Eyewitness Account Of
The Great Leonid Meteor
Storm of 1833

One of the greatest meteor storms ever seen took place nearly 166 years ago over the eastern United States. During the 4 hours which preceded dawn on Nov. 13, 1833, the skies were lit up by thousands of shooting stars every minute. Newspapers of that era reveal that almost no one was unaware of the shower. If they were not alerted by the cries of excited neighbors, they were usually awakened by flashes of light cast into normally dark bedrooms by the fireballs. [More information about the history of Leonids meteor showers: <, <]
The great display of shooting stars was caused by debris from comet Tempel-Tuttle which had recently returned to the inner solar system during its 33 year journey around the Sun. The storm marked the discovery of the annual Leonids meteor shower and is widely regarded as the birth of modern meteor astronomy.
Samuel Rogers, the great-great-great-grandfather of Science@NASA reader Neil A. Stonum, was a circuit rider (i.e., a travelling preacher) in the early 19th century. His exploits are recounted in an autobiography Toils and Struggles of the Olden Times, published by Standard Publishing Company in 1880. Rogers was on hand in Antioch, Virginia in 1833 when the Great Leonid Meteor Shower took place, and he wrote this charming account of the historic event.
First-hand account of 1833 Meteor Shower by Elder Samuel Rogers
I at once sold my little farm in the neighborhood of Antioch, and, having disposed of what stock and stuff I could not take with me, on the 13th of November, 1833, I was ready to start upon the journey for our new home in the West. On the evening of the twelfth, many of our dear friends came into bid us adieu, and they remained until a very late hour, when, after a prayer, the most of them returned to their homes, a few remaining to see us off in the morning.
We had but little rest that night, for, before three o,clock in the morning, we were all aroused from our slumbers, making preparation for an early start. Some one, on looking out of the window, observed that it was almost broad daylight. "That can not be," another answered, "For it is scarcely three o,clock." "I can,t help what the clock says," replied the first speaker, "my eyes can not deceive me; it is almost broad daylight --look for yourselves."
After this little altercation, some one went to the door for the purpose of settling the question. Fortunately, there was not a cloud in the heavens; so by a glance, all was settled. I heard one of the children cry out, in a voice expressive of alarm: "Come to the door, father, the world is surely coming to an end." Another exclaimed: "See! The whole heavens are on fire! All the stars are falling!" These cries brought us all into the open yard, to gaze upon the grandest and most beautiful scene my eyes have ever beheld. It did appear as if every star had left its moorings, and was drifting rapidly in a westerly direction, leaving behind a track of light which remained visible for several seconds.
Some of those wandering stars seemed as large as the full moon, or nearly so, and in some cases they appeared to dash at a rapid rate across the general course of the main body of meteors, leaving in their track a bluish light, which gathered into a thin cloud not unlike a puff of smoke from a tobacco-pipe. Some of the meteors were so bright that they were visible for some time after day had fairly dawned. Imagine large snowflakes drifting over your head, so near you that you can distinguish them, one from the other, and yet so thick in the air as to almost obscure the sky; then imagine each snowflake to be a meteor, leaving behind it a tail like a little comet; these meteors of all sizes, from that of a drop of water to that of a great star, having the size of the full moon in appearance: and you may then have some faint idea of this wonderful scene.
It must be remembered that, in the Western States, at that day, there was not much knowledge among the masses upon the subject of meteorology. No tome in a thousand could give any rational account of this wonderful phenomenon; so it will not appear strange that there was widespread alarm at this "star-shooting," so called. Some really thought that the Judgment Day was at hand, and they fell on their knees in penitence, confessing all the sins of their past lives, and calling upon God to have mercy. On our journey we heard little talked of but the "falling of the stars." All sorts of conjectures were made by all sorts of people, excepting there were but few, if any, wise conjectures, and very few wise people to make them along the way we traveled. Not a few thought it an evidence of God,s displeasure, and believed that fearful calamities would probably speedily follow. There were those who believed the Judgment Day was near at hand, and undertook to prove out of the Scriptures that this was one of the signs of the coming of the Son of Man. One old lady was emphatic in the statement that it was certainly a "token of some sign." Statements made even by good-meaning people were often quite erroneous. Some men declared that they saw great balls of fire fall into the water, and heard the sizzling noise, like that made when a red-hot iron is thrown into a slake-tub. Others thought they saw these great balls of fire bursting among the tree-tops.
We may learn of this that, when men are in a high state of excitement, their testimony must be taken with many grains of allowance. I heard of a few who professed religion under the influence of these lights. In that day, for the sinner under conviction to be able to say that he had seen a light, whether he had heard a voice or not, furnished a ready passport into almost any church in the land. I suppose the reformation produced by these meteors was like the appearance of the meteors themselves -- of very short duration. I have no faith in any repentance grounded upon objects of sense. The gospel only is the power of God unto salvation. Love to God and hatred for sin, only can work a permanent change in the life of a man; and nothing short of this can be trusted as permanent in its effects.