Don’t Get Fooled by an Indian Summer

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Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information color slides and transparencies collection (Library of Congress)
Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information color slides and transparencies collection (Library of Congress)

Yes, college football is in full swings and the leaves across Appalachia are showcasing a dizzying array of autumn colors ranging from bright orange to dark purple; however, the weather reports of three-digit temperatures throughout the American Southeast and sweltering heat across the entire eastern half of the nation is leaving many folks asking the same question, “Where’s fall, y’all?”

Autumn is here, at least according to the calendar and the tilting of the earth, but there’s also a case to be made that so is summer, but not just any summer, but an “Indian Summer”.

According to National Weather Service historians, an Indian Summer is “generally associated with a period of considerably above normal temperatures, accompanied by dry and hazy conditions…”

Check, and check.

Significant drought conditions presently exist throughout the Deep South into Tennessee and Kentucky, while remaining portions of Appalachia are all classified as being listed at an “above normal” risk of wildlife fires due to the dry conditions.

Indian summers are most notably used to describe a stretch of unseasonably warm days which occur after a “killing frost”, a criteria the most recent heat wave does not meet; however, it still isn’t stopping a lot of the old timers to bring out this long forgotten meteorological term to describe the most recent Appalachian heat wave.

“It is characteristic for these conditions [Indian Summers] to last for at least a few days to well over a week and there may be several cases before winter sets in. Such a mild spell is usually broken when a strong low pressure system and attending cold front pushes across the region. This dramatic change results from a sharp shift in the upper winds or “jet stream” from the south or southwest to northwest or north,” states the National Weather Service.

A few years back, such a stretch of unusually warm weather occurred here in the mountains of Virginia in late-November, allowing the opportunity to do something none of us had ever even considered — eating our Thanksgiving meal on the back patio, allowing us to enjoy the autumn sun’s golden rays.  This was all thanks to an Indian Summer.

But how did this term ever get used as a description for warm weather in autumn?

According to an article weather historian William Deedler wrote 23 years ago, there has been a considerable amount of interest given to the topic of uncovering the origins of the “Indian Summer” description in literature.

According to research, the first usage of this term dates back to 1778 by a Frenchman named 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.”

Deedler writes:

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, read on…

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, smokey conditions.

Other possibilities include… 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. “

An Indian Summer is often seen as a “fools summer”, given the fact that many people mistakenly believe that the unseasonably warm weather will never turn cold and begin making plans that often get destroyed by the chill of autumn and the cold of winter.

Though Indian Summers are enjoyable and head scratching, they seldom mean that temperatures will remain mild for long or that an impending winter will be void of snow or frigid temperatures.

The bottom line: Don’t be fooled… and enjoy the warmth… Winter is still coming!

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