August 7

This Day in History

Old West

Aug 7, 1869:

Astronomer impresses Indians with eclipse

George Davidson, a prominent astronomer and explorer, impresses Alaskan Native Americans with his ability to predict a total solar eclipse.

A native of Nottingham, England, Davidson immigrated to the United States in 1832. He went to school in Philadelphia, where he proved to be a brilliant student and eventually earned a doctorate in astronomy. In 1845, he joined the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and for two decades, he studied the large-scale geography of California, Oregon, and Washington.

In 1867, Davidson traveled north to the still relatively unexplored territory of Alaska. The United States government was in the midst of concluding negotiations to purchase the area from Russia, and American leaders were eager to learn more about the new territory. Davidson made initial surveys at Sitka, Chilkat, Kodiak, and the Unalaksa Islands. Much work remained to be done, though, and Davidson planned to return to the territory two years later.

In 1869, Davidson began preparations for another scientific trip, to the Chilkat Valley. He was warned, however, that the Chilkat Indians had been angered by some American provocation and might welcome him with guns and spears rather than open arms. Undaunted, Davidson proceeded with his mission. His initial meeting with the Chilkat on August 6 was tense. Davidson explained that he had come for purely scientific reasons, and he meant them no harm. He told the Chilkat that he was especially anxious to observe a total eclipse of the sun that he predicted would occur the following day. The Indians scoffed at Davidson's prediction, but they left the party in peace for the time being.

On this day in 1869, the sky grew dark over the Chilkat Valley as the moon eclipsed the sun, as Davidson had predicted. Apparently dismayed by this frightening display of power--some may have believed Davidson actually caused the eclipse rather than merely predicting it--the Chilkat fled to the woods. Thereafter, they left Davidson and his party alone, leading one historian to speculate that the astronomer's prediction may have saved the entire team from attack.

Davidson continued to be a prominent member of the scientific community until his death in 1911. Several geographic features in Alaska were named in his honor.

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