Mining Weather and Climate Data from the Diary of a Forty-Niner

  • Jase BernhardtEmail author
Part of the Historical Geography and Geosciences book series (HIGEGE)


Primary sources such as personal diaries can provide insight into weather and climate conditions in times and places where quantitative instrumental observations are unavailable. The diary of Gideon Nichols provides an especially compelling case study of how such sources can be used to determine spatiotemporal patterns in meteorological conditions. Nichols, a farmer in Long Island, New York, elected to venture across the United States in 1849 to partake in the California Gold Rush, remaining there for 2 years before returning home via both oceanic and overland routes. Using content analysis, this chapter undertakes an investigation of his detailed records of weather conditions throughout his travels, as well as his firsthand account of major events such as the Sacramento flood of 1850. His daily recordings are supplemented by regular letters to relatives back home on Long Island, which contain ample details and emotional descriptions of his surroundings and how he experienced them. The result is a unique snapshot of the mid nineteenth century climate of numerous physical geographic regions across North America, along with a novel record of weather conditions during the early stages of the California Gold Rush. Moreover, Gideon’s meticulous attention to detail, especially geographic location, permits the spatial analysis of these patterns, using both a physical geographical approach (e.g., his comparisons of different climate regions) and chronological approach (e.g., tracking extreme weather events over the course of a year). Thus, this ongoing research complements past work by introducing a spatiotemporal component into the human interpretation of weather conditions, and can be replicated using the diaries of other pioneers who regularly observed environmental conditions.


Historical climatology Climate history U.S. Gold Rush Historical GIS 



I am indebted to several individuals for making the work described in this chapter possible. Thank you to Geri Solomon, Hofstra University archivist, for first bringing the transcribed diary to my attention and providing access. I am also grateful to Kristen Aloysius and Jethel Bayawa for their initial analysis of the diary as part of the 2018 Hofstra University Summer Science Research Program. Last, thank you to Deryck Holdsworth for his review of preliminary drafts and valuable feedback, and the editors of this volume for providing useful guidance on the final draft.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Geology, Environment and SustainabilityHofstra UniversityHempsteadUSA

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