Monday, August 12, 2013

A Tempest of Shooting Stars

       Last night’s talk on the news about the Perseids meteor shower reminded me of a story about my Great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Homan.  Elizabeth was Lizzie Fox Pickett’s mother.     
     In 1833 Elizabeth Homan’s father, Joseph, a blacksmith decided to move his family from Rockingham County, Virginia to Ohio.  He settled in Muskingum County for five years, before moving to Licking County for ten years and eventually to Delaware County.  He traveled rather late in the year because we know that the family was on the road to Muskingum County on November 12, 1833.  We know the exact date they were traveling because of the family story about shooting stars.  
     The Grundy County, Illinois History1 states 
     “. . . while en route [the family] witnessed the remarkable phenomenon of shooting stars which occurred that year. They made their journey westward with team and wagon, and one night took refuge in a school-house, in which place they saw the wonderful astronomical display. . .
     It is because of this astronomical display that we know exactly when they were traveling.  Contemporary accounts tell of the shooting stars falling about half as frequently as  flakes of snow in a snowstorm.  It was estimated that about a quarter of a million meteors were visible during the night in Boston.  There were at least 40 per second.  It frightened people half to death.  Nov 12, 1833 is still considered to be the greatest astronomical display in recorded history.  This was the Great Leonid Meteor Shower of 1833.
     In the summer of 1969 I participated in a sailboat race from Los Angeles to Honolulu.  About 2:30am on the morning of July 15, I spotted an incredibly bright shooting star.  As I wrote in my log, "spotted brilliant shooting star...lit up the whole sky... and left a huge vapor trail".  I remember that I could have read a book, it was that bright.   It left quite an impression on me. 
     I think that if I had seen that starry night in 1833 that it would have made quite an impression also.

NASA article regarding Nov 12, 1833
1.  Biographical & Genealogical Record of LaSalle & Grundy Counties, Illinois, Volume II, Chicago, 1900, p708-711

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