian Summer" might be that the early native Indians chose that time of year as their hunting season. This seems reasonable seeing the fall months are still considered the main hunting season for several animals.

Also, the mild and hazy weather encourages the animals out, and the haziness of the air gives the hunter the advantage to sneak up on its prey without being detected. Taking this idea one step further, Indians at that time were known to have set fires to prairie grass, underbrush and woods to accentuate the hazy, smoky conditions. But Albert Matthews pointed out that the Indians also did this at other times of the year.

Other possibilities include; the Indians made use of the dry, hazy weather to attack the whites before the hard winter set in; that this was the season of the Indian harvest; or, that the predominant southwest winds that accompanied the Indian Summer period were regarded by the Indians as a favor or "blessing" from a "god" in the desert Southwest.

Another idea, of a more prejudicial origin, was that possibly the earliest English immigrants equated Indian Summer to "fools" Summer, given the reliability of the resulting weather.

Finally, another hypothesis, not at all in the American Indian "camp" of theories, was put forward by an author by the name of H. E. Ware, who noted that ships at that time traversing the Indian Ocean loaded up their cargo the most during the "Indian Summer", or fair weather season. Several ships actually had an "I.S." on their hull at the load level thought safe during the Indian Summer.

In any event, there are several theories or possibilities of the explanation and origin of the term "Indian Summer", yet no one theory has actually been proven. Given the fact it has been centuries since the term first appeared, it will probably rest with its originators.

Keep those great questions coming! 

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