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Throwing Shade: 5 Eclipse Stories from Early America

A solar eclipse is one of nature’s most stunning spectacles. Depending on whom you asked in early America, an eclipse could also be a scientific, religious, or political event. During an eclipse, the heavens could provide a mirror for the dreams, ambitions, and anxieties of millions of people.

Below are a few of the fascinating stories about how Americans have tried, and sometimes failed, to make sense of solar eclipses.

June 24, 1778: Clouds over Virginia

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to David Rittenhouse discussing solar eclipse, July 19, 1778. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson was thrilled about the solar eclipse of 1778. Though it happened during the Revolutionary War, Jefferson cared less about what the eclipse symbolized than what data it would reveal. In the late eighteenth century, many American maps remained frustratingly inaccurate. One reason was that it was difficult to accurately measure longitude. But eclipses offered a rare opportunity. Careful measurement of an eclipse could allow you to calculate your longitude more precisely than other available methods.

Jefferson was an avid amateur astronomer. He planned to observe the 1778 eclipse from Monticello and compare his measurements with those of several other Virginians. But when the “day of the great eclipse” arrived, it “proved to be cloudy” at Monticello and much of the rest of Virginia. He also found that his equipment was insufficient. Jefferson had to wait more than three decades until another eclipse gave him an opportunity to determine Monticello’s exact longitude.

In Williamsburg, clouds blocked the beginning of the 1778 eclipse. Rev. James Madison, President of William & Mary, reported his measurements about the eclipse’s end to Jefferson. His account contained a summary of his experience: “You could not determine your most intimate Acquaintance at 20 yds. Distance. Lightening Buggs were seen as at Night.” He concluded, “There was really something awful [i.e., awe-insipiring] in the Appearance which all Nature assumed.”

Oct. 27, 1780: Failure in Penobscot Bay

The 1780 solar eclipse was partially visible in Penobscot Bay, Maine, though the Revolutionary War continued to unfold in this region. This painting depicts a naval battle at Penobscot Bay about a year earlier. “Destruction of the American Fleet at Penobscot Bay, 14 August 1779,” National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The path of the 1780 solar eclipse was highly inconvenient. It passed through Maine and eastern Canada, near the wartime border between the rebellious American colonies and the British Empire. Nevertheless, a group of Harvard University faculty members and students were determined to see it. In the eighteenth century, there was still much scientific knowledge to be discovered from observing eclipses.

The Harvard party convinced British leaders to allow them to observe the eclipse in Maine. They sailed out to Penobscot Bay, off the coast of Maine, and awaited the eclipse. This might have been a high point in the story of the Revolutionary War. Britons and Americans had set aside their differences in the name of science. But what happened next has made it more obscure.

They quickly realized that they had missed the path of totality by a few miles. Samuel Williams, the Harvard faculty member who organized the trip, had somehow misjudged their location, either by miscalculating the eclipse’s path or relying on faulty maps.1 Either way, in the long, distinguished history of scientific discovery at Harvard, this is not a cherished moment.

1791: Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac

Image from Benjamin Banneker’s astronomical journal depicting the 1791 eclipse. Courtesy of Maryland Center for History and Culture (resource ID 2242).

Benjamin Banneker was a free Black tobacco farmer in Maryland who was fascinated by the sky. Over the years, he taught himself to be an astronomer. In April 1791, while working as a surveyor for Washington, D. C., he observed an annular solar eclipse and sketched a diagram of it in his journal.

The most popular book in eighteenth-century America, other than the Bible, was an almanac. The almanac centered on an astronomical table predicting the movements of the sun, moon, and planets in the sky. Banneker had unsuccessfully attempted to publish his own almanac.2 But when the region’s small antislavery community learned about his unusual skill in astronomy, they helped him publish his almanac. His first almanac (he published five editions between 1792 and 1797) correctly predicted an annular eclipse visible in the United States on March 22, 1792.

In this table from his 1792 almanac, Banneker predicted an eclipse for March 22. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1791, he shared a “copy of an Almanack which I have calculated” with Thomas Jefferson. Noting that it was the result of “arduous Study,” Banneker used this proof of his own genius to challenge Jefferson’s racial prejudices. A few years earlier, Jefferson had published Notes on the State of Virginia, which described Black people as, among other things, “in reason much inferior” to whites.3 Banneker noted that his own astronomical accomplishments suggested that all races had been given the “same faculties.” Indeed, Banneker’s letter quoted back at Jefferson his own recent assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

Front cover of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia almanac, for the year of our Lord 1795 (Baltimore: 1794). Courtesy of Maryland Center for History and Culture (resource ID 2241).

