History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

     What does the term "Indian Summer" mean? How and why was it originated? The writer has often thought on this subject.

     Indian Summer is the time of year, generally in late autumn or early winter that represents a period in which the weather displays beauty, warmth, calmness and a hazy atmosphere. This most commonly appears after the first big frost. Thoreau proclaimed it the finest season of the year. The phrase is of American origin. The earliest written use was uncovered in 1790. In the early part of the nineteenth century it was used quite frequently.

     From our country it quickly expanded to England where it was spread throughout the world. When Queen Victoria became eighty, Alfred Austin, poet laureate of England, composed to her a birthday poem entitled, "An Indian Summer."
Theories galore as to the origination of the name were suggested, and not until Albert Matthews of Boston began his research on the subject did it shed some light. His findings were published in the Weather's Review in 1902, entitled, "The Term Indian Summer." His collection of works and footnotes would make a small volume. Matthews lists a great number of passages from different writers of American and English prose and poetry.

     His conclusion was that the term was a new expression rather than an old one. He says that the older subject writers on America never used the term in their publications. The phrase was not submitted publicly until the 1841 edition of Webster's dictionary. Matthews found its first written form in the journal of Major Ebenezer Denny who was selected by the Governor of Pennsylvania to protect the frontier of that State from Indian attacks. Major Denny, while at French Creek near the present city of Erie, Pa., made an entry into his journal on October 13, 1794. It read, "Pleasant Weather. The Indian summer here. Frosty nights."

     According to Matthews, only two other occasions were recorded before 1800. One was by a writer at New Haven, Ct., in 1798, and the other by the noted traveling Frenchman, Volney.
Just three other occasions using the saying were recorded during the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century, in 1809, in 1813 and in 1815.

     One writer cites that through his readings on the subject, he found a notation in Revolutionary War General Josiah Harmar's journal regarding the term Indian Summer, dated 1790. This was four years previous to Matthew's find. Harmar's journal was written during his raid on the Maumee Indian village. It says:

     "Thursday, Oct 21st - fine weather - Indian summer. Having completed the destruction of the Maumee towns as they are called, we took up our line of march this morning from the ruins of Old Chillicothe for Ft. Washington, [original name for Cincinnati.] Marched about 8 miles.

     "Saturday, Oct. 23rd - Indian summer, Took up our line of march this morning at 8 o'clock and encamped about 24 miles from the ruins of the Maumee towns. This days march about 16 miles - much encumbered with our wounded men.

     "Sunday, Oct 31st - Fine, clear weather. Indian summer. Marched and halted a little while at what is called Sugar Camp - from thence to Caesar's creek, a branch of the Little Miami - three miles. Thence crossed the Little Miami." [Identifies places in Ohio]

     The reasoning for this name is supplied by several theories. One is this was the time the Indians burned the woods and the dry grass. Dr. Daniel Drake says: "The cause of the smokiness is supposed to be the conflagration by the Indians of withered grass and herbs of the extensive prairies of the north west, and hence perhaps the name of the season."
Scholars have found no mention of the term in Indian mythology and legends. The source of many expressions and sayings may never be discovered. One thing is almost certain; the term "Indian Summer" originated with the North American whites.

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