dark day

Today, May 19, is the anniversary of an unusual environmental event. This day 234 ago, May 19, 1780, was known as “New England’s Dark Day.” All over the region in the late morning–in a few places at dawn–the sun seemed to go out, having been obscured by a curious mass of darkness that blacked out the sky. The darkness was reported from Maine to New Jersey. At mid-day people had to light candles in order to see. Animals also behaved strangely. A century after the event a magazine article recalled, “Birds went to roost, cocks crowed at mid-day as at midnight, and the animals were plainly terrified.” Nothing quite like this event had ever been experienced before in America.

Curious reports of the darkness filtered out of many places in New England. In Hampton, New Hampshire, a doctor reported, “It presented a complete specimen of as total darkness as can be conceived. About midnight a light breeze sprang up from the north or northeast, which dispersed the clouds and vapors, and it soon began to grow light.” Some people reported smelling smoke or a “sooty” aroma in the air. In 1866, a poem was composed by John Greenleaf Whittier, discussing Abraham Davenport, a Stamford, Connecticut legislator who refused to panic even when other citizens of his town insisted that Judgment Day had come upon them. A part of the poem reads:

‘Twas on a May-day of the far old year
Seventeen hundred eighty, that there fell
Over the bloom and sweet life of the Spring
Over the fresh earth and the heaven of noon,
A horror of great darkness, like the night
In day of which the Norland sagas tell,
The Twilight of the Gods. The low-hung sky
Was black with ominous clouds, save where its rim
Was fringed with a dull glow, like that which climbs
The crater’s sides from the red hell below.”

The apocalypse was not nigh, as it seldom is. By the middle of the next night most of the “darkness” had dissipated, and stars were again visible in the sky. Needless to say, though, the people of New England–already on-edge and weary of the endless Revolutionary War that was dragging on for its fifth year–were considerably spooked by the strange event.

What caused it? The answer is pretty self-evident from eyewitness accounts: the “darkness” of the sky, accompanied by a telltale smell, was a large cloud of smoke. Indeed years later researchers discovered many trees in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park bearing scars from a previously unrecorded forest fire of large magnitude. Using dendrochronology–the counting of tree rings–modern scientists dated the scars to, guess when, the spring of 1780. Unbeknownst to the New Englanders at the time, a considerable portion of what was then called Lower Canada was on fire, and the smoke in the atmosphere settled over the region, causing the unnerving darkness.

New England is famous for enshrining events such as these, particularly those of an environmental nature, into folklore. Consequently, the “Dark Day” of 1780 occupies a prominent place in this folklore, as does the “Year Without Summer” (1816), a much larger environmental catastrophe with similar elements.