June 16, 1806: Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh, and William Henry Harrison

In the early nineteenth century, the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa (also known as Lalawethika or the Prophet) and his brother Tecumseh led a religious revival among numerous Native peoples in the Great Lakes region. The two brothers instructed their followers to renounce American culture and return to earlier traditions. 4

George Catlin, Ten-sqúat-a-way, The Open Door, Known as The Prophet, Brother of Tecumseh (1830). Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

This revival alarmed William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana territory. He wrote to Delaware leaders encouraging them to reject the “pretended prophet” Tenskawatawa. Governor Harrison insisted that his followers should demand “some proofs” of his divinity. “If he is really a prophet,” Harrison suggested, “ask of him to cause the sun to stand still—the moon to alter its course—the rivers to cease to flow—or the dead to rise from their graves.”5

Tenskawata answered by predicting that darkness would soon “come over the sun” for disbelievers. The eclipse of June 16, 1806, which passed through the Great Lakes region, seemed to vindicate him. When he emerged from his tent following the eclipse, he told his followers, “Behold! Did I not prophesy correctly—see darkness is coming.” This correct prediction helped to galvanize and expand the growing anti-American confederation led by Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa.6

Go deeper: How American Protestants interpret the eclipse of 1806? Read Joseph Lathrop’s A Sermon Containing Reflections on the Solar Eclipse.

February 12, 1831: Nat Turner

John Rogers (engraver), “Nat Turner & his confederates in conference,” (1880). Engraving. Courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.

During the late 1820s and early 1830s, a highly religious, young, enslaved man named Nat Turner experienced a series of spiritual visions. These led him to plan an insurrection among his fellow enslaved people in Southampton County, Virginia. According to interviews conducted with Turner in jail, he awaited “signs in heavens” before launching his revolt. The annular eclipse in February 1831, which was visible from Virginia, provided the necessary signal. He explained that he was instructed that,

on the appearance of the sign, (the eclipse of the sun last February) I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons. And immediately on the sign appearing in the heavens, the seal was removed from my lips, and I communicated the great work laid out for me to do. 7

Following the eclipse, Turner began to seek out co-conspirators. They eventually launched their rebellion in August, killing at least 55 white people. A militia defeated the insurgents and killed more than a hundred rebellious enslaved people. Turner was hanged in November 1831.8


A solar eclipse can stir something in a person. They seemed to deliver omens, call people into action, and speak for divine power. Yet nobody could quite agree what they meant. In the “gloomy shade” of the eclipse in June 1806, for example, one Ohio abolitionist named Thomas Hinde saw an “awful omen of approaching events.” Witnessing the same eclipse in Massachusetts, a woman named Mary Avery White wrote in her diary, “Pleasant morning—total Eclipse of the Sun & the stars twinkled at noonday. Wonderful are the changes of nature but more astonishing the wonders of redeeming love.”9

James Fenimore Cooper’s account of the 1806 eclipse was not published in his lifetime. It appears to have been written in the 1830s, but was not published until 1869. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Minutes before, a teenage James Fenimore Cooper had seen the same eclipse in his hometown of Cooperstown, New York. In a later account, he recorded the thoughts that the eclipse caused. He wondered about aliens: “beings. . . with life, feeling, spirit, and aspirations like my own.” He walked around town and saw a “wretched man” escorted out of a prison to see the eclipse. Deprived of the “light of the day” for months, he was invited out just in time for the moon to block it. Cooper concluded “Never have I beheld any spectacle which . . . so forcibly taught the lesson of humility to man as a total eclipse of the sun.” 10

Learn More


Cover image: “Solar Eclipse” oil painting, U.S. Capitol Second Floor Rotunda. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

  1. Duncan Steel, Eclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon that Changed the Course of History (Washington, D. C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2001), ch. 8; Joseph Williamson, “Total Solar Eclipse of October, 1780,” in Joseph W. Porter, ed., The Bangor Historical Magazine, vol. 6: July 1890–June, 1891 (Bangor: Burr & Co, 1891), 63–65.
  2. Eric Herschthal, The Science of Abolition: How Slaveholders Became the Enemies of Progress (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 48–59.
  3. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (London: Stockdale, 1787), 232. Link.
  4. Alfred A. Cave, Prophets of the Great Spirit: Native American Revitalization Movements in Eastern North America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), ch. 3.
  5. Speech of William Henry Harrison to Delaware people (ca. early 1806), in Logan Esarey, ed., Messages and Letters of William Henry Harrison (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Commission, 1922), 1:183. Link.
  6. Adam Jortner, The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), prologue, quote on p. 11.
  7. The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, VA (Richmond: Thomas R. Gray, 1832), 10.
  8. David F. Allmendinger Jr., Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 21–22.
  9. Duncan Steel, Eclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon that Changed the Course of History (Washington, D. C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2001), 174.
  10. Putnam’s Magazine (Sept. 1859), 352–59. Link.