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Shadows Across Time

Updated: Mar 24

Uncover the History of Solar Eclipses & Prepare for this Once in a Lifetime Event Taking Place April 8th, 2024!

The celestial bodies have always fascinated humankind. Among the many astronomical phenomena, the one that has always stood out as a spectacle is the solar eclipse. This event has not only interested astronomers but even lay people. The upcoming total solar eclipse, a once in a lifetime event, is creating a buzz across North America. To make this event more enlightening, the Fluvanna Community Historical Society (FCHS) enlisted NASA Eclipse Ambassador, Tom Traub, to help us discover the fascinating history and science of solar eclipses. Plus, at this special History Talk, the Historical Society will give away free solar eclipse glasses to everyone who attends the meeting, helping people throughout the community enhance their eclipse viewing experience!

In the meantime, to find out more about solar eclipses, how they've been viewed at various times in history and more about the upcoming History Talk, continue reading below.

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An Overview of Solar Eclipses

Solar eclipses occur when the moon comes directly between the earth and the sun. There are three types of solar eclipses: total, partial, and annular. However, a total solar eclipse is the most dramatic and rare. It creates an awe-inspiring sight when the moon completely blocks out the sun, and the day turns into night for a few minutes. This natural phenomenon is a sight to behold, and it leaves a deep impression on anyone lucky enough to experience a total solar eclipse.

A Brief History and Highlights of Solar Eclipses

Solar eclipses have a rich history that dates back to ancient times. They have been mentioned in numerous historical texts and have been associated with myths and folklore. Many ancient civilizations considered eclipses as omens or signs from the gods. In some cultures, they were seen as a time to come together and celebrate, while others viewed eclipses with fear and trepidation.

Solar Eclipses in the Ancient and Medieval World

Solar eclipses have helped mark and, in certain circumstances, even shaped human history. An eclipse that occurred in 763 B.C., covering parts of ancient Assyria, lasted for over five minutes and sparked an insurrection in the spiritual capital of the empire. In ancient Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), sometime around the year 585 B.C., the armies of the Lydians and the Medes had just begun fighting, with no clear winner in sight, when an eclipse enveloped the battlefield in darkness. Taking the celestial event as a divine message, the armies laid down their arms and the two nations subsequently signed a truce. In North America, according to Iroquois oral tradition, a total or near-total eclipse took place when the five nations that made up their Confederacy met to ratify the alliance at a place called "Ganondagan" (modern-day Victor, NY). Interpreted by the Iroquois as an auspicious start to their confederation, certain scholars estimate that this eclipse, and thus the beginning of the Iroquois Confederacy, took place on August 22, 1142 A.D. (over 464 years before the founding of Virginia).

The 1806 Total Solar Eclipse
Portrait painting of an adult, Native American man, wearing a mixture of native and western european clothes and accessories.
Portrait of Tenskwatawa, by Charles Bird King [History of the Indian Tribes of North America by Mckenney and Hall, published in 1872, by the Ohio Historical Society].

The last total solar eclipse that occurred in southern Chautauqua County took place in 1806 (over 217 years ago). A few hundred miles east of New York, a Shawnee religious leader, named Tenskwatawa, predicted the eclipse. Tenskwatawa, along with his brother, Tecumseh, sought to unite all Native American tribes into one nation and return to a "traditional," non-Western way of life. William Henry Harrison, the Territorial Governor of Indiana (and future 9th President of the United States), felt threatened by this inter-tribal unity. To discredit Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, Harrison challenged Tenskwatawa to prove his powers. Harrison demanded that Tenskwatawa cause extraordinary natural events, such as making the sun stand still or altering the moon’s course. Tenskwatawa declared that the Great Spirit was displeased with Harrison and prophesied that fifty days from the date of his prophecy, there would be no clouds in the sky and when the sun reached its highest point, the Great Spirit would hide it, plunging the land into darkness. Fifty days later, on Monday, June 16, 1806, a total solar eclipse occurred in Indiana and Harrison’s attempt to divide the Shawnee and their Native American allies backfired spectacularly.

