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December 17. 2012 6:22PM

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Patten's diary describes mysterious 'Dark Day' weather


 


This artist's rendering depicts May 19, 1780, also known as the "Dark Day." Throughout the Northeast, there were reports of extreme darkness for a period of about 24 hours, a phenomenon later attributed to northern forest fires. (MANCHESTER HISTORIC ASSOCIATION)

Matthew Patten's diary includes many references to weather. On Aug. 12, 1766, he wrote: "Carted in the rye we reaped yesterday and it rained a pretty shower in the morning with a considerable of thunder & we reaped 9 stooks and 1 sheaf."

A sheaf is a bunch of cut stocks of grain bound together with twine or straw, and a stook is a bundle of sheaves that were leaned together to form a column that was left in the field to dry. The Pattens brought their rye to a local gristmill to be made into flour for baking, and may have also used some of the grain for brewing and for animal feed.

Weather was a major worry during the haying season. On Aug. 30, 1766, the foul weather of the previous day had finally ended, so the Pattens dried out as much of the hay they had cut as they could, but they wouldn't have time to pile it into "cocks" (haycocks) until Sept. 3.

A haycock is a conical shaped mound of hay left in a field to dry, where it would be left for future use as animal feed. On Sept. 1 Patten wrote, "We put up a stack of 20 cocks in the little meadow and it began to rain by 8 or 9 of the clock notwithstanding there was a great dew and in the evening there was a remarkable thunder shower (and) abundance of lightning, thunder and rain and cleared up before we went to bed."

On Sept. 3, Patten made note that he had stacked a total of 170 haycocks that year. He and his family finished haying on Sept. 4 by stacking 53 or 54 more.

Patten wrote about notable incidents of "violent winds," "tedious storms," "extreme hot days," and "exceeding cold days."

On Jan. 12, 1763, he wrote, "... in the evening it began to snow and continued until next morning. There fell a hail in the later part of the storm about 1 inches thick that made a crust ..."

On rare occasions, he was pleased to write about good weather, as on Aug. 27, 1770: "We worked at the hay in the meadow - a clear pleasant hay day."

Patten made an unusual diary entry on May 19, 1780: "Was a thunder shower in the morning and was followed by an uncommon darkness such as is not remembered. It was so dark that one could not know a man but at a small distance and were obliged to keep a light in the chimney to see to go about; and the night was extraordinary dark until one o'clock that a person could not see their hand when held up nor even a white sheet of paper. The day and night was cloudy. The clouds in the day did not seem thick and was of a lightening up color. Our almanac makers have given no account of the matter - the cause unknown. The works of the Lord are great and marvelous past finding out until he graciously pleases to reveal them."

This troubling event, which affected people from Maine to northern New Jersey, became known as the "Dark Day." The gloom began to descend around 11 a.m. Roosters crowed, and chickens went back to their roosts. The cattle returned to the barnyard, as was their habit at dusk.

C. E. Potter wrote in his 1856 history of Manchester, "The greatest alarm prevailed among all classes at this singular phenomenon. The more excitable ran about exclaiming that 'the day of judgment was at hand,' while the more phlegmatic were filled with astonishment and surprise ..."

The extreme darkness dissipated within about 24 hours, but for several days afterward the sky carried a disturbing yellowish tinge. There was a smell of smoke in the air, and ashes could be seen floating on ponds and lakes. By Potter's time, it was believed that the cause of the event was heavy smoke from forest fires to the north, and recent scientific evidence has supported this theory.

Matthew Patten died in 1785, leaving his fascinating diary behind to enlighten and fascinate future generations. Copies of the 1993 edition are available for purchase through the Bedford Historical Society.

Next week: Frederick Smyth - an American life

Aurore Eaton is executive director of the Manchester Historic Association; email her at aeaton@manchesterhistoric.org


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