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Unveiling the Mystery: The Phenomenon of Total Solar Eclipses in Early America

 


 

Mea Culpa.  Yes, I realize that we promised an article on the origins of and how it was celebrated in early America.  However, sometimes life gets in the way of our plans, and we must fall back to “Plan B,” which, in this case means we will skip the Valentine’s Day post and move on.  Maybe we will do the Valentine’s Day post next year.


Today’s post will instead look at a topic that is of current interest due to an event coming up in April 2024.  If you spend much time reading or watching the media, you will not have been able to miss all the “hoopla” about the upcoming total solar eclipse.  Everyone seems very excited about it and it seems like there might be good reason for that.  According to everyone you talk to, total solar eclipses are rare events that one may only see once in a lifetime.  But is that true, or just a perception that people have?  Join us as we examine Total Solar Eclipses.

 

What is a total solar eclipse and are they rare?

For those who may not remember a lot of their primary and secondary school science, a total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, completely covering the sun's face.  Although the Sun is much larger than the Moon, the moon appears larger than the sun and can obscure it because of the moon’s position closer to Earth.  This is a phenomenon that many primitive peoples in the past found quite terrifying.


Total Solar Eclipse
Total Solar Eclipse

There are several types of solar eclipses: Total, Annular, and Partial.  A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, completely blocking the sun's face.  The sky will darken, as if it were dawn or dusk.  An annular eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun but doesn't completely cover the sun's disk.  Instead, it covers most of the sun, leaving a bright ring around the moon. A partial solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and Earth, but the three celestial bodies are not perfectly aligned. During a partial solar eclipse, the moon only covers part of the sun, giving it a crescent shape.  For the purposes of this post, we are concerned with Total eclipses and to a much lesser extent, Annular ones.


Annular Solar Eclipse
Annular Solar Eclipse

Total solar eclipses are not really all that rare.  On average, a total solar eclipse happens every 18 months somewhere on Earth.  However, people tend to think of them as exceedingly rare occurrences because they only happen every 360–410 years at any given location and because when they do occur, they are only visible from a tiny fraction of Earth's surface, less than 1%.  The Moon's shadow on Earth isn't big, so only a small portion of places on Earth will see it.  To view a total solar eclipse, you must be on the sunny side of the planet when it happens, and you also must be in the path of the Moon's shadow.

 

Partial Solar Eclipse
Partial Solar Eclipse

Predicting Eclipses

Humans have had the ability to predict the occurrence of solar eclipses, at least to some extent, for quite some time.  It has been suggested that at Stonehenge in the UK, as early as 3000 BCE, stone markings were used to keep track of the proximity of the Sun and Moon to predict eclipses.  The 4th century BCE astronomer Shi Shen described the prediction of eclipses by using the relative positions of the Moon and Sun.  The "radiating influence" theory (i.e., the Moon's light was light reflected from the Sun) was existent in Chinese thought from about the sixth century BCE.  Records from ancient China show that by about 20 BCE Chinese astrologers understood the true cause of eclipses, and by 8 BCE some predictions of total solar eclipse were made using a 135-month recurrence period.  By CE 206, Chinese astronomers were able to predict solar eclipses by analyzing the motion of the Moon.


Edmund Halley
Edmund Halley

Towards the end of the 17th century, the English Astronomer Edmund Halley, through the application of Newton’s laws to the study of ancient texts came up with what he called the “Saros Cycle.”  The Saros cycle is the time that it takes for the Sun, Earth, and Moon to return to almost exactly the same relative positions.  This means that the pattern of eclipses repeats itself every Saros cycle.


The Saros cycle is about 18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours long.  This is the time it takes for the Moon to orbit the Earth 223 times.  During a Saros cycle, there will be a series of eclipses. The first eclipse in the series will be a solar eclipse.  The next eclipse in the series will be a lunar eclipse.  This pattern will continue until the end of the Saros cycle.  As a result, the Saros cycle can be used to predict future eclipses.  If you know when an eclipse happened in the past, you can use the Saros cycle to predict when the next eclipse in the series will happen.  Thus, by the 18th century, prediction of Solar eclipses, and their locations, was done with a fair amount of accuracy.

