THE DARK DAY OVER OLDE NEW ENGLAND
An Unexplained Darkness Cast Upon The Colonies





WHAT CAUSED NEW ENGLAND’S DARK DAY?

By John Horrigan



We really don’t know what is was or how it happened. By reviewing newspapers and journals of the day, we do know that it came on quickly from the west and did not dissipate until the following day. We also know that it frightened the population of New England. And today, 228 years later, we can only speculate as to what it was not.

In the days leading up to May 19th, 1780, residents in the Northeast had noticed a strange copper-colored hue to sunsets and sunrises. There had been mild temperatures during a soft Spring that was welcomed after a long and hard winter, “the most hard difficult winter that was ever known by any person living”.1 There was deep snow and severe cold with widespread suffering from all points north to Maine, southeast to Georgia, west to Detroit and south to New Orleans. The harbors in Boston and New York had frozen over solid. Travel ceased, social interaction was non-existent and shipping was halted.2 When the thaw came on March 7th, many bridges were damaged by ice flows, but the people were happy to crossover into Spring.3

And later that Spring came the Dark Day of New England. But what caused it?

The Dark Day was not caused by a lunar or solar eclipse. This is a common misperception still perpetuated by Fred Espenak in his Catalog of Lunar Eclipses on the home page of the NASA Eclipse website.4 Espenak has inferred that the Dark Day was preceded by what he identifies as the largest partial lunar eclipse taking place on May 18th, 1780, the day before the Dark Day, beginning at 10:58 AM and concluding at 12:36 PM, with an umbra magnitude of 0.9677 (compared to the smallest umbra magnitude of 0.0331 attributed to the partial lunar eclipse of June 30th, 1849). But a lunar eclipse in daylight does not bring darkness to earth.

There was an annular solar eclipse on May 4th, 1780, but totality, i.e. complete coverage of the solar disk causing almost total darkness equivalent to the dark of night, happened southwest of Africa in the extreme southern Atlantic Ocean, and it only lasted for about a minute and a half.5 Moreover, the colonists from Virginia to Georgia were familiar with solar eclipses. For instance, the solar eclipse of August 5th, 1776 was glimpsed by the Reverend Joseph Willard, then president of Harvard College, from his home in Beverly, Massachusetts.6 Settlers had witnessed the annular eclipse of January 9th, 1777. They had also experienced a nearly total solar eclipse on June 24th, 1778 (totality was observed in Atlanta, Georgia). This eclipse had been predicted in Poor Richard’s Almanac and was relayed to the Continental Army by General George Washington prior to its apparition (and before the Battle of Monmouth a few days later) so as to pre-empt and alleviate the men’s apprehension.7 It was turned into an advantage by George Rogers Clark as he launched his Illinois Campaign. He soothed the fear of his men by telling them that it should be interpreted as a good omen for their impending military expedition.8 A few months later, a scientific expedition of four professors and six students funded by Harvard College, in association with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, foundered in the woods of Maine near Penobscot Bay as they had hoped to glimpse a total solar eclipse on October 27th, 1780. Unfortunately, they did not. Reverend Professor Williams had miscalculated the path of totality and lead the group to the wrong area. Consequently, they only viewed a partial solar eclipse. This was subsequently dubbed as the “Lost Eclipse” of 1780.9 The extraordinary nuance that makes this debacle worth mentioning is that British officers called a temporary cease to hostilities so as to allow this expedition to pass through British occupied territory. Science prevailed over warfare in this unprecedented and honorable truce. The point of mentioning this is that many colonists, aside from scientists of the day, were aware of and could easily identify - a solar eclipse.