The Roots of American Fascination with Solar Eclipses and the Natural World

While the Native Americans in the Old Northwest interpreted the solar eclipse as a divine omen, most people in the United States viewed this same celestial event with equal awe but from a more naturalistic and scientific bent. Americans and their Puritan forebearers had for generations cultivated a keen interest in the functioning and composition of the cosmos. “What a sweetness is there in knowing the secrets of nature, and the phenomena in the world," preached the Puritan divine, Stephen Charnock, to his flock over 125 years before the 1806 eclipse. In the Puritan worldview, science, mathematics, philosophy and logic could not only help us understand the universe but these academic and intellectual pursuits aid humanity in gaining knowledge and appreciation of God's majesty, power and wisdom. "Study God in the creatures as well as in the Scriptures," Charnock exhorted his parishioners, "The world is a sacred temple; man is introduced to contemplate it, and behold with praise the glory of God in the pieces of his art."

Portrait in black and white drawing of an adult man, with shoulder length hair, wearing a jacket and larger geneva bands indicating his status as a minister.
Portrait of the Rev. Joseph Lathrope, Pastor of the Congregational Church of West Springfield, Mass.

This same and similar sentiment, prevalent throughout the United States, is reflected in a sermon the Reverend Joseph Lathrop delivered on the Sunday immediately following the June 16th, 1806 eclipse. Solar eclipses, as well as other wonders of nature, reveal an incomplete but, nevertheless, helpful image of God. "They enlarge," Lathrop asserted, "our views of the works of God, and grandeur and extent of His creation and providence. They display His wisdom, power and goodness and His continual agency in the government of the world. They teach us His constant care for the creatures, which He has made, and call us to reverence and adore Him, Who thus manifests Himself to us in the works of His hands."

Then as it is now, the 1806 solar eclipse gave Americans the occasion to recognize the significant scientific progress made throughout the centuries and appreciate the practical benefits civil society accrued thereby. Lathrop reveled in the academic and scientific advancements made thus far and so strikingly revealed during the solar eclipse:

"We have reason to rejoice in the progress which has been made in the sciences and particularly in the noble science of astronomy. By this we are freed from the many superstitious terrors which, in the dark ages of the world, tormented mankind."

While solar eclipses were not viewed as portents of good or evil things to come, for Lathrop, and the majority of his contemporaries, these celestial events could still prove beneficial to the moral and spiritual health of individuals and the society as a whole. Eclipses remind us of our mortality, the darkness of sin and the brevity of life. Eclipses for Lathrop are also reminiscent of Jesus' death on the Cross (that was also accompanied by a darkening of the skies) and God's unfailing love for us (although sometimes seemingly hidden). Finally, Lathrop saw in the phenomena of the eclipse an opportunity to illustrate the promise of Heaven. Once freed from this earthly life we can rise above any obstacles between us and light eternal: "Could we rise above the moon, the sun which is eclipsed to the inhabitants of the earth would shine to us in all its splendour. When the Christian has the moon under his feet, he will be clothed with the sun and crowned with stars. There is no darkness, no night in heaven: all is light; all is glory there."

Lanthrop's entire sermon can be read at the Library of Congress' digital library: A Sermon Containing Reflections on the Solar Eclipse, which Appeared on June 16, 1806.

Painting of an eclipse that took place on July 8, 1842, showing two men standing (one wearing a top hat) and a women in red sitting at the center of the painting, on a promontory, looking out over an oxbow river and a plain stretching out below. High in the sky, the sun seems to be in th emidst of a total solar eclipse and the sky is darkened except on the peripheries.
Leander Russ's Die Sonnenfinsternis vom 8 Juli 1842.

Scientific Breakthroughs and Solar Eclipses

This deep, spiritual appreciation for the beauty, intricacy and splendor of the natural world, coupled with the belief that science can help us unlock the universe's secrets, led to widespread and increasingly detailed observations of solar eclipses in America and beyond. Meticulous study of solar eclipses continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries resulting in significant advances in our understanding of the cosmos. In 1868, French astronomer, Pierre Janssen observed a solar eclipse in Guntur, India where he took note of an unknown spectral line in the sun’s spectrum. This line was later identified as helium, a previously unknown element to humanity. A year later, in 1869, William Harkness, a University of Rochester alumnus, used a relatively new invention known as a spectroscope to identify a green line ringing the sun, which was only observable during the total eclipse. Harkness's careful observation helped to definitively establish that the sun possessed its own atmosphere and led to the discovery that the sun's corona was millions of degrees hotter than the surface of the sun.

