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"The Night the Stars Fell"

An Heuristic Analysis of an Event in the

Life of an American Slave

[Image cut from a blanket created by ex-slave Harriet Powers
held by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts]
{Click on image or here for Shockwave movie}

By
Patrick Minges


 
 
 

Introduction

The meteor shower of November 13, 1833 from Seventh Day Adventist Church Primer

29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
          Matthew 24: 29-31
13 And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
14 And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
15 And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;
16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
17 For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?
On a cold November night in 1833, there were signs that the world was coming to an end. Just before dawn at around three a.m., people from the eastern United States to the Great Plains awoke from their sleep to an astral visual display so frightening that they rushed from their beds to behold the spectacle. As a contemporary recorded it, "The flashes of light, though less intense than lightening, were so bright as to waken people from their beds."1 A newspaper from Bowling Green, Missouri described the unworldly event in these terms, "The most perfect master of language would fail of conveying to others a full picture of this extraordinary and uncommon appearance."2

The meteor shower as seen from Niagara Falls from Mechanics Magazine, November 1833.

It was indeed a remarkable sight. Emerging from the cutting edge of the constellation Leo and its familiar Sickle asterism, the backward question mark, a flurry of stars catapulted themselves mercilessly towards the Sun.3 Victorian astronomy writer Agnes Clerke described the scene with a scientific precision,

On the night of November 12-13, 1833, a tempest of falling stars broke over the earth.... the sky was scored in every direction with shining tracks and illuminated with majestic fireballs. At Boston, the frequency of meteors was estimated to be about half that of flakes of snow in an average snowstorm. Their numbers ... were quite beyond counting; but as it waned, a reckoning was attempted, from which it was computed, on the basis of that much-diminished rate, that 240,000 must have been visible during the nine hours they continued to fall.4
The Natchez Courier was no less sanguine,
From 3 to 5 o'clock, the scene was truly magnificent - thousands upon thousands [of meteors] were darting about in all directions without an instant's cessation. It was so light that upon first awakening many thought that the city was on fire.5

A graphic representation of the "Night the Stars Fell" over the Sioux Nation by Eric S. Young.

Not just newspapers recorded the events. The Indians of the Great Plains recorded the passage of time not chronologically but phenomenologically. A notch on a stick or a painted symbol reminded the oral historian of a single event by which that period of time would be known such as "the spring with many berries" or the "winter with no snow." Among the Sioux, the winter of 1833-1834 was described as the winter that "the stars fell." One Sioux beloved man known as "Brown Hat" recorded the winter as the "Storm of Stars" winter.6
 

The astronomical event itself was something to behold for the literate and newfound scholars of the burgeoning sciences,7 but for the unlettered and superstitious, it was an event that shook the foundations of their very being. Some people "hid themselves behind their curtains or under their bedclothes...refusing to take a second glance."8 The Hartford Times recorded a woman who was awakened from her slumber to find such a fearful sight and "this sudden transition from her pleasant dreams to such strange realities at such an hour threw her into the most frantic delerium, and she fainted away before her friends could have an opportunity of explaining the cause of the light and dancing stars that met her vision. She was positive the world had come to an end and it was no use for anybody to convince her to the contrary."9
 

Even here in Virginia, the event was recorded and remembered for many years. Elder Samuel Rogers, an itinerant preacher and circuit rider from Antioch, Virginia recorded this event in his autobiography:

I heard one of the children cry out, in a voice expressive of alarm: "Come to the door, father, the world is surely coming to an end." Another exclaimed: "See! The whole heavens are on fire! All the stars are falling!" These cries brought us all into the open yard, to gaze upon the grandest and most beautiful scene my eyes have ever beheld. It did appear as if every star had left its moorings, and was drifting rapidly in a westerly direction, leaving behind a track of light which remained visible for several seconds.

