The Eclipse On The Western Frontier

Nathaniel Bowditch wrote his book about navigation largely as a result of finding over 8,000 errors in an earlier manual, written by an Englishman, John Moore; hence the inclusion of the word "American" in the title of his book. Volumes such as that by Moore were in wide circulation, in order to enable explorers to find their way in uncharted territory, as well as for sailors to navigate at sea (so long as the mistakes did not lead them astray). All sorts of astronomical phenomena would be listed: things like the times and circumstances of eclipses, and occultations by the Moon of bright stars. These would be invaluable to the hardy souls pushing west over the Appalachians and beyond in the quest for new lands to settle.

Those lands were occupied, of course. American Indians had lived on the Great Plains for millennia before the white men arrived. Friction and strife were inevitable. This is not the place to detail the history of the wars and battles that occurred as the settlers usurped the ancient territories of the indigenes. We are interested here simply in the eclipse of 1806, and how it enters into that greater story.

Prior to it reaching New England as described above, having passed over much of upstate New York and the northern half of Pennsylvania, the eclipse track had enveloped the whole of Lake Erie. Using the states as later delineated, the north of Ohio was crossed, and before that the south of Michigan, and half of Indiana. The angled path of the track put the northernmost fringe near the present city of Gary, the southern near St. Louis, with Fort Wayne fairly close to the middle.

The people in these regions should not have been entirely ignorant of the forthcoming eclipse. As foreshadowed above, many settlers and explorers would buy an annual almanac, containing notes of what was to be expected in the forthcoming year. Although it is usually remembered for its humorous aphorisms, a half-century earlier Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac had been one of the biggest-selling books in the American colonies, and others had followed in its stead.

Perhaps as one went further west, the frontiersmen had other things to think about. But the eclipse in 1806—which might have been used as a tool to quell the natives as Columbus had done in Jamaica three centuries before—was actually used by the Indian people to provoke an uprising against the insurgent whites.

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