On the day of May 19, 1780, people in New England woke up to find a shadowy smog drifting over the morning sun. Early twilight had fallen within the few hours that passed, and when noon came, the skies were already dark as midnight. Even the animals got confused by the unexpected darkness. The night birds sang while chickens in the area retired to their roosts. People had no other choice but to resort to lighting up candles so that they can see what was around them.
It would take a few centuries before scientists would eventually come up with the most probable cause of the out-of-this-world darkness in New England that day. However, during that time, many Americans were bewildered by the disappearance of sunlight, fearing that the biblical “end of days” was already at hand. That unusual day of confusion and awe has since been commemorated as the “Dark Day” of 1780.
Background on New England’s Dark Day
Several days before the eventful “Dark Day” of May 19, 1780, people had noticed some unusual activities happening in the skies that loomed over New England. At the time, the region had only just recovered from one of its coldest winters on record, and though the still and breezy air in the town warmed up, the was also very dense. In the hours of dusk and dawn, the sun had a reddish hue while the moon glowed pink in the evening. Even General George Washington, who was based with some members of his Continental Army in neighboring New Jersey, mentioned in his diary entry that day that there were “heavy and uncommon kind of clouds” and that it was both dark as well as bright with a “reddish kind of light intermixed with them.”
Despite these unusual signs that appeared the day before, May 19 began as a typical, gloomy morning. The skies were both calm and gloomy while light rain drizzled over some places. People across New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut rose from their beds and headed out to their farms and their towns. It was not until sometime between 8 and 9 in that morning that people started to notice that something was now quite right with their surroundings. A heap of reddish-orange-tinted clouds rushed in from the west, blocking the rays of the early morning sun. And so, instead of glowing brighter, the skies had gone dimmer, with a veil colored like cider descending over the visible heavens.
The dark and cloudy mass of fog and shadows continued to accumulate as the morning passed by. By midday, the sun’s disc was already obscured as a whole and most if not all of the land of New England was shrouded by gloomy blackness. To work or to eat lunch, many people were forced to do so under the glow of faint candlelight. Others could only freeze and stare in amazement at what was unfolding all around them. Believing the sun had already set, cows wandered on the way back to their stalls in the cowshed, while crickets and frogs started to chirp and croak. Even the flowers folded their petals as if night had already fallen.
One famous scene during that day took place in the Governor’s Council of Connecticut. Surprised by the unnatural darkness, a number of the politicians at the council urged the others to adjourn their meeting early. However, a councilman named Abraham Davenport, who is a militia colonel from Connecticut, was vehemently against it. He went down in history for saying the following words:
“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.”
Moved by his words, the council agreed to proceed with the sessions for that day, working by candlelight. This action of Davenport went down in history as a very brave moment amidst great uncertainty and was as later immortalized by writer John Greenleaf in his poem written in 1866.
Aside from a few rays of sunlight slipping through the cloudy blackness, the dark shade almost completely covered the Northeastern area for what remains of the day. That evening was regarded as one of the darkest nights to have been recorded, and people had a hard time sleeping through the night, concerned that they may never get the chance to see the light of day again. However, to their relief, the severe darkness that covered New England had dissipated the morning after.
With little scientific knowledge taught among the residents of New England in 1780, it is not surprising that people were terrified of the unexpected darkness that turned day to night. And so, lacking information and sufficient explanation for the phenomenon, the majority of the populace resorted to seeking comfort in their religious beliefs.
Back then, the citizens residing in New England were largely followers of the Protestant faith, and they regarded natural phenomena as signs as well as indications of what God’s true intentions are. Biblical phrases, particularly those written in the Book of Revelation describing the blackening of the sun, and the moon turning red as blood, led some residents of the area to conclude that Judgment Day had finally come. Witness accounts reported people roamed the streets of their towns making loud declarations that the End of Days was already happening.
The fear and the confusion of the residents in the region over this unusual phenomenon was worsened by the absence of accessible means that would have allowed people to communicate with each other at considerable distances. Thus, they had no way to know for certain and right away what was actually happening and what could be the cause or the meaning behind the unexpected darkness. People also lived quite far away from each other, and their nearest neighbors were not exactly nearby. At that time, they did not know much of what was transpiring beyond the lands of where they resided in. The one thing that these people knew they could always rely to occur on a regular basis was the sun coming up every morning and staying up the whole day until evening comes. However, the unexpected “dark day” phenomenon made them realize that even that supposed consistency in everyday life could not be relied on after all.
And so, the citizens of that area, who back then may have felt completely isolated from the outside world while they resided in the eastern rim of a massive continent that was still largely unexplored, cannot be blamed for fearing that the worst had already begun to happen.
Decades and centuries after the mystifying event, some theories were brought up to explain the darkness which had fallen over the region of New England that unusual day. Some of the hypotheses that attempted to explain the phenomenon included a thick cloud, a solar eclipse, a volcanic eruption, and a meteor strike. However, most of these hypotheses have since been ruled out to explain what really caused the “Dark Day” event in 1780.
For example, while a thick cloud can drop low enough to darken the surroundings, it is unlikely that this alone would be enough to cause a “Dark Day.” A solar eclipse has also been ruled out from consideration because there was no record of it occurring that day, and even then, previous cases of solar eclipses were recorded to have lasted no more than a few minutes. Volcanic activity and a meteor strike are also unlikely because there is also no record of either taking place in 1780.
Most Likely Scientific Cause – Forest Fire
For more than two hundred years, it seemed that New England’s "Dark Day” would remain forever unsolved. However, science found the answer that finally put an end to this enduring mystery.
Back in 2008, the University of Missouri released their discovery of the most plausible cause of the sudden darkness in New England on the fateful day of May 19. The evidence they found from tree rings in Ontario revealed that the great wildfires which took place in the year 1780 could have been the main culprit of it all. In a paper titled “Fire Scars Reveal Source of New England’s 1780 Dark Day,” which was published in and circulated through the International Journal of Wildland Fire, scientists elucidated that the fires that occurred during that time in Canada were responsible for producing columns of heavy smoke which reached as high as the upper atmosphere. This smoke along with the natural fog of the region drastically affected the atmospheric conditions of areas which are supposedly several hundreds of miles away.
The results of this research are further reinforced by various witness accounts that claimed to have smelled the scent of ash lingering in the area. For example, geographer Jeremy Belknap of Boston had written in his letter back in 1780 to Ebenezer Hazard that the surrounding air of where he was had the “smell of a malt-house or a coal-kiln.” The people also described how bodies of water looked like they were dirty and dark.
This scientific study by the University of Missouri provided a remarkable opportunity to combine historical accounts with advanced technology, along with physical, historical evidence which was gathered from the study of tree rings. Consequently, this led to the successful solve of a long-time mystery with the help of science.
The plausible explanation provided by this study would have no doubt been appreciated news in 1780. However, due to the lack of sufficient evidence to sway them otherwise, a large number of people in that area during that period continued to hold New England’s Dark Day with both fear and amazement. For centuries, stories of that darkened day cemented themselves in the region’s popular lore. And the event has since been eternalized and is still being remembered even modern times through a wide assortment of creative pieces in art and poetry.