Above-average temperatures at other times of year may raise alarms of global warming, but autumn heat waves are still fondly referred to as “Indian summer.” So where does the term come from, and what exactly does it mean?
A number of explanations have been advanced over the years, including the following:
1. In 1804, Charles Brockden Brown (an early American novelist), suggested that “[i]ts American name it probably owes to it being predicted by the natives to the first emigrants, who took the early frosts as the signal of winter.”
2. A variation on this theme was proposed a few years later by Reverend James Freeman, who in 1812 proposed that “the name is derived from the natives, who believe that it is caused by a wind which comes immediately from the court of their great and benevolent God Cautantowwit . . . ”
3. Around 1815, another idea came into vogue: that the Indian Summer derived its name from the burning of the woods and the grass by the natives.
4. A more ominous explanation was proposed by the Reverend Joseph Doddridge in 1824: “It however sometimes happened that after the apparent onset of winter, the weather became warm; the smoky time commenced, and lasted for a considerable number of days. This was the Indian summer, because it afforded the Indians another opportunity of visiting the settlements with their destructive warfare.”
5. A less politically correct view arose later in the 19th century: “The Indians were deceitful, and the uncertainty as to the Indian character became a byword, and hence, by a poetical transition, the short season of pleasant weather in November may have been known as “Indian summers” because the pleasant weather could not be relied upon and was sure to be followed by some sudden and severe cold northerly winds and snow.”
While each of these theories have enjoyed some currency at various times, all were more or less debunked over a century ago by a writer named Albert Matthews. His exhaustive survey of 17th, 18th and 19th century literature — a model of scholarly inquiry, with no assistance from Google! — revealed that contrary to (then) popular belief, early American settlers did not use the expression at all. The first use of the term unearthed by Matthews occurs on October 13, 1794, when one Ebenezer Denny made the following entry in his diary: “Pleasant weather. The Indian summer here. Frosty nights.” Although later scholars uncovered a slightly earlier use of the term, in a 1778 essay by J. Hector Saint John de Crevecoeur, Matthews’ general point — that the expression is not widely used until the 19th century — is “clearly right,” as no less a critic than H.L. Mencken acknowledged.
Matthews also pokes persuasive holes in the many “vague and uncertain” theories about the origin of the expression, demonstrating through careful analysis that not “one of them has any substantial basis in fact.” Indeed, as Matthews shows, there is no consensus as to what an “Indian summer” even is: “It has been stated that this spell [of peculiar weather] appears in September; that it comes in October; that it occurs in November or not at all; that it takes place in January; that it lasts for three or five days only; that it extends over a period of four weeks; that it is peculiar to New England; that it does not occur in New England at all; that it is now more marked than was formerly the case; that in former years it was more pronounced than it is now; that it has at present ceased to occur anywhere.”
Matthews’ article, which first appeared in the January, 1902 issue of the Monthly Weather Review, was re-issued as a pamphlet that is held in the library’s general collections, and remains the most authoritative work on the topic. Yet notwithstanding all this well-documented uncertainty, “Indian summer” is still a popular phrase, not only to describe the weather but also as a figurative and imaginative device for poets, novelists and literary critics.