Some of those wandering stars seemed as large as the full moon, or nearly so, and in some cases they appeared to dash at a rapid rate across the general course of the main body of meteors, leaving in their track a bluish light, which gathered into a thin cloud not unlike a puff of smoke from a tobacco-pipe. Some of the meteors were so bright that they were visible for some time after day had fairly dawned. Imagine large snowflakes drifting over your head, so near you that you can distinguish them, one from the other, and yet so thick in the air as to almost obscure the sky; then imagine each snowflake to be a meteor, leaving behind it a tail like a little comet; these meteors of all sizes, from that of a drop of water to that of a great star, having the size of the full moon in appearance: and you may then have some faint idea of this wonderful scene.

Some really thought that the Judgment Day was at hand, and they fell on their knees in penitence, confessing all the sins of their past lives,and calling upon God to have mercy. On our journey we heard little talked of but the "falling of the stars." All sorts of conjectures were made by all sorts of people, excepting there were but few, if any, wise conjectures, and very few wise people to make them along the way we traveled. Not a few thought it an evidence of God's displeasure, and believed that fearful calamities would probably speedily follow. There were those who believed the Judgment Day was near at hand, and undertook to prove out of the Scriptures that this was one of the signs of the coming of the Son of Man.10

Among the fervently religious, the meteor shower took upon an apocalyptic significance. The Leonidic Meteor Shower of 1833 is credited by some as having played a role in the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept through the United States in the 1830s and set the stage for the dramatic turmoil that swept the nation in the middle of the nineteenth century.11 Indeed, an observer in Fredericksburg Virginia saw the storm in a similar light, "The whole starry host of heaven seemed to be in a state of practical secession and revolt...which finds parallel only in the affairs of earth."12 In 1878, historian R.M. Devens recorded the event as one of the most memorable events in American history:

During the three hours of its continuance," he wrote, "the day of judgment was believed to be only waiting for sunrise, and, long after the shower had ceased, the morbid and superstitious still were impressed with the idea that the final day was at least only a week ahead. Impromptu meetings for prayer were held in many places, and many other scenes of religious devotion, or terror, or abandonment of worldly affairs, transpired, under the influence of fear occasioned by so sudden and awful a display.13
That people were, without a doubt, cast about on a sea of uncertainty. Once again, from the Salt River Journal in Missouri:
Forcibly, we are reminded of that remarkable passage in Revelations which speaks of a great red dragon...drawing the third part of the stars of heaven and casting them down to earth. That figure appeared to be fully painted on the broad canopy of the sky...spread over with sheets of light and thick with streams of rolling fire. There was scarcely a space in the firmament which was not filled at every instant with these falling stars.14
A judge in Clark County, Kentucky recorded the impact upon his fellow congregants of the Log Lick Church,
The people were struck with awe and thrown into great consternation and one of the effects of the remarkable occurrence was to awaken a pious feeling, causing a general religious revival throughout Christendom....The little church was crowded to overflowing day and night with an eager and earnest people, singing and asking for pardon for their many sins. Old feuds were reconciled, enemies were made friends...for they expected at any moment to hear the trump sound and be called to an account of their doings here below.15
One of the most famous of graphic representations of the 1833 Leonidic Meteor Shower was a drawing made some fifty years after the occurrence and used in a religious primer illustrating the fulfillment of biblical prophecies.16

In the most significant work on the Leonidic Meteor Storms entitled The Heavens on Fire: The Great Leonidic Meteor Storms, author Mark Littman notes amiably the "terrified response of illiterate slaves to the unexpected and unparalleled sight of the meteoric avalanche.17 He then goes on to quote a planter from Combahee, S.C.:

I was suddenly awakened to the most distressing cries that ever fell on my ears. Shrieks of horror and cries for mercy I could hear from most of the Negroes of the three plantations, amounting in all to about six or eight hundred....I then opened the door, and it is difficult to describe which excited me most - the awfulness of the scene or the distressed cries of the Negroes. Upwards of one hundred lay prostrate on the ground - some speechless and some with the bitterest cries, but most with their hands raised, imploring God to save the world and them.18
In contextualizing this narrative, Littman makes the point of noting that the tone of the descriptions "was not smug hauteur or amused condescension," but "respectful understanding and even agreement." He goes further to cite the impact of the event on others, "It was not just the blacks screaming;" he then cited how whites from North Carolina equally suffered from "terror and consternation." 19
 
 

Harriet Powers, ex-slave, an outsider artist.

