Plunge Into Darkness: Earliest Recorded Solar Eclipses in the Pacific Northwest

August 21, 2017, featured the sight of a lifetime– a total solar eclipse from coast to coast. A glance back into recorded history shares a wealth of stories about solar eclipses and the people fortunate enough to witness them. Western culture embraced scientific theories, organized philosophical meetings to review results, and introduced improved diagrams and instruments to record and report measurements and calendar dates. The source of much of this data came from the keen observations of mariners circumnavigating the globe.

Many Indigenous people shared stories and recorded events and eras through oral traditions. Artist Lillian Pitt called my attention to the Yakama women’s ancient time balls. These balls of woven twine likely recorded every eclipse observed in a single lifespan as well as a woman’s personal experiences from courtship to death. The time balls were made from natural grasses woven into long lengths of string and to begin, every 28th day or the lapse of days between new moons was marked with a scrap of cloth or hide. Eventually, trade beads were used as markers for marriages, births, deaths, profound events such as floods, war or sometimes celestial phenomenon such as an eclipse. Individual taste and preference marked these occasions of a woman’s life, and in her elderly years, her family was likely spellbound for hours as she unraveled the story of her life and the tribe. [1]

Today, depending on where we live and how frequently we travel, most people may have only one or two opportunities to witness a total solar eclipse anywhere in the world. Ancient mariners increased their chances significantly because before 1800 CE they were among the few who traveled far and wide, leaving their villages behind them. Mariners hailed through the centuries from around the globe whether Egyptian, South Pacific Islanders, Chinese, Scots, Italians, Scandinavians, Spaniards, Russians, Tlingits or Chinookans.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has carefully outlined all of the previous solar eclipses that have crossed over the continental United States between 1503 and 1970. We will take a look at events and particularly cultures as they related to or influenced the Pacific Northwest:

A non-commercial science and educational website known as “Hermit Eclipse” describes the solar eclipse of 1503 as, “A dramatic total eclipse plunged the Sun into darkness for 5 minutes and 4 seconds at maximum, creating an amazing spectacle for observers in a broad path up to 218 km wide.”[2] The eclipse was most evident as it crossed over the lands of the Umatilla and Northern Paiute nations, as well as other tribes living along the Columbia River on March 27, 1503. It may have gone unnoticed if typical clouds and rainy weather obscured observation west of the Cascade Range but to be sure many must have noticed the 5-minute collapse into darkness mid-day across the sagelands east of the mountains, sharing their stories many times over about the day that the earth was swept away from light.

1562—A total eclipse of the sun happened once more in North America in March 1562 and this time its path crossed the lands of the Chinookan people, the Yakamas, and the Nez Perce. On the Northwest Coast, a few maritime explorers had begun to sail past – Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sighted southern Oregon from the Pacific in 1543. In 1592, Captain Juan de Fuca undertook detailed charting of waters of the Pacific Northwest including the Strait of Juan de Fuca.[3]

The path of the August 21, 2017, solar eclipse will be tracked from the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw homelands, across the Plains of the Pawnee, the Arapaho, and the Cheyenne and on to the Northwest once more through Nez Perce country, to the Warm Springs and the Chinookan people. The Arapaho have planned great festivities for 2017, and several other tribes like the Warm Springs in Oregon have reserved their accommodations to overflowing.

1618—The total solar eclipse of 1618 occurred July 21 and was best seen in the west in Idaho over Shoshone homelands. Lemhi-Shoshone ancestors of Sacajawea were likely surprised by the total darkness midday while hunting or gathering roots and berries in the summertime. The Shoshone primarily lived along the Snake River Plain and in the American Great Basin region hunting mountain sheep, rabbits, deer and snakes, and fishing for salmon.  After the introduction of horses a century later, many Shoshone focused on buffalo hunts on the Plains.

1778—The total eclipse of the sun was evident on the Atlantic coast of North America on June 24, 1778. While the Revolutionary War raged in the East, British Captain James Cook was exploring the Northwest Coast in the Pacific in search of the legendary Northwest Passage. In January 1778, he and his crew became the first westerners to sail into the Hawaiian Islands. The crew mapped the islands and named them “Sandwich Islands” for John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (who was also the namesake of that popular culinary delight of two pieces of bread with meat or spread wedged between.)

Captain Cook witnessed a solar eclipse in the southern hemisphere on July 5, 1777. The journals recounted the observations: “On 1st July, 1777 Captain James Cook in the Resolution and Charles Clerke in the Discovery were at the island of Tongatapu, Tonga waiting for an eclipse of the sun, which took place on the 5th. According to Cook ‘Every one was at their Telescopes viz. Mr. Bailey, Mr. King, Captain Clerke, Mr. Bligh and my self; I lost the observation by not having a dark glass at hand sutable to the Clouds that were continually passing over the Sun and Mr. Bligh had not got the sun into the field of his Telescope, so that it was only observed by the other three gentlemen and by them with an uncertainty of severl seconds… Mr. Bailey and Mr. King observed with the Acromatic Telescopes belonging to the Boa[r]d of Longitude … Capt. Clerke observ[r]ed with one of the Reflectors. ‘”[4]James King was the second lieutenant on the Resolution and William Bligh was master of the same ship. William Bayly was an astronomer on the Discovery.

On the same voyage, the crew was very fortunate to observe yet another solar eclipse. The ships crossed the Equator on December 22, 1777, and sighted Christmas Island on December 24. They anchored in the atoll and collected turtles. On Tuesday, December 30, 1777, they again observed a solar eclipse at Cook Islet – “Eclipse Island.”[5] One author writes that solar eclipses were a top priority for the Admiralty, “as it accurately set the local time from the contact points and was a very useful check for the accuracy of the almanac.”[6]

1806—Darkness at noon, June 16, 1806. Lewis and Clark were homeward bound on this date and no mention was made of the eclipse. They crossed heavily wooded areas with plenty of snow as they progressed eastward.

