Featured, Local History

Apocalypse, 1833 — the Night the Stars Fell

This artist’s conception of the “night the stars fell” was drawn by Valerie Neely Harper, author Charles Ray Harper’s sister-in-law. The drawing reflects the fear felt by all those who saw the terrifying sight.

Editor’s Note:
The 190th anniversary of the most spectacular meteor shower in recorded history is upcoming on November 12th. The meteor shower that produced “the Night the Stars Fell” will make an encore performance between November 5 and 18 with a peak sighting rate projected for the 18th. This issue of the Breeze seems the proper time to reprint an article submitted by the late Charles Ray Harper in 1994.
Mr. Harper’s article follows:

At two o’clock of the morning of November 12, 1833, the farmers and plantation owners of the Kanawha Valley were aroused from their sleep by the cries of the slaves and free people. Mingled with the cries for mercy were the barking of dogs and sounds of other farm animals.

When the people looked out they saw a chilling sight. From horizon to horizon the sky was filled with what appeared to be stars falling like a billion sky-rockets that burst and showered the earth in a fiery torrent. It was a sight never seen before or since.

A Boston writer wrote, “There were over 240,000 meteors which fell near the city.” Another writer described his impression of the meteors from the Niagara Falls Gorge area, “The falling stars did not come down at random but appeared to emanate from a single point in the heavens, the star Leo, near Gamma, and fell in a sweeping arc. They were extinguished some 20 feet from the earth as a candle is snuffed out.”

The people of the Kanawha Valley area were terrified. People fell on their knees praying, and people repented everywhere.

A New York newspaperman said that the night was so bright that a person could read a newspaper at 3:00 A.M. in the morning.

The scene was truly awful with cries and moans everywhere, for never did the rain fall thicker than did the meteors fall towards earth, going to the east, west, north and south. In a word, the whole heavens seemed in motion.

The people thought it was a prophesy right out of the Book of Revelation. Prayer meetings were held daily for weeks, and church attendance increased enormously.

A quote from a story by Irene Ambler in The Hurricane Breeze – “My great-grandfather Robert A. Forth was a very small child, little more than a baby, the night the ‘stars fell.’ Great-grandfather and his father, who was also named Robert A. Forth, were in a group going to a mill on Upper Falls. (My great-grandfather, Robert A. Forth, was called “Old Rob” when he grew up; my Dad, Robert F. Forth, was called “Young Rob,” and my father’s father was my Grandpa Philip Sheridan.)

“The Forth family lived on Trace Creek on that date, November 12, 1833, before any grist mills were closer than Upper Falls of Coal River. The farmers in this part of the country took their corn and wheat to Upper Falls for grinding into meal and flower. Several farmers would load up their wagons with corn and wheat, tie on lanterns, take a lunch and head out for Upper Falls. They would leave home after supper in order to get to the mill early in the morning, trade their grain for the precious meal and flour and then come on back home. My Grandpa Phillip Sherdan’s father, although such a small boy, was allowed to go to mill that night with his father and the other men.

“The wagon route taken in that long ago time was essentially the same as now – on Route 60 When the caravan of wagons came to the top of Coal Mountain, Grandpa said, ‘All the stars fell from Heaven.; It would perhaps take an hour for Grandpa to tell the reactions of those farmers, who knew very little, if anything, about astronomy; but it is a pretty sure thing that they were totally terrified. Grandpa Phillip Sheridan said his father told him, ‘We went on to Upper Falls. We didn’t know what to do. We were too afraid to turn back and too afraid to go on, but we thought it was the end of the world and it didn’t make any difference.’”

Mrs. Ambler related that the phenomenon continued until daybreak. When the armers returned home, they found their families just as stunned as they were.

The mystery of the falling stars has been solved.

It was a meteor shower called the Lenoid Meteors which appear about two days around November 17 each year, the last good one being on November 17, 1966. The meteor shower in 1833 started the study of meteor showers. The next good one should be on November 18, 1999.

I have always thought that this was an Eastern phenomenon, but in my studies on Indians I came across a fact that the Cheyannes, Comanches, Arapahoes and all the Plains Indians told time by “seven winters from the winter the stars fell.” (In white man’s time that was 1840, seven years from 1833.) As you can see, the Plains Indians also knew of the night the stars fell.

Anyway, it was many a day before Putnam County and the Kanawha Valley forgot that dreadful night of November 12, 1833.

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