Q From Ben Bratt: A British colleague and I were commenting on the wonderful autumn weather here in Michigan. We agreed that it felt like an Indian Summer. Further conversation revealed that he thought the term originated in the country (and warm weather) of India, while I thought it referred back to the Native Indian tribes of North America. Can you clarify for us, please?
A You’re correct to say it’s connected with Native Americans, though nobody seems to know quite how.
The first reference that we have is from a book with the title A Snow Storm as it affects the American Farmer, which was written by a French-American farmer named J H St John de Crèvecoeur in about 1777. In it he said “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” (I am indebted to David Barnhart and Alan Metcalf for quoting this in their book America in So Many Words).
There are several explanations for where the phrase came from, mostly put forward in the early nineteenth century, which suggested the term was of sufficient antiquity by then that its origin had gone out of living memory. William and Mary Morris suggest it came about because the word “Indian” had been adopted as a term among early colonists to describe something false, or a poor imitation of the real thing, as in Indian corn or Indian tea.
Whatever the reason, this name for a short period of fine weather at the end of autumn is now the standard term, even in Britain, where older names such as St Luke’s summer, St Martin’s summer or All-Hallown Summer are now obsolete or rare.