Could a planetary transit been the root of the darkness? No. The Dark Day was not caused by a planetary transit, that is, a planet crossing in front of the sun and inducing an eclipse. Anyone familiar with basic astronomy would know that this is a preposterous notion. Mercury would obviate less than 1 percent of the solar surface and the only transits of Mercury relative to the Dark Day occurred on November 2nd, 1776 and November 12th, 1782.10 The only transit of Venus near that time period took place on June 3rd, 1769.11

Was the Dark Day enabled by a dust storm? Hardly. Although the Chinese, and evidently the rest of the earth for that matter, suffer from continual dust storms as the grains of the Gobi are lifted and moved about, the young United States could not have been blanketed by a low-altitude dust cover during 1780. Northern Africa suffers from Saharan sand storms, born in the Bodélé Depression. The Middle East and Australia are regularly inundated with sandstorms. In the past 37 years, the United States has only endured two major dust storms: near Tucson, Arizona on July 16, 1971 and last February near Amarillo, Texas. 12 The “mother” of all American dust storms was a series of destructive dust clouds that took place during the infamous “Dust Bowl” that scoured the North American prairie in the 1930’s. Drought and the accompanying erosion compounded the Great Depression with famine as sterile farms that lost their topsoil, stopped producing agriculture and forced a migration westward by families who had lost their homesteads and went on a nomadic search for employment. Major dust storms during the Dust Bowl include the South Dakota clouds of November 11th, 1933 and on May 11th, 1934, where a massive two-day blow rained dirt on Chicago, Buffalo, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. The winter of 1934 and 1935 even yielded a red snow in New England. The king of dust storms during the Dust Bowl was definitely, “Black Sunday”, taking place on April 14th, 1935. It was one of a few dozen “Black Blizzards” that took place in the American heartland during the 1930’s. Residents east of the blow, aside from suffering the misery of grinding their teeth on sand grains, could not see even five feet in front of themselves.13 The Dark Day was not caused by a dust storm as there is no corroborating record from trappers, explorers and Native Americans roaming the interior plains in 1780.

Was the Dark Day caused by a volcanic eruption? It is very unlikely. One of the most destructive volcanic eruptions in terms of voluminous ash emitted over a very short time period, happened, oddly, only 3 years after the Dark Day and lasted for a period of 8 months. On June 8th, 1783, in Laki, Iceland, a volcano began coughing up a basalt lava tephra filled with noxious sulfur dioxide. The resulting devastation was compounded by the fact that it stayed in the very low reaches of the earth’s atmosphere. It raked Iceland, where inhabitants could not see through close-range dark ash clouds. They lost their livestock to asphyxiation and farmland to an ashen blanket. This “Laki Haze” caused many deaths across Western Europe and altered the earth’s climate over the next few years. Great Britain suffered through the “Sand Summer of 1783” after the poisonous cloud drifted across Scandinavia, Prussia and France. This volcanic “dry fog” kept ships at port as they were unable to navigate, choked many residents to death, severely inhibited crop growth and inferred a “blood red” sun and sky. During the years immediately following the Laki spew, the weather fluctuated wildly. Extreme weather birthed incredible hail fusillades, severe winters and ironically, sweltering heat and longer growing seasons that saw European harvests realize surpluses. As was the case during the Dark Day, this deadly haze and bizarre meteorology was attributed to “Divine Retribution” upon a sinful population and sparked cries of “the end is nigh”.14 Even Benjamin Franklin recorded his observations of the bizarre weather and consequent atmospheric hue. He properly attributed the weather anomalies to a volcanic eruption in Iceland.15 The only American volcanic eruptions that took place near the year 1780 were in the late 18th century at Mt. St. Helens and at the lava dome of Mt. Hood. Again, Native Americans and pioneers have not come forward with any records or accounts that would indicate a blanketing ash plume that blew eastward from the Cascades or the Rockies toward New England.16 In fact, in New England, it is known that the Dark Day was first detected in Eastern New York.17

Was the Dark Day instantiated by a large forest fire? Perhaps it was. In fact, it is the most likely scenario and we’ll review that shortly. In the west, major fires forced Native American tribes from the forest to the prairie or vice versa. The mid-19th century saw four major forest fires in Oregon alone.18 It is unlikely though, that a western wildfire would have yielded a thick black, lingering smoke pall that maintained its composition as it drifted eastward, but rather, like the Milford Flat Utah Fire of July, 2007 or the Northern Quebec wildfires of July, 2002 it would have brought wisps of smoke over parts of New England and might have simply produced a noticeable haze and glorious sunsets.

