Each year an average of two major hurricanes strike the United States, leaving death and destruction in their wakes. According to Eric Jay Dolin, author of A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America's Hurricanes, these powerful storms have caused billions of dollars of property damage and killed nearly 30,000 people since the late 1800s.
In addition to the scars they’ve left on the landscape and the countless lives they’ve affected, hurricanes have also altered the broad sweep 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 St. Augustine in September 1565, French settlers had gained their own foothold in Florida by establishing Fort Caroline at the mouth of what is now the St. Johns River in present-day Jacksonville.
Menéndez sought the destruction of the fledgling French colony, and nature proved an invaluable ally. Just days after St. Augustine's founding, a French fleet commanded by Jean Ribault lurked off its coast and demanded that Menéndez surrender. Before Ribault could receive a reply, however, a hurricane blew his ships south toward Cape Canaveral, where they wrecked.
Knowing Fort Caroline was likely left unprotected, Menéndez attacked the French outpost and slaughtered more than 130 settlers. Weeks later, the Spanish executed Ribault and hundreds of the French shipwreck survivors at an inlet south of St. Augustine—effectively ending France’s attempts to colonize Florida.
“Just think how history might have changed if that French fleet trying to rout the Spanish was able to get the job done instead of being clobbered by a hurricane,” says Dolin. “You could imagine Florida would have become French and with its settlement of Canada, the French might have attempted a pincer movement into the center where the British settlements were.”
2. A hurricane deprived Jamestown colonists of crucial support—and likely inspired a Shakespeare play.
In June 1609, a supply mission of nine ships and approximately 500 colonists set sail from England to replenish the nascent Jamestown Colony. Before the convoy could reach England’s first permanent settlement in North America, however, a massive hurricane blew the 300-ton Sea Venture, which headed the flotilla, far off course to Bermuda, where the ship ran aground.
The castaways survived for nearly a year while they constructed two smaller ships; when they finally arrived in Jamestown, they discovered a colony on the brink of collapse. Without the supplies aboard the Sea Venture, Jamestown’s population had dwindled from 500 to five dozen. Some colonists had even reportedly turned to cannibalism to ward off starvation.
In addition to its impact on colonial American history, the hurricane altered literary history as well. When word of the shocking condition of the Jamestown Colony reached England, so did a dramatic eyewitness account of the ordeal of the “most dreadful tempest,” written by William Strachey, an aspiring poet and playwright who had been aboard the Sea Venture.
Around the same time that Strachey’s account circulated in England in 1610, playwright William Shakespeare penned a play about a violent storm that caused a shipwreck on a remote island, The Tempest. “Shakespeare had access and knew of Strachey’s account,” says Dolin, “and a vast majority of Shakespeare scholars agree that he used Strachey’s account in writing The Tempest.”
3. A hurricane fueled the Golden Age of Piracy.
In July 1715, a dozen ships laden with jewels, gold and silver harvested from Spain’s colonies in Central and South America sailed along Florida’s east coast and into the teeth of a vicious hurricane. The storm decimated the Spanish treasure fleet near present-day Vero Beach. All but one ship ran ashore or disintegrated against the reefs, strewing wreckage over a 30-mile stretch of shallow waters.
Like prospectors drawn to a gold rush, thousands of mariners descended upon the scene of destruction with hopes of recovering a piece of the booty. “Most came up empty,” says Dolin, “but many disappointed mariners still wanted to get rich quick and decided to stay in the Caribbean and became pirates.” Those 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 merchants’ ships in the Caribbean and Atlantic.
4. A hurricane put Alexander Hamilton on a path to become a Founding Father.
In the wake of an August 1772 hurricane that barreled through the Caribbean island of St. Croix, a teenager wrote a vivid account of the storm to the father who had abandoned his family more than six years earlier. That letter changed the life of its author—Alexander Hamilton—who demonstrated his literary prowess with his prose.
“The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels,” wrote Hamilton 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 far and wide. Recognizing the 17-year-old’s talent, a number of St. Croix businessmen collected money to fund a scholarship for Hamilton to continue his education in the American colonies. Hamilton left St. Croix, never to return. Instead, he joined the American Revolution and become one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, credited with establishing the new nation’s financial system.
“Hamilton did not know it, but he had just written his way out of poverty,” writes Ron Chernow in his biography of Hamilton. “This natural calamity was to prove his salvation.”
5. A hurricane helped ensure victory in the American Revolution.
As it swept across Caribbean ports used by the French and British navies as staging areas during the American Revolution, the Great Hurricane of 1780 took an estimated 22,000 lives. While the British lost eight ships and nearly all of their crews, the deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record also claimed more than 40 French transport vessels and the lives of thousands of soldiers on board.
The storm provided an added impetus for France—which had signed a treaty in 1778 to provide military support to the patriots—to agree to George Washington’s request to move its ships northward. Repairing their ships during the winter of 1781, the French then moved most of their vessels north to the Virginia coast during the following hurricane season.
After defeating British naval forces at the Battle of the Chesapeake on September 5, 1781, French warships blocked any British escape by sea during the Siege of Yorktown. That operation concluded with the surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis and effectively ended the American Revolution.