 

18th Century American Total Eclipses

 

June 24, 1778

The total solar eclipse of June 24, 1778, began in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and passed from Lower California, sweeping eastward, passing close to Philadelphia, and on to New England.  George Rogers Clark and his men, on their way to take Kaskaskia during the Illinois campaign, observed it as it passed over the Falls of the Ohio.  Outside of Philadelphia, it was observed by prominent astronomer David Rittenhouse, whose comments on the eclipse were published in one of the first volumes of the American Philosophical Society memoirs.  Thomas Jefferson, who was in Virginia at the time of the eclipse, wrote in a letter to Rittenhouse that:


“[we] were much disappointed in Virginia generally on the day of the great eclipse, which proved to be cloudy.  In [Williamsburg], where it was total, I understand only the beginning was seen.”


Jefferson went on to humbly request that Rittenhouse send him a more accurate timepiece—one designed to be “for astronomical purposes only.”


This solar eclipse lasted four minutes over the middle Atlantic and New England States.


David Rittenhouse
David Rittenhouse

October 27, 1780

In 1780, Harvard College commissioned the Reverend Samuel Williams, Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, to observe the total solar eclipse predicted for October 27, 1780.  This was the first American solar eclipse expedition.  However, the Colonies were still at war with Great Britain.  Professor Williams traveled to what is now Penobscot Bay in Maine, where he negotiated a special immunity with the British naval officer in charge of the area which allowed him to land long enough to make his observations.  Unfortunately, due to several errors, he found the site he chose for his observations to be just outside the path of totality.

Rev. Samuel Williams
Rev. Samuel Williams

There is also a record of this eclipse in the correspondence of Mr. Joseph Peters to Mr. Caleb Gannet, the Recording Secretary of the American Academy, in which he reports the observations of Mr. Clarke and Mr. Wright taken on St. John’s Island, Nova Scotia.  The duration of the totality was reported as 2 minutes.

 

Early 19th Century American Eclipses

 

June 16, 1806

A total solar eclipse occurred on June 16, 1806, that is sometimes known as Tecumseh's Eclipse.  It has been called Tecumseh's Eclipse after the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh.  He realized that the only hope for the various tribes in east and central North America was to join.  He was assisted by his brother, Tenskwatawa, called The Prophet, who called for a rejection of European influence and a return to traditional values.


This tribal unity threatened William Henry Harrison who was looking for a way to discredit the brothers in the eyes of the Indians.  The Prophet claimed to have almost divine powers.  So, Harrison decided to put forth a challenge.  Using his Christian upbringing as a base, Harrison wrote an open letter to the Indians gathered at Tippecanoe.  He wrote:


"If he (Tenskwatawa) is really a prophet, ask him to cause the Sun to stand still or the Moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow or the dead to rise from their graves."


In other words, he wanted to see them produce a miracle of biblical proportions.  What he did not expect was the reaction of the Indians to this request.  For them, this request had a different meaning.  This request was seen by the Indians as questioning the Great Spirit’s power.

Tenskwatawa - The Shawnee Prophet
Tenskwatawa - The Shawnee Prophet

This letter was presented to the brothers when they were visiting a friend along the White River.  One story has the two of them going inside to meet in private.  After an hour had passed, the Prophet requested that all in the village be assembled for him to deliver his response.  He said he had consulted with the Great Spirit and that she was not happy about Harrison's request.  Thus, the Great Spirit had agreed to give a sign that the Prophet could share with others in advance to demonstrate just how closely related they were. The Prophet spoke in a loud and confident voice saying that:


"Fifty days from this day there will be no cloud in the sky.  Yet, when the Sun has reached its highest point, at that moment will the Great Spirit take it into her hand and hide it from us.  The darkness of night will thereupon cover us, and the stars will shine round about us.  The birds will roost, and the night creatures will awaken and stir."


