Pawnee Indians and the Night the Stars Fell to Earth

By | July 24, 2018

test article image
Engraving depicting the Leonids meteor shower, which was associated with the comet Tempel-Tuttle, as seen over Niagara Falls in 1833. Dated 19th century. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Ancient people have watched the sky since the beginning of time and many cultures established myths and legends associated with the celestial bodies they observe in the night sky. Still, our understanding of meteors was rather primitive when the 1833 Leonid Meteor Storm occurred in North America. This unusually bright and plentiful meteor shower left most of the people in the United States -- from white European settlers to African slaves, to Native Americans – quaking in fear, certain that they were experiencing the end of time. Only one Native American tribe, the Pawnees, not only predicted the meteor shower, but they celebrated it.

test article image

The Leonid Meteor Shower happens annually, in mid-November.

The shower of falling stars is created by space debris from the Tempel-Tuttle comet that strikes the Earth’s atmosphere. But every 33 years, the Leonids storm…the comet’s orbit takes it closer to Earth and, therefore, spawns many more meteors. 1833 fell on that 33-year cycle when the meteor shower stormed.

While many cultures observed the annual meteor shower and could predict its arrival from year to year, the Pawnee Indians of the American Plains were one of the only groups of people that knew about the 33-year cycle of the comet. Using their Star Charts, the Pawnee, dubbed the Star Watchers, knew the 1833 Leonids would be special and they awaited their arrival.