Natural phenomena are always occurring around us, but we only pay attention when that phenomenon is great enough in size or magnitude that it disrupts our daily routine. Frequently, when we see a darkening of the day it is caused by either super intense cloud cover, or a solar eclipse. Rarely does it get dark enough to cause widespread confusion. It has happened though, and on May 19 of 1780, Maine saw one of its darkest days in our history.
Religious zealots of the day claimed the Apocalypse had arrived, most scientific minded people thought otherwise, and presumed that something had caused the sun to eclipse. But as the day wore on after having what was termed at the time as dusk occurring as early as nine AM, hints and clues were dropped to speak of an otherwise, and more dangerous tragedy at hand. The following excerpt from the book Ancient city of Gorgeana and modern town of York, by George Alexander Emery contains a brief description of that day, at least as it was to some townsfolk in York.
One of the most memorable dark days of the last century took place May 19, 1780. In this town, it commenced to darken at about nine o’clock in the morning, and was past twilight before half past ten o’clock. Throughout the New England States and some adjacent tracts of New York and Canada, such was the obscuration that in many places people could not see to read a line at mid-day without artificial light. For hours, it continued to impart to surrounding objects a tinge of yellow, and awakened in many a beast apprehensions of some impending calamity. All was wrapped in gloom; the birds became silent, domestic fowls retired to their perches, and cocks crowed as at break of day. The darkness of the following night was so intense that many who were benighted and but a little way from home, on well-known roads, could not, without extreme difficulty, retrace their way to their own dwellings. The author, in his boyhood, has often conversed with many of the oldest inhabitants,— among them were Messrs. John Carlisle, William Staccy, William Tetherly, — all of whom were Revolutionary pensioners, and they well remembered the occurrence, and exemplified the dense blackness of that night by saying “that an object held up near the face could no more be seen than a piece of the blackest velvet put in close contact with the eyes.” No astronomical or meteorological cause has ever been assigned for this singular phenomenon.
Of course, today we can provide the probable explanation to this odd stretch of darkness, but we need to remember that at the time of its happening, the constitution of this nation was still years away from being written, and we had just freshly ended our revolutionary war, for the most part. Scientists, in examining history through the annular rings of trees have found that the probable cause of Maine’s darkest day was probably from a massive forest fire that swept through what we now call the Algonquin National Park in Ontario, Canada.
Reports suggest that for at least a few days prior to the event a thick pall had filled the atmosphere, creating a yellowish haze in the air, indicative of a fire burning. A probable combination of that fire, and its growing intensity, with a cold from moving offshore from the northeast, bring dense fog and cloud cover attributed to the intensity of the darkness. Anecdotal reports suggest that soot was collected in some areas, with some reports claiming soot as deep as six inches in western New England. The sun had a reddish tint to it, and the moon, per some statements, seemed to be glowing red through the haze and smoke created by the fire.
There were no apparent injuries from the fallout of that fire, however, due to the ash and soot settling there were some ponds, and wells that were covered by a layer of that soot and ash. Of course, ash is good for the gardens, but it is not so good for the drinking water.
However, every action has a reaction, and like a stone leaving ever widening ripples across the pond as it skips across the surface, this event also created circumstances beyond the simple awe and wonder most people had over the event. One of these reactions was the unexpected advance of the Shaker religion. The fear of the darkness and its comparisons to Biblical prophecy brought many people to their meetings in New York and Massachusetts, and we eventually saw the establishment of the Shaker community in Poland. Other people flocked to religious services and meetings of other denominations and faiths as well.
It is interesting as we gaze over the past to see events take place, and then read about the domino like after effects of any event. If the fire in Ontario had not reached such epic proportions, there would not have been such an outpouring of religious fervor, and without that fervor, the Shakers we know of today would not be as we know them. Perhaps many of the communities they established would never have been established.
I read a lot of commentary and works from many authors from a myriad of sources, and many of those writers have a tendency to politicize and monetize our past, changing its meaning to suit their agenda, instead of simply sharing the details and facts of the past, and putting those stories in light of the results of those events.
Always look beyond the event to find the true story of our past. You might be surprised at what you find.