At around noon on the appointed day, June 16th, 1806, a total solar eclipse crossed the region. A long eclipse with a band of totality stretching from near the southern tip of Lake Michigan to just north of Cincinnati, it encompassed most of the lands inhabited by Tenskwatawa's followers.  Where Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh waited for the event, close to a thousand had gathered to see the Prophet's sign.  The Prophet waved his arms towards the eclipse at the appropriate time, and the people were impressed.  After some time, this eclipse had an exceptionally long duration of totality: almost 5 minutes, Tenskwatawa asked the Great Spirit to release the sun.  Harrison’s attempt to divide the Shawnee people, and the rest of the tribes of Tecumseh’s Confederation backfired spectacularly.


José Joaquin Ferrer y Cafranga
José Joaquin Ferrer y Cafranga

The Spanish Basque astronomer José Joaquin Ferrer y Cafranga, who was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1801, also recorded this eclipse.  The Spanish astronomer was part of the some of the earliest United States solar eclipse expeditions.  He journeyed to Cuba in 1803 and to New York State in 1806 and observed the two solar eclipses successfully.  In the description of the solar eclipse in 1806, observed from Kinderhook, New York, he coined the word "corona" for the bright ring observable during a total eclipse.


After the eclipse, a narration of the eclipse was published in the New Hampshire Federalist on July 8. 1806


"A total eclipse of the Sun is one of the most engaging and uncommon phenomena, which Astronomy ever presents to our view.  A central eclipse of the Sun will happen in some part of the earth in the course of every year; but it is but very seldom that a total eclipse is seen at any particular place.

We had a favorable opportunity for observing one of these eclipses on Monday last.  It was nearly total in this place; the weather was fair and the air serene and clear.  A good clock for several days before, was carefully regulated by corresponding altitudes of the Sun; and the observations were taken with a good reflecting telescope, made by Nairne with a magnifying power of 55 times; an assistant noting the clock, and another taking down the observations."

There were several phenomena attending this eclipse which seem worth of notice. From the beginning to the time of the greatest obscuration, the color and appearance of the sky were gradually changing from an azure blue to a more dark and dusky color, until it bore the aspect and gloom of night.  The degrees of darkness was greater than was expected, while so many of the solar rays were still visible.  Mars and Venus shone bright in the west; Sirius was seen in the southeast, and in the zenith Aldebaran appeared bright and sparkling."


This eclipse is noteworthy for an unpublished manuscript by James Fenimore Cooper, The Eclipse.  The author witnessed the total solar eclipse in Cooperstown, New York.

 

February 12, 1831

The next eclipse widely observed in the young United States was the annular solar eclipse of February 12, 1831.  This eclipse was instrumental in a slave uprising led by Nat Turner.  He witnessed this eclipse and took it as a sign from God to begin an insurrection against slave holders.

Nat Turner
Nat Turner

This 1831 eclipse was the subject of the earliest known eclipse map in the United States, printed in the American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge.  Even without the track of the eclipse, this beautiful map would stand on its own as an excellent early map of the United States.  With the eclipse track, this map combines space and time to present a sophisticated guide of the eclipse.

 

November 30, 1834

Just three years later, the total solar eclipse of November 30, 1834, crossed the southeastern United States. Charles Bowen, the publisher of the 1831 map, conveniently engraved the path of the 1834 eclipse on top of the 1831 path.  Again, the cartographic execution was excellent, and this map is a fine collector's item. 


Charles Bowen's Map Showing the Path of the 1831 and 1834 Eclipses
Charles Bowen's Map Showing the Path of the 1831 and 1834 Eclipses

We hope you enjoyed today's post looking at the history of Total Solar Eclipses in America during the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Please join us again next time when we will look at “How to get a rise out of your baking – Leavening agents in 18th and early-19th century America.”


Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post).  This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles.  We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.


Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.

 

References

Barton, W. (1813).  Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse, LLD. F.R.S.  Philadelphia: Edward Parker.


Drake, B. (1841).  Life of Tecumseh and his brother The Prophet.  Cincinnati: E. Morgan & Co.


Jefferson, T. (1950).  The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol 2, 1777-18 June 1779.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Peters, J. (1783).  Observations of a Solar Eclipse, October 27, 1780.  Made at St. John's Island by Mess'rs Clarke and Wright.  Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 143-145.


Vahia, M. (2014).  Eclipses in ancient cultures. Mumbai: Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

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