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o be human, it seems, is to seek purpose in our transient lives. Many

people find meaning in the eyes of their children or in the words of

Scripture, but I discovered it on a beach outside a Hyatt Regency in

Aruba. I had journeyed south that winter of 1998 to escape the snows

of Boston and, more notably, to take in natures grandest spectacle, a total solar eclipse,

which would cross the Caribbean on a Thursday afternoon in late February. As a science

journalist, I thought I knew what to expect. For 174 seconds, the blue sky would blacken,

stars would appear, and the sun would manifest its ethereal outer atmosphere, the solar

corona. What I had not anticipated was my own intense reaction to the display.

For three glorious minutes, I felt transported to another planet, indeed to a higher

plane of reality, as my consciousness departed the earth and I gaped at an alien sky.

Above me, in the dim vault of the heavens, shone an incomprehensible object. It looked

like an enormous wreath woven from silvery thread, and it hung suspended in the

immensity of space, shimmering. As I stood transfixed by this vision, I felt something I

had never experienced beforea visceral connection to the universeand I became an

umbraphile, an eclipse chaser, one who has since obsessively stalked the moons shadow

across Europe, Asia, Australiafor yet a few more fleeting moments of lunar nirvana.

Over the years, this eccentric passion naturally led me to wonder how humans in

the past have responded to the same imposing sight, and my curiosity eventually steered

me to the Library of Congress. That institution holds not just books but also millions of

artifacts culled from American historyfrom Lincolns early draft of the Gettysburg

Address to the correspondence of Groucho Marxand among its vast collections are the

personal papers of astronomers of the nineteenth century, the eclipse chasers of their

time, who probed the hidden sun for natures secrets. During long days at the James

Madison Memorial Building, across from the U.S. Capitol, I requested box after dusty

box from storage and discovered a priceless lode: faded, handwritten letters; dog-eared

news clippings; telegrams and train tickets, photographs and drawings; and fragile,

yellowing diaries that retained the observations, dreams, and desires of people who, like

me, found magic in the shade of the moon. As I read these aging documents in the sterile

glow of fluorescent lights, I grew immersed in a narrative far richer than any I had

imagined. Those relics revealed a tale not just about eclipses, but about how the United

States came to be the nation that it is today.

If indeed we all seek purpose in our lives, this longing applies not only to

individuals but also to societies. The story I happened upon in the Library of Congress,

and which I subsequently traced through archives across the continent, describes nothing

less than a search for existential meaning. The tale ultimately reflects how an unfledged

young nation came to embrace something much larger than itselfthe enduring human

quest for knowledge and truth.

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Eclipses suns imply.

Emily Dickinson

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Shall the Sun Be Darkened

July 29, 1878Johnson County, Texas

ome would claim that the tragedys fateful course had been set several

months earlier, in the winter of 1878. That was the coldest weather I

have [ever] gone against, one longtime Texan remembered, recalling that

Dallas had witnessed something exotic that season: ice-skating. They

built brush and log fires all around the lake to keep from freezing while they were taking

in the novel spectacle. Another local told how, after the ice had melted and the earth had

thawed, the Texas summer brought another portentous phenomenon, a plague of

grasshoppers. [They] passed up nothing that was green. There were millions on millions

of them. The cold snap and the locust swarms lodged in the minds of individuals who

were prone to reading biblical significance into natural events. To them, these were signs

that the world was soon to end.

Predictions of the worlds imminent demise were not uncommon in nineteenth-

century America. In the 1830s and early 1840s, followers of the millenarian preacher

William Miller filled enormous tents to hear of the awesome day of Christs return, when

the earth will be dashed to pieces and Jesus will destroy the bodies of the living

wicked by fire. By means of an elaborate formula, Miller calculated when Judgment

Day would occur, which he established as October 22, 1844a date that became known

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as the Great Disappointment after the Lord did not come to retrieve his faithful, foiling

the hopes of those who had climbed rooftops to prepare for their ascent into heaven.