Yet, in his own words Littman described these persons as "illiterate slaves" and in a quote from a Raleigh newspaper, the phrase "untaught son of Africa" makes its inescapable impression. In both cases, the "slaves" had their experiences related for them by seemingly more literate persons and there were no expressions or descriptions coming from the mouths of these slaves themselves in spite of the fact that we know that these records exist. In the extensive resources used to create this magnificent record of the "Heavens on Fire," were the references of these "illiterate" considered not worthy of referencing. Is there a relationship between literacy in the English language and knowledge of the world around them? How much more could we have learned from looking at the "Night the Stars Fell" from those whose historical relationships with the stars far transcended the "tutored son of America." Surely, the Dogon of West Africa know as much of the paths of the stars as do the learned astronomers.20

The absence of these voices leaves an inescapable void in our experience. One can only pose conjecture as to how these slaves understood the nights of November 12 and 13 and how the impact of the events of that evening may have forever changed their lives. Furthermore, we are left only to wonder what prophetic events these slaves read into the incredible astronomic occurrences on that chilly November night and what social, psychological, and spiritual forces shaped these conceptions. Within the worldview of the slave, there is little doubt that the event was a significant one but certainly not one without precedent. How did the slaves understand that remarkable event on those November nights in 1833?
 

On to slave narrative excerpts

1 Dennis Olmstead quoted in Mechanics Magazine (Vol. 2: No. 5), November 1833, 287-288.

2 Salt River Journal quoted in Mark Littman, The Heavens on Fire: The Great Leonidic Meteor Storms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 4.

3 Joe Rao, "The Leonids: King of the Meteor Showers," The Night the Stars Fell, [http://www.iltrails.org/stars.htm] (accessed October 14, 2002)

4 Clerke, quoted in Rao,

5 Natchez Courier, November 15, 1833.

6 Garrick Mallery, Picture Writing of the American Indians (Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution, 1893), 280.

7 "The early morning storm of meteors seen in the Eastern United States on November 13, 1833 marked the birth of modern meteor astronomy." David K. Yeomans, "Comet Tempel-Tuttle and the Leonid Meteors," Icarus, Vol. 47, 1981, 492.

8 Joseph Henry Waggoner quoted in Littman, 11.

9 Hartford Times, December 2, 1833.

10 "The Great Leonid Meteor Storm of 1833: A First-hand Account by Elder Samuel Rogers" NASA Science News, June 22, 1999, http://science.nasa.gov/newhome/headlines/ast22jun99%5F2.htm, [Accessed October 12, 2002]

11 Rao.

12 Richmond Enquirer, November 19, 1833.

13 Devens, quoted in Rao.

14 Salt River Journal quoted in Littman, 6

15 James Flanagan quoted in Littman, 8.

16 Rao,

17 Littman, 5

18 ibid.

19 ibid.

20 "It is quite true," he said, "that in the course of time Women took down the stars and gave them to their children. The children put spindles through them and made them spin like fiery tops to show themselves how the world turned.But that was only a game." The stars came for pellets of earth flung out into space by the God Amma, the one God. He had created the sun and the moon by a more complicated process, which was not the first known to man but is the first attested invention of God: the art of pottery. The sun is, in a sense, a pot raised once for all to white heat and surrounded by a spiral of copper with eight turns . The moon is the same shape, buts its copper is white....he said however that, while Africans were creatures of light emanating from the fullness of the sun, Europeans were creatures of the moonlight: hence their immature appearance. [Marcel Griaule, Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas,(London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 16-17]

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