Benjamin and the Night the Stars Fell

Chances are, if you look up at a clear night sky from your backyard tonight, you’ll see the twinkle of merely a few stars. And I’ll remind you of a weirdly uncomfortable fact … you might notice that some of those are actually satellites. Depending on where you live, the degree of light pollution from your city of choice reduces the visibility of our recognizable celestial fireballs.

I can remember seeing more of the night sky as a kid when our house was surrounded by cornfields and located just outside the skirts of our small Ohio village. During those summer nights, we could look up and identify the seven stars forming the Big Dipper in between games of firefly catch & release.

And oh, we loved that little heart skip when witnessing the rare falling star. We’d track its short blazing life until it winked into nothingness. Then close our eyes to make a wish.

Long before our own living memories, let’s think of the time when there were no city lights to dilute the stars’ presence when travelers moving through unfamiliar territory would rely on the night sky to guide them. Farmers were as dependent on the reliability of the stars as they were on the phases of the moon. It was how they knew what to plant and when; how to prepare for the harshest seasons. This knowledge was what they needed to keep their families alive. It was essential.

And we imagine, to anyone dependent on the stability of such things, any changes to the placement of the stars would cause more than a child’s heart skip.

During the autumn of 1833 something remarkable happened in the night sky. The event, later named as “The Night the Stars Fell,” became lore to be passed along family lines.

In the early predawn hours of November 13 1833, one of the greatest natural light shows occurred in North America as tens of thousands of meteors fell by the hour, appearing as if the stars themselves were turning to a silent, fiery rain.

Engraving by Adolf Vollmy (1889)

Meteors in the early 1800’s were familiar sights, but they were not well understood, even by those who studied astronomy in that period. For witnesses who held the November 13th event as something magical, their opinions may have been later swayed by others who considered it as an ill portent. This fiery rain was something that had not happened before in their modern written history, so it must have some deeper meaning. How could it not be something preternatural? A dark omen of something wicked yet to pass? Or instead, perhaps a message of hope, such as the third great sign of the Second Coming prophesied in the Holy Bible?

"Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken."  Matthew 24:29
North Carolina Constitutionalist and Peoples’ Advocate, Nov 19 1833

Today we know that this was a Leonid meteor storm that occurs as a result of the earth crossing the debris stream of the Tempel-Tuttle comet, named for the two men who identified its orbital path in 1855/56. Because of the elliptical path of the Tempel-Tuttle comet, a meteor storm is predicted every 33 years when the earth crosses through a fresh stream of particles, which vaporize when they hit our atmosphere; a phenomena that NASA refers to as “bugs hitting the windshield of an automobile.” On a smaller scale, the Leonid meteor shower occurs every year in November, dependent on clear skies for the viewer.

Despite the 33 year predictions, the next notable Leonid meteor storm in North America happened in 1966. Many eye witness accounts have been archived on this event at NASA-Leonard Storm 1966.

As far I can tell, the 1999 Leonid Storm was in the meh category. I know I was busy then, still I think I would have noticed it. So here’s where we are – hold the date in your Google calendars for November 2032 and send me an invite. We’ll make a celebration out of this next one. Let’s theme it something like “Party Like it’s 1999” and we’ll all wear purple, because that will be so retro.

According to family stories, my 4th Great-Grandfather Benjamin Isaac Farmer (1784-1863) was a witness to the 1833 Falling Stars event. His grandson and namesake Benjamin James Farmer (1837-1915) made a mention in the first paragraph of his 1898 memoir.

“My grandfather moved to Indiana when my father was small boy. He found that country so sickly he moved back to Ash [sic] County. He was camped on the road the night the stars fell. I don’t remember the date.”

Benjamin James Farmer, “Memoir of Benjamin James Farmer” Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1898.

Funny thing with memories, especially when formed around family lore. If Benjamin James says his grandfather temporarily moved the family to Indiana, who am I to say it wasn’t so, just because I can’t find any record of it. My limited research resources counts for nothing, of course. This was nearly three decades before the start of the Civil War and written records are rather scarce on the little things, like packing your family in a wagon and crossing states on a wanderlust journey.

Okay sure, but why was Benjamin Isaac camped on the road during the Falling Stars event? Is it even related to the Indiana trek? Was his family camping on the road with him? And honestly, are these two totally different thoughts Benjamin James used an opening to his memoir?

Still, I’m kinda thrilled to have found any written record of at all of the Night of the Falling Stars in my family history, no matter if it’s merely one sentence.

Benjamin Isaac Farmer, and his brother Enoch, were first generation Americans, their father having immigrated from Ireland to later settle in North Carolina. Benjamin, befitting his moniker, was indeed a farmer by trade, as most were at that time in the pre-Civil War pioneer era. He married Jane Thompson (1794-?) and they had eleven children together, which included my 3rd Great-Grandfather David Preston Farmer (1822-1902), their fourth and youngest son.

Jane Thompson Farmer’s background is more difficult to find; not unusual for women of the time. Let’s be real here, if it weren’t for the census and the birth records from childbearing, we’d be left wondering what their names were at all. I’ve been unable to find burial records for her, so I suspect her marker has been long eroded in a Farmer family cemetery in North Carolina.

But you know? I hope she was able to see the meteor storm that night in November, 1833 and it brought her mystery and joy and fireside stories to tell her many grandchildren.

And I think that Jane and the Mystery of the Falling Stars would make a good name for a young adult suspense novel.