Later, the Adventist preacher Nelson H. Barbour revised Millers calculations and offered

a new forecast that he published in the book Evidences for the Coming of the Lord in

1873, yet another year that passed without Christs longed-for return. By the mid-1870s,

Dwight Moody, a shoe salesman turned evangelist who preached to standing-room-only

crowds, steered a wiser, potentially less humiliating course. He fixed no specific date for

the Rapture but implored his audiences simply to be ready at all times. The trump of

God may be sounded, for anything we know, before I finish this sermon, he intoned.

For those on the lookout for the Second Coming, celestial trumpets would not be

the only harbinger of Christs return. According to the Book of Matthew, just before Jesus

appeared in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, another sign would

manifest itself: at that moment, Christ proclaimed, shall the sun be darkened.

On the scorching afternoon of July 29, 1878, in a landscape recently transformed

from open range to farmland, the people of Johnson County were cultivating their fields.

This part of North Central Texas was a mix of West and South, cowboys and cotton. The

region had seen its share of slaveholding, and although the Emancipation Proclamation

had ostensibly abolished the practice, for many freedmen it felt as if slavery had

continued. Without property of their own, black laborers, forced to sharecrop from white

landlords, still slept in rough-hewn shacks, woke before dawn, and worked interminable

hoursfrom cant see to cant seefor scant reward.

What had motivated one Ephraim Miller to journey to this hardscrabble part of

Texas some six months earlier is not recorded, but he had come from West Tennessee, a

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region that in this era saw a great exodus of Exodusters, former slaves fleeing racial

violence and economic oppression. Arriving in Texas, Miller rented a small prairie farm

near the old Johnson County seat of Buchanan, with an eastward view of the Cross

Timbersdense oak woods that provided lumber for fences, plow handles, and coffins.

With a wife and four childrenthe eldest a son, about tenMiller was said to be

prospering, at least enough to afford a recent purchase, a hatchet.

That July day had begun unremarkably, an overcast morning yielding to scattered

storm clouds in the afternoon. The air was thick and hot, and lightning flashed against the

summer horizon. As the sun inched westward and the hour approached four, the Texans

noticed peculiarities in their surroundings. A farmer near Waco puzzled at a sight beneath

his cottonwoods: the specks of light between the shadows of the leaves bizarrely turned

to crescents, miniature moons dappling the ground. In Dallas, a woman on the banks of

the Trinity heard the melancholy croaking of frogs. On the plains to the northwest, a nine-

year-old boy caught sight of bats flying aberrantly in the afternoon. The oppressive heat

began to lift as the quality of daylight shifted. The squat homes, the cornstalks, the

barbed-wire fencingeverything took on an air of unreality, seemingly thrown into bold

relief. The landscape dimmednot turning gray, as if beneath cloud cover, but a faint

yellow, as if lit by a fading kerosene lamp. Fireflies winked on. A star suddenly

materialized, then two. The air stopped moving. The birds ceased their chatter. Then a

few final ripples of light rushed over the groundand darkness descended.

Fear swept over the fields. A man fell to his knees in supplication, between the

handles of his plow. Others fled toward church. Looking up, the people of Johnson

County saw an unfamiliar sky; the sun was gone, replaced by a magnificent ring of

golden lighta halo. This heavenly crown was finely textured, as if made from spun silk,

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with hints of ruby at its base and luminous, pearly wings projecting toward the east and


It was then that Ephraim Miller was seen running toward home, hatchet in hand. A

devout man, Miller had been heard to say that morning that he had learned the world

would end that very evening, and if so, he intended to be so sound asleep that Gabriels

trumpet wouldnt wake him. He apparently wished to avoid the apocalypse and to speed

his passage to the hereafter. He did not plan to go alone. Entering the house, he

encountered his son and struck hard with the axe. The boy fell, gasping for life in a pool

of blood. Millers young daughtersage two and fourwailed and hid beneath the bed,

while his littlest child, an infant, crawled on the floor. Clutching a new razor with his

right hand, Miller climbed a ladder to the tiny attic. There, closer to the kingdom of

heaven, he cut his own throat from ear to ear. Then he fell back to earth beside his dying


Millers wife, witnessing the murder-suicide, screamed and burst out the back

door. Come on, sweet chariot, she cried as she wrung her hands, crossing a cotton field

in the deep twilight at the end of time.

