Today in History: The Mystery of the Dark Day

Today in History: The Mystery of the Dark Day

M.C. Millman

On May 19, 1780, a peculiar darkness enveloped most of New England, known as the 'Dark Day'. 

Most of New England and parts of Canada became almost entirely dark, forcing people to use candles in order to be able to see even at noon. 

Understandably, people responded with various emotions, from terror and panic to puzzlement. Many people decided a 'Day of Judement' was upon them and prayed fervently. 

People left work; children were sent home from school. The animals were also confused, with chickens going to their roosts and cattle returning to their stalls. 

Revolutionary War soldier Joseph Plumb Martin wrote in his book, The Adventures Of A Revolutionary Soldier, "We were here [New Jersey] at the time the "dark day" happened (May 19 ;) it has been said that the darkness was not so great in New-Jersey as in New-England. How great it was there, I do not know, but I know that it was very dark where I then was in New Jersey; so much so that the fowls went to their roosts, the cocks crew and the whip-poor-wills sung their usual serenade; the people had to light candles in their houses to enable them to see to carry on their usual business; the night was as uncommonly dark as the day was."

According to the New England Historical Society, George Washington, who was fighting the Revolutionary War then, reported on the Dark Day in his diary. 

"Heavy & uncommon kind of Clouds–dark & at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light intermixed with them–brightening & darkening alternately," Washington wrote. "This continued till afternoon when the sun began to appear. The Wind in the Morning was Easterly. After that, it got to the Westward."

The darkness that enveloped New England lasted for a day and a half. The cause of the gloomy day remained a mystery then, although some colonists did guess correctly. One of those individuals was Joseph Dow, a historian, who wrote, "For some days previous, the air had been filled with smoke, arising, it was supposed, from extensive fires, somewhere raging in the woods." 

Researchers at the University of Missouri confirmed what Dow and others hypothesized. They found evidence in the growth rings of the trees in the Algonquin Highlands, Ontario, that contained charcoal and resin. The fire rings on these trees demonstrated a major forest fire in the spring of 1780. 

Some still consider the event supernatural, but perhaps only because attributing the darkness to causes other than the natural makes the story all the more intriguing.

Photo Credit: Flickr

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