Black and white photograph of the total solar eclipse in Brazil on May 29, 1919, with the moon covering the sun and the sun's corona circling the rim of the moon.
This photograph shows the total solar eclipse on May 29, 1919. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The Solar Eclipse that Changed the World

One of the most famous examples of how the scientific study of solar eclipses have revolutionized what we know about the cosmos occurred in 1919. Four years before this eclipse, a relatively unknown German-Jewish theoretical physicist known as Albert Einstein introduced his groundbreaking theory of general relativity. Unlike Newton’s classical mechanics, which treated space as static, Einstein’s theory proposed that space and time are intertwined, forming a fabric called space-time. According to general relativity, massive objects (like stars) warp this space-time fabric, affecting the motion of light. Sir Arthur Eddington led an expedition to Sobra, Brazil and Príncipe Island in Africa to confirm Einstein's theory. Eddington's expedition captured photographs of stars near the during the total solar eclipse. These photographs revealed the bending of starlight around the sun, only observable during an eclipse, providing the first empirical evidence for Einstein's theory of general relativity. The successful verification of his theory catapulted him to international celebrity status. The 1919 eclipse became a turning point, demonstrating that space is not inert but dynamically influenced by massive objects. This groundbreaking experiment helped establish Einstein’s theory as a fundamental pillar of modern physics. The solar eclipse served as a cosmic laboratory, allowing us to explore the intricate interplay between gravity, light and the fabric of the universe.

During this year's total solar eclipse, everyday citizens can once again help advance our understanding of these cosmic events by making recording their observations and gathering data. It can be as easy as taking a picture with your phone. For more information, click here.

Western New York's Last Total Solar Eclipses

Total solar eclipses are visible from any specific location on Earth approximately once every 400 years. This figure, however, is an average. The last time Western New York experienced a total solar eclipse was on a frigid Saturday morning in January of 1925. Hundreds of thousands of people viewed the eclipse and not a few assisted in making detailed observations, gathering data and conducting experiments. Unfortunately for many in the Buffalo area cloud cover obscured the sight. Southern Tier communities, however, including Dunkirk, Gowanda, Salamanca, Silvercreek and Westfield, fared better where clear skies and freshly fallen snow cover made for spectacular views of the eclipse and a dazzling display of lights on the ground. Fluvanna, and other localities within the most southern parts of Chautauqua, lay just a short distance outside the path of totality. As such, Fluvanna has not experienced a total solar eclipse for over 217 years. After this year's eclipse, communities throughout Western New York will not see another total solar eclipse until October 26, 2144.

March 25th Eclipse History Talk & Free Solar Eclipse Glasses

Want more information about solar eclipses? Join us Monday, March 25, 2024, to have all your questions answered. NASA Eclipse Ambassador, Tom Traub, will delve into the scientific intricacies of solar eclipses, their historical significance, and what we can anticipate during the upcoming event.

As Vice President of the Marshal Martz Memorial Astronomical Association, Inc. (MMMAA), Tom actively contributes to the operation of the Martz-Kohl Observatory. With a lifelong interest in astronomy, Tom has witnessed multiple solar eclipses, including total, hybrid, annular, and partial ones. His dedication extends beyond personal enjoyment; he enjoys sharing his extensive knowledge with the public, especially students. Tom Traub’s contributions to the field of astronomy continue to inspire and educate enthusiasts worldwide.

To RSVP for the event, or obtain the link to participate online, click the "Register Now" button above.

Get Your Free Solar Eclipse Glasses:

As an added benefit, anyone who attends this History Talk will receive free ISO certified solar eclipse glasses, thanks to the generosity and assistance of Chautauqua County and the Chautauqua County Health Department. For more information about this Talk and why the free solar eclipse classes fit into the plans and preparations throughout the County, click here.

For anyone not able to pick-up the solar eclipse glasses on March 25, they can still be reserved by clicking the following "Buy Now" button (don't worry, they're still totally free):

This upcoming total solar eclipse carries a unique blend of excitement, anticipation, and education. It is a reminder of the wonders of the universe and our continuous quest to understand it. So, gear up for this once in a lifetime event, and don't miss the opportunity to attend the enlightening talk by NASA Eclipse Ambassador, Tom Traub.


The Fluvanna Community Historical Society is a registered 501(c)(3) organization, provisionally chartered by the Regents of the University of the State of New York, and dedicated to connecting our community with our past, with each other and with a brighter future.

Logo of the Fluvanna Community Historical Society (graphic of a meeting house/church) with the rising sun in the background stylized to look like it is in full eclipse and stars spangeled above in the sky.

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