For millennia, total solar eclipses have awed, frightened, and inspired.

In the sixth century B.C., in Asia Minor, two warring powersthe Medes and the

Lydianslaid down their weapons after six years of fighting when confronted by the

sudden darkness of an eclipse. (The soldiers were zealous to make peace, Herodotus

relates.) In A.D. 840, in Europe, a total eclipse so unnerved Holy Roman Emperor Louis

the Piouswho had long been anxious about strange events in the heavensthat,

according to an advisor, the emperor began to waste away by refusing food and died a

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month later, plunging his realm into civil war. In 1806, in North America, the appearance

of a black sunan omen predicted by the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa

emboldened a Native American uprising that his brother Tecumseh would lead against the

United States in the War of 1812. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper, whose tales of

wilderness adventure would captivate the nation, witnessed that same eclipse in upstate

New York, and years later he recalled it vividly. I shall only say that I have passed a

varied and eventful life, that it has been my fortune to see earth, heavens, ocean, and man

in most of their aspects, he wrote, but never have I beheld any spectacle which so

plainly manifested the majesty of the Creator, or so forcibly taught the lesson of humility

to man as a total eclipse of the sun.

A total solar eclipse is a singular experience, not to be confused with other, more

common types of eclipses. Partial solar eclipses, which occur at least twice a year over a

large portion of the earth, offer a curious sight (through darkened glass, you can watch

the moon take a bite out of the solar disk), but the effects are otherwise subtle. Lunar

eclipses, in which the earth casts its shadow on a reddened moon, can be memorable and

strangely beautiful, but they too are not especially rare. Total solar eclipses, on the other

hand, in which the moon completely obscures the face of the sun, are exceptional

passing any given point on earth about once every four hundred yearsand create an

experience that is otherworldly. With a total solar eclipse, you come to appreciate that the

very wordeclipseis misleading, because what is notable is not what is hidden, but

what is revealed. A total eclipse pulls back the curtain that is the daytime sky, exposing

what is above our heads but unseen at any other time: the solar system. Suddenly, you

perceive our blazing sun as never before, flanked by bright stars and planets.

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Eclipses inevitably reveal much about ourselves, too. What we see in them

reflects our own longings and fears, as well as our misconceptions. For Ephraim Miller,

the total solar eclipse that descended over Texas on July 29, 1878, held deep religious

significance, but for many others who witnessed itespecially to the north, in Wyoming

and Coloradoa whole different meaning imbued the historic event. The eclipse

occurred at a pivotal time in postCivil War America. This adolescent nation, once a land

of yeoman farmers, had in a mere century expanded exponentially in population, wealth,

and physical extent. New technologies of the industrial age were accelerating the pace of

life. Women, long confined to the home and to challenges of childbirth and child-rearing,

were rebelling against cultural strictures. And now, in this consequential age of national

maturation, a group of American scientists aimed to use the eclipse to show how far the

country had evolved intellectually.

Although Ephraim Miller did not anticipate the eclipse, astronomers did. They

computed the heavenly motions and plotted where darkness would fall, and then they

endeavored to meet it, for while the event would be exceedingly briefjust three minutes

in durationit offered a chance to solve some of natures most enduring riddles. These

scientists, male and female, trekked to the western frontier in an age of train robberies

and Indian wars. Bearing telescopes and wielding theories, they sought fame for

themselves and glory for their country.

Among this hardy crew were a few scientists with much to prove. One astronomer

was determined to find a new planet and, along with it, the acclaim he held he was due.

Another meant to transform American culture by expanding the paltry opportunities for

women in science. And a third, a young inventor, sought to burnish his reputation as a

serious investigator, and what he learned on his journey would help him inaugurate our

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modern technological era. Together, these three individuals and those three minutes of

midday darkness would enlighten a people and elevate a nation, spurring its rise to an

honored place on the global stage.

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