If New England’s Dark Day of May 19th, 1780 was not precipitated by a lunar or solar eclipse, a planetary transit, dust storm, volcanic eruption or western wildfire, then what caused it? In the preceding days leading up to the Dark Day, residents in many parts of New England had noticed that the sky was cloudy and murky at dawn, the sun had a pinkish hue to it at midday, and offered up spectacular copper sunsets in defiance of the color spectrum at dusk. In Weston, Massachusetts Samuel Phillips Savage remarked that there was “a remarkable thick air” and that “the sun rises and sets very red.” The evening’s waning gibbous moon also gave off a pink reflection.19 Just a little past nine on the morning of May 19th, Reverend Thomas Savage noticed that there “came on an appearance over the whole visible heavens…a light brassy hue, nearly the color of pale Cyder” and soon the sky was “attended with a gloom nearly resembling that of an Eclipse of the Sun”.20 It’s interesting to note that this aside is frequently interpreted by some as absolute proof that the darkness was induced by an eclipse. But if taken literally, one can deduce that Savage is indicating that he is familiar with solar eclipses (having glimpsed an eclipse previously) and that the darkness was not brought on by one.

By 10 AM the sky went dark and Savage noted that “Fowles retired to their Roosts, or collected in clusters”.21 Crickets began chirping and cows returned to their stalls. The preternatural night had fallen. All over New England, every farmer, schoolboy, fisherman, maiden, cordwainer, blacksmith, clergyman and laborer gawked upward for the missing sun and gasped at the remarkable and sudden elimination of light. A deep shadow had fallen and “every thing bore the appearance and gloom of night.”22 The noonday meal was served by candlelight and a single candle “cast a shade so well defined…that profiles were taken with as much ease as they could have been in the night.”23 The newspaper known as the Massachusetts Spy reported that one “could scarcely see to read common print, [and] it was the judgment of many that at about 12 o’clock…the day light was not greater, if so great, as that of bright moon-light” and “no object was discernable but by the help of some artificial light.”24 Samuel Savage of Weston could not even read his watch, even as he stood by his window.25 His neighbor was forced to quit spreading manure in his field as he was longer “able to discern the difference between the ground and the Dung.”26 Savage noted that “the birds of the Night were abroad and by their melancholy notes added to the Solemnity of the Scene.”27

At Sudbury, Massachusetts, Experience Richardson remarked that “it was so terrible dark …that we could not see our hand before us.”

In Connecticut, the legislature adjourned after looking out of the chamber windows and then hurried home to their families. The members of the Council of Safety lobbied Senator Abraham Davenport to do the same, as the Day of Judgment may very well be at hand, but he reportedly said “The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment: if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”28

Lawyer William Pynchon of Salem, Massachusetts recorded that most people scurried about with “melancholy and fear”, everyone that is, except for the sailors who “went hallooing and frolicking throughout the streets”, were “reproved in vain” and shouted lewd remarks at women as they drunkenly tried to entice them to remove their clothing.29

Residents were well read in regard to the Holy Bible and most could recite verses effortlessly. There were several passages in both the New and Old Testament (Book of Exodus 10:21, Isaiah 13:9-10, Ezekiel 32:7, Joel 2:31, Zephaniah 1:15, Matthew 24:29, Mark 13:24, Acts 2:20, etc.) that referred to sudden darkness and attributed it to Divine Retribution and the Lord’s Day of Judgment. Most then, thought that the Second Coming was at hand and that surely “the end was nigh”. This is why many rushed to their churches to repent. Some attributed this Day of Reckoning as punishment for the raging American Revolutionary War and the suffering that was being inflicted upon both the Loyalists and the Separatists.30 Many clergymen noticed that their pews were full and one reverend even retorted to a question posed to him about the gloom’s origin that he “was in the dark about the matter just as you are”.31 Several sermons given on the Dark Day were later printed in one publication of verses that became a “best seller” of the time period.

