20 August 2012

An elderly man remembers "when the sky fell"

The photo is a portrait of Ka-Be-Nah-Gwey-Wence, a Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indian from Cass Lake, a town just north of Leech Lake where I used to spend my summers as a child.  The photo (via BoingBoing) shows him when he was reputed to be 129 years old.  The Minnesota Historical Society has dozens of additional portraits and candids of him, all of which display the dramatic dermatoheliosis we blogged earlier this summer.

I thought the Wikipedia entry offered an interesting viewpoint on determining a person's age when reliable birth data are not available:
Paul Buffalo who, when a small boy had met John Smith, said he had repeatedly heard the old man state that he was "seven or eight", "eight or nine" and "ten years old" when the "stars fell". The stars falling refers to the Leonid meteor shower of November 13, 1833, about which Carl Zapffe writes: "Birthdates of Indians of the 19th Century had generally been determined by the Government in relation to the awe-inspiring shower of meteorites that burned through the American skies just before dawn on 13 November 1833, scaring the daylights out of civilized and uncivilized [sic] peoples alike. Obviously it was the end of the world. . . .". This puts the age of John Smith at just under 100 years old at the time of his death.
So, lets look back at 1833:
The meteor storm of 1833 was of truly superlative strength. One estimate is over one hundred thousand meteors an hour, but another, done as the storm abated, estimated in excess of two hundred thousand meteors an hour over the entire region of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. It was marked by the Native Americans, slaves like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and slave-owners and others. Near Independence, Missouri, it was taken as a sign to push the growing Mormon community out of the area. The founder and first leader of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, noted in his journal that this event was a literal fulfillment of the word of God and a sure sign that the coming of Christ is close at hand. Denison Olmsted explained the event most accurately. After spending the last weeks of 1833 collecting information he presented his findings in January 1834 to the American Journal of Science and Arts, published in January–April 1834, and January 1836. He noted the shower was of short duration and was not seen in Europe, and that the meteors radiated from a point in the constellation of Leo and he speculated the meteors had originated from a cloud of particles in space
In an era when there was virtually no light pollution, it must have been an awe-inspiring spectacle.


  1. To my point of view this is what I refer to a brilliant article! Do you run this website for personal joy solely or you still have it as a source of income?

  2. I wouldn't say that it's for "joy" (and there's not a penny of income involved). I store things in the blog that I'll want to read again when I'm old and have dementia.


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