Merriweather Lewis noted the day in his journal: “We collected our horses very readily this morning, took breakfast and set out at 6 A. M.; proceeded up the creek about 2 miles through some handsom meadows of fine grass abounding with quawmash, here we passed the creek  & ascended a ridge which led us to the N. E. about seven miles when we arrived at a small branch of hungry creek. … before we reached this little branch on which we dined we saw in the hollows and N. hillsides large quatities of snow yet undisolved; in some places it was from two to three feet deep … however we determined to proceed, accordingly after taking a haisty meal we set out and continued our rout though a thick wood much obstructed with fallen timber, and intersepted by many steep ravines and high hills.    the snow has increased in quantity so much that the greater part of our rout this evening was over the snow which has become sufficiently firm to bear our horses, otherwise it would have been impossible for us to proceed as it lay in immence masses in some places 8 or ten feet deep.”[7]

The solar eclipse was visible across the North American continent in clear weather, and on another American “frontier” in 1806, a different story unfolded. A Native American outsmarted a future president of the United States. The frontier of the United States was all that stretched beyond the western borders of Ohio and Indiana. The Shawnee Indians occupied the adjoining lands and did not relish the intrusion and expansion of American settlement west. Ohio had become a state (1803) and it was obvious that settlers would push with incessant greed to take more and more land. Recruits and full-time soldiers marched across Native lands destroying crops and villages in their path. Raids led by the Shawnee were, at first, disorganized and impulsive and the settlers quickly gained ground with drilled troops and prolonged war.

Two brothers of the Shawnee nation soon stepped forward to lead an organized assault against the Americans. One brother was Tecumseh — a brilliant student of many languages as well as a gifted and admired hunter and war chief. Many great legends were attributed to this fine warrior. Tecumseh’s younger brother Tenskwatawa (Open Door) was known as “The Prophet” among native people. He suffered a slight deformity likely caused at birth as one of a rare set of triplets. His physical deformity led him to interests other than hunting and warring, and as a youth, he turned to alcohol. Awaking from a drunken stupor, Tenskwatawa declared his addiction to be wrong and he began to teach abstinence to his tribe. Strong convictions guided the two brothers to form a large confederation of tribes at the principle town at Tippecanoe. They shunned American acculturation and encouraged all to practice their traditional ways. Their purification movement promoted unity among the Shawnee tribe. [8]

By now the settlers were feeling threatened. Future President of the United States William Henry Harrison was then governor of Indiana Territory. He was looking for an effective way to discredit the Shawnee brothers in the eyes of Native Americans. Harrison drew on his Christian upbringing and challenged “The Prophet” 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.[9] Like the Mark Twain tale written 83 years later, the brothers successfully foretold that the sun would disappear from the sky. When it was eclipsed by the moon on June 16, 1806, the followers of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa were forever convinced that they held mystical powers.  Tensions continued to escalate between American settlers who demanded more lands and the Native Americans who already populated numerous villages and hunting grounds in the region. The brothers urged tribal members to resist Americans in their land grab. In the fall of 1811, William Henry Harrison, still governor leading the troops and volunteer citizens to take more land, learned that Tecumseh had traveled south and decided to move on the Shawnee village of Prophetstown where Tenskwatawa was chief. On November 6, 1811, Harrison called for a “talk” with Tenskwatawa to be held the next day, but suspecting a raid, the chief led a pre-emptive strike against Harrison’s troops with 500 warriors. The surprise was to no avail and Harrison’s troops destroyed the village, slayed the warriors, and burned Prophetstown the next day. Harrison’s victory at this Battle of Tippecanoe earned him the sobriquet “Tippecanoe” that helped elect him to President in 1840. The popular song and slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” praised the two Whig candidates and denigrated the incumbent Martin Van Buren.  Soon after the inauguration, William Harrison contracted pneumonia and died 31 days into office. Vice President John Tyler took the oath of office to become the tenth President of the US, serving from 1841 to 1845. Tyler was deeply involved with negotiations that ended the Seminole War in 1842 and inducted Florida as the twenty-seventh state on his last day in office in 1845. He supported the annexation of Texas, Oregon and California and greatly influenced the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, establishing the 49th parallel as the Canadian-USA boundary. In the West, his strongest influence was signing the Pre-Emption Act in 1841, which spurred Western settlement by allowing a person to stake a claim on 160 acres of public land and purchase it from the government. By May 1843, the first major wagon train with over one thousand emigrants headed out onto the Oregon Trail.

Next time we’ll look at solar eclipses in 19th Century Pacific Northwest history in 1834, 1860, 1869, 1878, and 1889.

End Notes

[1] Lone Grey Squirrel. “Time Ball.” Realm of the Lone Grey Squirrel, April 15 2007.

[2] “Total Solar Eclipse of 27 March, 1503 AD.” Hermit Eclipse. June 21, 2015.

[3] Ioannis Phokas, better known by the Spanish translation of his name, Juan de Fuca, was a Greek maritime pilot in the service of the King of Spain, Philip II.

[4] “225 Years Ago: July- September 1777.” Captain James Cook Society.

[5] Ibid. “The Third Voyage.”

[6] Lomb, Nick. “Cook’s three voyages of exploration.” Observations. April 17, 2012.

[7] Lewis, Meriwether. “June 16, 1806.” Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. June 16, 1806..

[8] Multiple Contributors. “Tenskwatawa.” Wikipedia.

[9] Kramer, Bill. “Tecumseh and the Eclipse of 1806.” Eclipse-Chasers. October 2, 2014.

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