A correspondent to Independent Chronicle by the pen name of “Viator” made several postulations based upon his observations made at his home in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He noticed that morning that just as “the sun was quite shut in, and it began to shower. It looked as though a powerful storm was approaching from the southwest; and while the sky churned and boiled at higher altitudes, nary a blade of grass stirred at ground level. From the thickness of the clouds, and the confusion that attended their motions, we expected a violent gust of wind and rain; the wind, however, near the earth, continued small, and it rained but little.”32 With this uncanny observation made by Viator, we can eliminate a line of severe thunderstorms from our list of suspected culprits. The lack of wind that accompanies most severe thunderstorms indicates in this case that these clouds were not thunderheads in the purest sense. Viator and his companions noted that by one o’clock in the afternoon the last bit of light was gone. By 2 PM things got weird as an odd luminescence shone in the west and became brighter with time. The clouds in the west were now “more quick, their colour higher and more brassy than at any time before” and there appeared to be “quick flashes, or coruscations, not unlike the aurora borealis.”33 It sounds as if the sunbeams were bleeding out of small vents in the thick clouds. When Viator and his pals finally ventured outdoors at 3 o’clock, they “perceived a strong sooty smell” and “others conjectured the smell was more like that of burnt leaves.”34 When Viator headed down to the tavern, he found agitated punters. They lead him out back to examine the tubs where they had collected of the strange rain water. “Upon examining the water, I found a light scum over it, which rubbing between my thumb and finger, I found to be nothing but black ashes and burnt leaves. The water gave the same strong sooty smell we had observed in the air, and confirmed me in my opinion, that the smell…was occasioned by the smoke, or very small particles of burnt leaves, which had obscured the hemisphere for several days past, were now brought down by the rain. The vast body of smoke from the woods which had been burning for many days, mixing with the common exhalations from the earth and water, and condensed by the action of winds from opposite points, may perhaps be sufficient causes to produce the surprising darkness.”35 Others, like a correspondent dubbed “Nubes” claimed that there was an accompanying sulphurous odor.36 Many other accounts poured in from all over New England that indicated a whiff of burnt leaves and smoke. Many birds were found dead on the ground, having blindly flown into structures or possibly asphyxiated by the thick smoke pall. By the next morning, things got back to normal and the sun returned as its effervescent self and occupied its right place in the sky, for New England’s Dark Day was indeed, over.

So with these clues, we can begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together and draw our own conclusions as to what caused New England’s Dark Day. In Sidney Perley’s Historic Storms of New England we learn that early in May of 1780, there were major forest fires along the shores of Lake Champlain, most likely triggered intentionally, only to rage out of control by accident. New settlements were being made in northern New Hampshire and the artificial deforestation had commenced.37 As settlers did every year in Autumn, trees were intentionally blazed so as to clear land for farming. In the late 18th century, New England was predominantly covered in deciduous and pine forests. Fields for farming were the creations of the settlers and for all intents and purposes not native to the New England landscape. The land clearing method was basic. These trees were deliberately cut halfway through at breast high in late Autumn. During the ensuing Winter all of the trees on the preferred lot to be cleared were prepared in the same fashion. The brisk March winds would then blow down only some of the half-cut trees. To topple the remaining trees, the woodsmen would cut a tree down on the perimeter of the lot and allow it to topple against another to create a “domino effect” with the momentum of one falling timber continuing onto the next falling tree until a whole lot would be piled high (in some cases over 20 feet deep). When the snow melted and the lumber dried, it was then torched in late April or early May. This methodology had a dual purpose as it cleared the lot and the residual ash served as an effective fertilizer for crops. In the Spring of 1780, these slash-and-burn fires raged out of control in a major conflagration.

