In 1833, the sky fell, but life went on

A depiction of the 1833 Leonid meteor shower.

By Linda Emley

It was 11 p.m. last Thursday and I was sitting at the museum trying to find a story before my deadline the next morning.

It had been a long day because I had hosted a Christmas party for our monthly board meeting and I was getting tired. I took a break and looked on Facebook to see what the rest of the world was doing and ran across a post by my friend, Karen Stigall, that mentioned she had been outside watching a meteor shower.

I grabbed a blanket and headed to the second floor porch at the museum, where I could watch the northern sky.

I was enjoying the cool night air when I saw the first shooting star. After seeing four more, I headed back to my desk. I was so tired, I decided to pulled a story from the past about shooting stars. In case you missed it the first time, here it again.

There is nothing more magical than the feeling you get when you see a shooting star blaze across the sky. I’m one of those people who will set my alarm and get up in the middle of the night to see a meteorite shower.

Or is it a meteor shower? I looked in a dictionary and I think a “meteoroid” is a rock floating through space. When it hits the earth’s atmosphere and starts to burn, it becomes a “meteor”. If it survives and hits the earth’s surface, then it is called a “meteorite”.

Since I’m not an astronomer and I don’t work for NASA, this is a story about “shooting stars”.

So what do shooting stars have to do with Ray County history? One day I was at a meeting of the Ray County Genealogical Association and Jenne Layman gave a talk about “The night the stars fell.” After her talk, I had to know more.

It was Nov. 13, 1833 when the sky was full of shooting stars from the Leonid meteor shower. It was associated with the comet Tempel Tuttle and was named Leonid because it looked like it was shooting from the Leo constellation.

The Leonid meteor shower happens every November, but it is more intense every 33 years. The Tempel Tuttle comet revolves around the sun every 32 and a half years. The Earth passes through the comet’s orbit every year, but it’s closest to the Earth every 33 years when it passes closest to the sun.

It was such a spectacular sight in 1833 that many people thought the world was coming to an end. The “night the stars fell” is mentioned in several stories about Ray County. The 1973 Ray County history book tells about Jabez and Elizabeth Shotwell and their seven children, who arrived in Lexington in 1833, the night of the falling stars.

Bruna McGuire and Betty Wall wrote a story about the Wall family in 1933 that also mentioned this magical night. Edward and Behethelen Wall moved their family of 11 from Kentucky and landed in Lexington on Nov. 13, 1833. “As they could not cross the Missouri River, on the boat that day, they camped at the Slusher farm. That was the night the stars fell. One of the family, seeing the sparks, called to the Squire, saying, ‘Stop stirring the fire, you might set the tent a fire.’ He answered, ‘I’m not touching the fire – just come here and look!’

“The family was aroused and they thought the world was coming to an end. The slaves fell on their knees and began to pray. The stars showered down so thickly and fast that it looked as though every star in the heavens was falling. When they touched the ground, they burst and drifted away. Stars were still falling when the sun arose the next morning. Never before had there been such a sight witnessed, nor has there been since the greatest meteoric display of our age.”

This meteor shower also affected Missouri Mormon history. “As the saints were being driven from Jackson County in November 1833, several hundred refugees lay on the banks of the Missouri River, many sleeping on the ground under the open sky. They woke around 2 a.m. Nov. 13 to witness one of the most spectacular showers of meteors in recorded history, which has been referred to as “the night the stars fell.” Elder Parley Pratt was there and described it: ‘About two o’clock the next morning we were called up the cry of signs in the heavens. We arose, and to our great astonishment all the firmament seemed enveloped in splendid fireworks, as if every star in the broad expanses had been hurled from its course and sent lawless through the wilds of the ether. Thousands of bright meteors were shooting through space in every direction, with long trains of light following their course. This lasted for several hours and was only closed by the dawn of the rising sun. Every heart was filled with joy at this majestic display of signs and wonders.’ ”

Another story came from Samuel Rogers. “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.”

Amanda, a slave girl from Tennessee, also remembered this night. “Somebody in the quarters started yellin’ in the middle of the night to come out and to look up at the sky. We went outside and there they was a fallin’ everywhere! Big stars coming down real close to the groun’ and just before they hit the ground they would burn up! We was all scared. Some o’ the folks was screamin’, and some was prayin’. We all made so much noise, the white folks came out to see what was happenin’. They looked up and then they got scared, too.

“But then the white folks started callin’ all the slaves together, and for no reason, they started tellin’ some of the slaves who their mothers and fathers was, and who they’d been sold to and where. The old folks was so glad to hear where their people went. They made sure we all knew what happened, you see, they thought it was Judgment Day.”

This event was first recorded in 902 A.D and Plato told of similar meteor showers in his writings. There have been other accounts of the Leonid meteor showers, but the 1833 shower was the most spectacular ever recorded. I wondered why 1833 was different and after some research I found the conditions were prefect and the meteor shower was closer to the earth than in other years.

Some day there may be a meteor shower as spectacular as the one in 1833, but we will know there is no reason to worry because it’s not the end of the world.

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