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Vol. 26.  No. 16 February 8, 2001  Springfield, Massachusetts

Celestial Wanderings

America's First Recorded Meteorite Fall
By Richard Sanderson

Throughout the entire span of human history until the flight of Apollo 11 in 1969, meteorites were our only samples of material from beyond the Earth. People still marvel at craggy iron meteorites like the 290-pound Canyon Diablo specimen on display at the Springfield Science Museum.

Although their cosmic origin remained unrecognized for centuries, meteoritic stones have been cherished and worshipped throughout history. A meteorite that fell during the seventh century was built into the northeastern corner of the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam's central shrine. A 5000-year-old necklace found in an Egyptian pyramid contains bits of meteoritic iron. Meteorites have also been discovered in Native American burial mounds.

Strange accounts of rocks falling from the sky can be found in historical records, but as the 18th century was drawing to a close, the origin of meteorites was still being hotly debated by Europe's leading scientists. On a winter morning in 1807, the United States plunged into the controversy when a swarm of meteoritic fragments pummeled the farm-fields of Weston, Connecticut. America's first recorded meteorite fall captured the attention of many New Englanders as well as the President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

The weather in the Northeast was balmy as the sky began to brighten on the morning of December 14, 1807. A boulder moving swiftly through space suddenly slammed into the Earth's upper atmosphere. Friction with air molecules quickly transformed the frozen rock into a blazing fireball that lit up the sky over New England.

History has recorded that a lady named Mrs. Gardner, who lived in the town of Wentham, Mass., enjoyed observing the weather every day at dawn. On the morning of December 14, 1807, as she glanced through a window, she was startled to see a brilliant globe as big as the full Moon moving swiftly through the sky. Her first thought was, "Where is the Moon going to?" She regained her composure in time to make important observations.

The fireball was described as "vivid red" by William Page of Rutland, Vermont, who saw it disappear behind the Green Mountains to the south. The blazing meteorite rocketed southward over Western Mass. and Connecticut until it broke into pieces over Weston, a town in southern Connecticut just west of Bridgeport.

Nathan Wheeler was a justice in the Court of Common Pleas in 1807. He was taking an early-morning walk near his home in Weston when he spotted the cosmic fireball moving upward from the northern horizon. It passed behind some clouds and was followed by sparks and a long train during its 30-second life. A minute after the fireball faded out near the zenith, Wheeler heard three loud explosions followed by a terrifying rumble similar to a "cannon ball rolling across the floor."

In the northern part of Weston, Merwin Burr was standing in the road in front of his home when a chunk of rock fell from the sky and struck a piece of exposed granite in his yard. Burr collected many fragments of unusual rock, including one about the size of a goose egg.

Five miles south of the Burr homestead, William Prince and his family were awakened by the commotion in the heavens as well as a loud thud. Later, when Prince discovered a fresh hole in his yard, he blamed it on lightning, never dreaming that rocks had fallen from outer space. A rumor quickly circulated that stones had fallen in other parts of town. This prompted Prince to investigate the hole, and he found a 35-pound meteorite fragment which he broke up and gave away as souvenirs.

The Weston meteorite probably entered the atmosphere as a single boulder and broke into pieces during its fiery descent. One of the largest fragments crashed into a field owned by Elijah Seeley and terrified his cows. Seeley found a hole five feet wide filled with 200 pounds of meteoritic rock. Like Prince, he allowed curious visitors to carry away specimens before scientists had a chance to examine them.

The Weston meteorite fall was described in newspapers and journals throughout the country. Soon after the event, a pair of Yale professors, Benjamin Silliman and James Kingsley, traveled to Weston to investigate. Following in the wake of the souvenir hunters, they had trouble obtaining specimens but eventually managed to gather fragments from the various impact sites. They also interviewed witnesses.

Silliman returned to his basement laboratory at Yale and analyzed the meteorite fragments, a study that helped him earn the reputation of being one of America's leading scientists of his day. Unlike most museum meteorites which contain iron and nickel, the Weston specimens were composed of a brown, brittle, granular substance - a variety now known as a stony meteorite.

Since prehistoric times, rocks from space have fallen on the land we now call the United States, but the Weston event was the first documented meteorite fall on American soil. It happened at a critical time in the history of meteorite research, a time when some scientists were beginning to admit that rocks could fall from outer space. Others still maintained that meteorites were merely rocks ejected from volcanoes on our planet. Some people thought they were ordinary rocks that had been struck by lightning and called them "lightning-stones."

After reading a report by the two Yale professors, President Thomas Jefferson is reputed to have said, "It is easier to believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven!" In another version of the story, after listening to an account of the Weston event and examining a specimen while dining with a senator, Jefferson said that five words were enough to sum up the case: "It is all a lie."

Scholars have never been able to pinpoint the original source of Thomas Jefferson's words about the meteorite fall. Jefferson had a broad knowledge of science, so historians doubt that he actually uttered such narrow-minded comments. Perhaps they were invented by one of Jefferson's detractors to embarrass him.

We do know that Jefferson was interested in the Weston event and called for a careful investigation. This study was performed by Nathaniel Bowditch of Salem, the famous author of "American Practical Navigator" and one of America's most noted astronomers. His findings confirmed those of the Yale professors. Stones had indeed fallen from the heavens over Weston, Connecticut.

Today, we know beyond a doubt that the solar system is filled with ancient debris. Cosmic rocks and pebbles often burn up in the atmosphere, and a few survive this treacherous journey and crash into the Earth. Most meteorites originated in the asteroid belt, but some rare specimens were blasted from the Moon and the planet Mars. Meteorites are still treasured and collected. They never fail to stir the imagination, just as the Weston meteorite did nearly two centuries ago.

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