Other clues emerge as to the fire’s origin. In Weare, New Hampshire, the aforementioned soot was 6 inches deep in places, indicating that it was close to the source.38 In Boston, on the afternoon of May 18th, the day prior to the Dark Day, a breeze sprang up and blew the gathering smoke pall to the south. The following day, the wind changed direction several times before blowing from the east in an onshore breeze that caused a heavy fog. That fog then collided with a front composed of this “timber smog” and rain clouds swept up from the southwest. Could this have been a rare occlusion of a major warm front that was woven with thick smoke moving from the southwest, and then saturated and stalled by cooler moist salt air moving from the east? Could it have caused a thick cloud layer to stall over New England for several hours and consequently blot out the sun? On the Dark Day, considerable rain fell in Maine as thunderstorms with vivid lightning moved across southern New Hampshire. Only a little rain fell on Massachusetts. Indeed this was quite a peculiar meteorological anomaly. Perhaps the center of the low pressure system deteriorated and its strength decreased and therefore its prowess was protracted as the breadth of the cell increased, which is a common attribute of extra-tropical cyclones and some Nor’easters. Perhaps the thicker smoke pall served as a stalling barrier to the winds that blew in from the east. This is pure non-scientific conjecture and from-the-hip speculation on this author’s part and I leave it to the reader to surmise as to what caused the Dark Day of New England. But in the annals of American meteorology, this was a peculiar anomaly that was never repeated.



SOURCES:



1.- Ludlum, David M., “Early American Winters, 1604-1820, The History of American Weather”, American Meteorological Society, 1966, Boston, Mass.

2.- Ludlum, David M., “Early American Winters, 1604-1820, The History of American Weather”, American Meteorological Society, 1966, Boston, Mass.

3.- Ludlum, David M., “Early American Winters, 1604-1820, The History of American Weather”, American Meteorological Society, 1966, Boston, Mass.

4.- Catalog of Lunar Eclipses, 1701 – 1800, NASA Eclipse Home Page

5.- NASA – Annular Solar Eclipse of May 04, 1780

6.– Winsor, Justin; “The Memorial History of Boston, 1630 – 1880”, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, 1881, page 497

7.– Stryker, William S.; “The Battle of Monmouth”; Kessinger Publishing, 2006; Pages 74 -78

8.– English, William Hayden; Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783; Bowen-Merrill company, Kansas City, MO, 1895, page 163.

9.– Corliss, William R.; “Science Frontiers Online”; No. 22, July-August, 1982

10.– Winsor, Justin; “The Memorial History of Boston Including Suffolk County”; J.R. Osgood and Company, Boston, page 497

11.– Phillips, Tony, Dr.; “James Cook and the Transit of Venus”; NASA

12.– Wikipedia; “Dust Storms

13.– Wikipedia; “Dust Bowl

14.– Wikipedia; “Laki

15.– The Economist; “18th Century Climate Change, The Summer of Acid Rain”; December 19th, 2007

16.– USGS; Historical Volcanic Eruptions in the United States

17.– Wikipedia; “New England’s Dark Day

18.– Wikipedia; “List of forest fires

19.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

20.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

21.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

22.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

23.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

24.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

25.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

26.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

27.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

28.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

29.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

30.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

31.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

32.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

33.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

34.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

35.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

36.- Campanella, Thomas, “Mark Well The Gloom: Shedding Light on the Great Dark Day of 1780” Environmental History, January, 2007

37.– Perley, Sidney; “Historic Storms of New England”; Salem Press Publishing and Printing company; Salem, Mass., 1891

38.– Perley, Sidney; “Historic Storms of New England”; Salem Press Publishing and Printing company; Salem, Mass., 1891


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