I’ve always thought the term “meteor shower” is a gross exaggeration of what actually happens. When we go outdoors on the night of a predicted meteor shower, we crane our necks and scan the sky to see more meteors than normal. Sure it’s fun to see a meteor streak across the sky, then maybe a few minutes later there will be another one.
The meteor showers we know are more like trickles or dripping. Shouldn’t a meteor shower resemble a rain shower or the shower we take in the bathroom? I suppose people wouldn’t bother to watch for a meteor trickle.
Apparently in late 1833 and early 1834 there were a pair of atmospheric events that much more closely resembled showers and not trickles. The meteor showers were so intense that indigenous Americans and white settlers alike believed they were evil omens.
The physical nature of meteors was unknown to non-scientific minded people. Most of those people believed that meteors were literally falling stars because they did not understand the nature of actual stars. Today we know that if anything would be falling, it would be Earth falling into the super-heated nuclear furnace of our own local star.
Many people thought that the appearance of comets and meteors in the sky meant something drastic was happening or would soon happen. Some superstitious and religious folks thought the end of the world was near, others believed the millennium was about to take place. In any case, the phenomenon triggered fear in the believers’ minds.
In the predawn darkness of November 13, 1833, the best officially documented case of a very intense meteor shower apparently lit the sky as many thousands of meteors continuously burned up in the upper atmosphere. Some law enforcement observers estimated the rate of fall at over 10,000 instances per hour. Several people described the event as similar to watching showers of fiery rain falling. Modern day astronomers estimate that at its peak, more than 72,000 meteors per hour burned up in the atmosphere that early morning.
The spectacle was seen throughout much of the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Regardless of the cultural background of the observers, most described the meteor shower as one of the most awe-inspiring and alarming sights in history. The similarity of the meteor shower to a rain shower inspired many superlative laced comments. Even scientists and journalists to say it was brilliant beyond belief.
The second “night the stars fell” was during the dark hours of January 5, 1834. This event was primarily seen in the Great Plains of North America. The meteor shower was described by settlers and native Americans in the Southern Plains in the Witchita Mountains.
The sleeping members of the Kiowa nation were awakened by the brilliance of “falling stars”. Some said the sky was as bright as day. Observers said the “storm” was just as intense as the one that took place in November but did not last as long.
Due to the fact that people of European ancestry were forcing native Americans to migrate, the nights of the falling stars were interpreted as evil signs that the end of their world would soon happen.
Unfortunately, the second event took place more locally than generally, so official records of that meteor shower are more difficult to find. However, the reactions of the settlers and Native Americans were similar to those that people expressed during the November event.