Clues as to the origin of ‘Indian summer’ and French ‘l’été sauvage’ are provided by their earliest instances in texts written in the 1770s by St. John de Crèvecœur, pictured here after the portrait by Vallière, 1786.
MEANING OF INDIAN SUMMER AND OF OBSOLETE FRENCH ÉTÉ SAUVAGE
a period of unusually calm dry warm weather, often accompanied by a hazy atmosphere, occurring in late autumn in the northern United States and Canada
hence a similar period of unseasonably warm autumnal weather elsewhere
The oldest known instance of Indian summer occurs in an essay titled A Snow Storm as it Affects the American Farmer, the French version of which was dated 1774 by its author, a Frenchman named Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur (1735-1813). He took the anglicised name J. Hector St. John in his adult life as he travelled and worked in the American colonies after the Seven Years War. His American name and his original French name were ultimately fused together to render the cosmopolitan title J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur that is used for this writer.
He was the author of Letters of an American Farmer, published in London in 1782. But this edition did not include this particular essay, which was only made available in 1925 in Sketches of Eighteenth Century America: More “Letters from an American Farmer” by St. John de Crèvecœur, edited by Henri L. Bourdin, Ralph H. Gabriel and Stanley T. Williams. Crèvecœur writes during his ten-year residence (1769-78) on his farm at Pine Hill, in Orange County, New York; the manuscript bears no date:
Of all the scenes which this climate offers, none has struck me with a greater degree of admiration than the ushering in of our winters, and the vehemence with which their first rigour seizes and covers the earth.
Great rains at last replenish the springs, the brooks, the swamps, and impregnate the earth. Then a severe frost succeeds which prepares it to receive the voluminous coat of snow which is soon to follow; though it is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian summer. This is in general the invariable rule: winter is not said properly to begin until these few moderate days and the rising of the waters have announced it to Man. This great mass of liquid once frozen spreads everywhere natural bridges; opens communications impassable before.
However, Crèvecœur translated or rather adapted a number of his manuscript notes into his native language and published them in Paris in 1784 as Lettres d’un Cultivateur Américain, écrites à W. S. Ecuyer, Depuis l’Année 1770, jusqu’à 1781 (= Letters of an American Farmer, written to W. S. Ecuyer, From the Year 1770, until 1781). The essay A Snow Storm as it Affects the American Farmer appeared under the title of Description d’une Chute de Neige, Dans le Pays des Mowhawks, sous le rapport qui intéresse le Cultivateur Américain, (= Description of a Snowfall, In the Country of the Mowhawks, as it affects the American Farmer), and the author specified that he had written this essay at Germanflats on 17th January 1774 (but, in the above-mentioned 1925 edition of Crèvecœur’s writings, Henri L. Bourdin points to “the well-known inaccuracy of the American Farmer in the matter of dates”):
Quelquefois après cette pluie, il arrive un intervalle de calme & de chaleur, appelé l’Eté Sauvage ; ce qui l’indique, c’est la tranquillité de l’atmosphère, & une apparence générale de fumée. — Les approches de l’hiver sont douteuses jusqu’à cette époque ; il vient vers la moitié de Novembre, quoique souvent des neiges & des gelées passagères arrivent long-tems auparavant.
Sometimes after this rain, occurs an interval of calm and mildness, called the Wild Summer; what indicates it, is the stillness of the atmosphere, and a general appearance of smoke. — The approaches of winter are doubtful until that period; it comes around mid-November, although often snows and occasional frosts arrive long before.
The formulations in both the French and English versions of the ‘snowstorm’ essay seem to imply that l’été sauvage and Indian summer were already in usage when Crèvecœur was writing: “un intervalle … appelé l’été sauvage”, “a short interval … called the Indian summer”. Before getting married and settling down as a farmer in 1769, Crèvecœur had during about ten years travelled extensively, in particular as a surveyor, in a number of French and British territories of modern-day Canada and USA, where he might have picked up both l’été sauvage and Indian summer (the quotation, below, from C. F. de Chassebœuf’s Tableau du climat et du sol des Etats-Unis d’Amérique seems to indicate that both these expressions were well established at the very beginning of the 19th century).
The use of l’été sauvage instead of the expected l’été indien might be a clue as to the origin of the American-English expression Indian summer. The French adjective sauvage can mean either savage or wild. Of course, because we already know the existence of the expression Indian summer, we might assume that l’été sauvage was the equivalent of Indian summer in the sense that the Indians were seen as “savages”. But, to a francophone reader of 1784, who knew neither the climatic phenomenon nor the expression, l’été sauvage did not mean the savages’ summer (which would be été des sauvages anyway) but meant that, to the Europeans living in the New World, these periods of unusually dry, warm weather were “wild”, abnormal, in the sense that they did not fit in the usual, normal, pattern of calendar seasons, that they were a newly-discovered local phenomenon. It is therefore likely that, in Indian summer, the adjective Indian merely denotes something other than that normally denoted by the simple noun summer—as in other terms specific to the New World, such as Indian corn (or Indian wheat), Indian sugar (maple sugar), Indian tobacco, Indian peach, Indian mastic, Indian hen, Indian currant, Indian turnip, which all date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
Constantin François de Chassebœuf (1757-1820), comte de Volney, used both French l’été sauvage and English Indian summer in Tableau du climat et du sol des Etats-Unis d’Amérique (Paris, 1803), and likened these terms to French l’été de la Saint-Martin:
Vers novembre, reparaît une série de beaux jours, appelés l’été sauvage (Indian-summer) : c’est ce que nous appelons en France l’été de la Saint-Martin ; mais il est devenu si rare et si court, que nous n’en parlons plus que par tradition.
In the translation of C. F. de Chassebœuf’s book, View of the Climate and Soil of the United States of America (London, 1804), Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) used Indian summer only, which he equated to All-Hallown Summer:
Towards November a succession of fine days appears, which are styled the Indian summer. This is what is called in France a St. Martin’s summer*; but it is here [= in France] grown so rare, and so short, that it is now spoken of only traditionally.
translator’s note: * In England, an All-hallown summer.
Both those passages show therefore that, although the new names Indian summer and l’été sauvage reflected a new perception, similar phenomena were already known in the Old World by various names.
In France, the literal translation of Indian summer has gained currency since the success of L’Été indien, a 1975 song co-written by Toto Cutugno, Pierre Delanoë and Claude Lemesle, and interpreted by the American-born French singer Joe Dassin (1938-80), son of the American film director Jules Dassin (1911-2008).
title of the French version of the essay by St. John de Crèvecœur – from Lettres d’un Cultivateur Américain, écrites à W. S. Ecuyer, Depuis l’Année 1770, jusqu’à 1781 (Paris, 1784)
Description d’une Chute de Neige,
Dans le Pays des Mowhawks, sous le rapport qui intéresse le Cultivateur Américain. Germanflats, 17 Janvier 1774.