Each year, an average of two hurricanes strike the United States, leaving death and destruction in their wake. According to Eric Jay Dolin, author of Furious skies: the five hundred year history of American hurricanes, these severe storms have caused billions of dollars in property damage and killed nearly 30,000 people since the late 1800s.
In addition to the scars they left on the landscape and the countless lives they affected, hurricanes also altered the vast cycle of history, including in these five unexpected ways.
1. A hurricane prevented Florida from becoming a French colony.
More than a year before Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded the Spanish colony of Saint-Augustin in September 1565, French settlers had gained a foothold in Florida by establishing Fort Caroline at the mouth of what is today hui the Saint John River at present – Jacksonville day.
Menéndez sought the destruction of the nascent French colony, and nature has proven to be an invaluable ally. Just days after the founding of Saint-Augustin, a French fleet commanded by Jean Ribault hid off its coast and demanded that Menéndez surrender. Before Ribault could receive a response, however, a hurricane blew up his ships south towards Cape Canaveral, where they were wrecked. Knowing that Fort Caroline was likely left unprotected, Menéndez attacked the French outpost and slaughtered more than 130 settlers. Weeks later, the Spaniards executed Ribault and hundreds of French shipwreck survivors in a cove south of St. Augustine, ending France’s attempts to colonize Florida.
“Just think of how history might have changed if this French fleet trying to rout the Spaniards was able to do the job instead of being crushed by a hurricane,” Dolin says. “You could imagine that Florida would have become French and with its colonization of Canada the French could have attempted a pincer movement in the center where the British colonies were located.
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2. A hurricane deprived the settlers of Jamestown of crucial support – and possibly inspired a Shakespeare play.
In June 1609, a supply mission of nine ships and about 500 settlers left England to reconstitute the burgeoning colony of Jamestown. Before the convoy could reach England’s first permanent colony in North America, a massive hurricane blew the 300 ton Sea Venture, which led the flotilla away from its route to Bermuda, where the ship ran aground. The castaways survived for almost a year while they built two small ships; when they finally got to Jamestown, they discovered a colony on the verge of collapse. Without supplies on board Sea Venture, Jamestown’s population has grown from 500 to five dozen. Some settlers have even turned to cannibalism to avoid starvation.
In addition to its impact on American colonial history, the hurricane also changed literary history. When news of the shocking state of the settlement of Jamestown reached England, was dramatic eyewitness testimony to the ordeal of the “most terrible storm,” written by William Strachey, an aspiring poet and playwright who had been aboard the Sea Venture. Around the time that Strachey’s story circulated in England in 1610, playwright William Shakespeare was writing a play about a severe storm that caused a shipwreck on a remote island, Storm. “Shakespeare had access to and knew about Strachey’s account,” says Dolin, “and a large majority of Shakespeare’s scholars agree that he used Strachey’s account in writing. Storm. “
READ MORE: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About William Shakespeare
3. A hurricane fueled the golden age of piracy.
In July 1715, a dozen ships laden with jewelry, gold, and silver collected from the Spanish colonies of Central and South America sailed along the east coast of Florida and fell under the teeth of ‘a vicious hurricane. The storm decimated the Spanish treasure fleet near what is now Vero Beach. All but one of the ships ran aground or disintegrated against the reefs, scattering wrecks over 30 miles of shallow water.
Like prospectors drawn by a gold rush, thousands of sailors descended on the scene of the destruction in the hope of recovering a piece of the loot. “Most are empty,” Dolin says, “but many disappointed sailors still wanted to get rich quick and decided to stay in the Caribbean and became pirates.” These frustrated treasure hunters fueled the second half of the Golden Age of Piracy, which produced legendary buccaneers such as Blackbeard and “Black Sam” Bellamy, who plundered merchant ships in the Caribbean and the Atlantic.
READ MORE: 6 famous pirate strongholds
4. A hurricane set Alexander Hamilton on the path to becoming a founding father.
Following an August 1772 hurricane that swept across the Caribbean island of St. Croix, a teenager wrote a startling account of the storm to the father who had abandoned his family more than six years earlier. This letter changed the life of its author – Alexander Hamilton – who demonstrated his literary prowess with his prose. “The roar of the sea and the wind, the flaming meteors which fly around it in the air, the prodigious glare of the almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses and the shrill cries of the afflicted, were enough to amaze Angels. Hamilton wrote of the hurricane.
The letter so impressed Hugh Knox, Hamilton’s Presbyterian minister, that he printed the account in a newspaper he edited, and it spread everywhere. Recognizing the talent of the 17-year-old young man, a number of Holy Cross businessmen raised money to fund a scholarship allowing Hamilton to continue his education in the American colonies. Hamilton left Sainte-Croix, never to return. Instead, he joined the American Revolution and became one of the founding fathers of the United States, credited with establishing the new nation’s financial system. “Hamilton didn’t know it, but he had just written his way out of poverty,” writes Ron Chernow in his Hamilton biography. “This natural calamity was to prove his salvation.”
READ MORE: Alexander Hamilton’s Complicated Relationship with Slavery
5. A hurricane helped secure victory in the American Revolution.
When it swept through the Caribbean ports used by the French and British navies as staging areas during the American Revolution, the Great Hurricane of 1780 claimed an estimated 22,000 lives. As the British lost eight ships and almost all of their crews, the deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record also claimed the lives of more than 40 French transport ships and the lives of thousands of soldiers on board.
The storm gave additional impetus for France – which had signed a treaty in 1778 to provide military support to the Patriots – to accept George Washington’s request to move its ships north. Repairing their ships in the winter of 1781, the French then moved most of their ships north to the coast of Virginia during the following hurricane season. After defeating British naval forces at the Battle of Chesapeake on September 5, 1781, French warships blocked any British escape by sea during the Siege of Yorktown. This operation ended with the surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis and effectively ended the American Revolution.
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