Local Weather History: Smoke, a Blue Sun & Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion

How smoky skies with a bluish sun as a catalyst for the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion.

Posted: Sep 15, 2020 4:28 PM
Updated: Sep 16, 2020 2:24 AM

The seeds of unrest were brewing in 1831, 30 years before the Civil War.

According to Gray (1831) in his The Confessions of Nat Turner, Nat Turner was an enslaved preacher from Southhampton County, Virginia who saw himself as a leader to fight & abolish slavery.  Gray states, "[He] was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty. He 'heard a loud noise in the heavens' while working in Moore’s fields on May 12, 'and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first'".

Led by Turner, the slave rebellion occurred in August 1831 after a blue sun & pale, smoky skies were seen across Virginia & the South as a sign to begin the revolution.  This followed an Annular Solar Eclipse in February, which was further considered a sign by Turner that this was a sign that he was the one to lead this charge to fix what was morally right.  He considered this a Divine message from God.  Initially, recruits were slaves from his county, but the message spread.

As the smoky skies continued to darken & the sun fade more & more into a bluish, faint ball, he & his group considered it time to begin the fight.  The strike began with attacks on slave owners, but a local militia quickly put the rebellion down & most of those involved were executed, including Turner.

Nat Turner (courtesy of National Archives):

In examining the meteorological aspects of this smoke & "blue sun", we look at what was occurring in 1831.  We know that smoke, dust & ash often makes the sun appear more red, pink or light yellow to white, but what about a bluish sun?

According to UK's Albert (2017) regarding research in the 1883 Mount Tambora volcanic eruption, he states,

"The blueness was due to the loss of yellow and red light.

Typically the sun would be green closest to the horizon, changing to blue 10 to 20 degrees above the horizon.

Usually the sky was not red, but white, grey, or blue before a white or blue rising sun, or after a setting sun of white or blue appearance.

This suggests that the densest and coarsest dust caused silvery suns, and blue and green suns came from thinner layers with smaller dust particles."

Blue-green sun over Boulder, Colorado from Gedzelman and Vollmer in 2009:

Only Virginia & the Piedmont South reported this blue sun with thick smoke overcast.  So, we had some sort of fire or volcanic eruption somewhere, but a volcanic eruption would tend to have this phenomena more widespread than just a corridor over part of the South.

When examining the weather in late summer 1831 & compare that with the press reports & weather records of the time, it becomes apparent that large wildfires were burning southwest of the area of the blue sun.

Drought was extensive in the modern-day Corn Belt, Ohio Valley, overall Midwest & Upper South in June-August 1829.  The heat & dryness are referenced frequently in our region, though it was reportedly not as bad as the 1820 drought.

Reconstructed Palmer Drought Severity Index or PDSI indicates Moderate to Severe & even Extreme Drought in the Midwest region in the 1829 summer season.

(These reconstructed drought maps below courtesy of the University of Memphis):

In the 1830 June-August period, the drought was confined to a narrow corridor over the northwestern Corn Belt with Moderate Drought (after the worst winter in the Midwest since 1819-20).

Meanwhile, the drought largely shifted to the Southeast with up to Extreme Drought occurring.  Overall drought enveloped the area from southeastern Texas to far southeastern Virginia.

On May 29, 1831, tinderbox-dry Fayetteville, North Carolina was completely burned & leveled to the ground in the unusually dry spring in that city & a fire destroyed the state capitol at Raleigh on June 21 (with mention of hazy, smokey atmosphere in the morning).

A large fire was reported in Richmond, Virginia August 8.

By June-August 1831, drought was lined up from southeastern Virginia to Texas, southeastern New Mexico to Kansas to Arkansas.

The heart of the worst drought conditions was over northern Louisiana & Mississippi, then extended into southwestern Alabama.

This drought greatly worsened in late summer to early fall over the South, before plentiful rains arrived.

Southern Alabama, Louisiana & Mississippi pinelands were under a longer-term, significant drought with Severe to Exceptional status on the PDSI from Spring 1830-Fall 1831.

So, it is likely that massive wildfires in this zone of pinelands led to the thick smoke over the Piedmont South (flow around Bermuda high).

Like in Summer 1998, fires may have also occurred in Mexico.  The late Spring-Summer 1998 massive fires occurred from Central American & Mexico to southeastern Texas to southern Mississippi & Florida.  We saw widespread, thick wildfire smoke then in Indiana.

I have yet to find any mention of pale, smoky skies in Indiana in 1831, however.

Even in areas that weren't especially droughty in 1831, the 1829 & 1830 drought & fires, as well as the fires in the early fall of 1831 in parts of the Midwest & Ohio Valley led to the first Kentucky forest fire laws being enacted in 1831 "in a few specific counties with heavily wooded areas. The fine and penalty for setting a fire was $20."

In the Wabash Herald of November 12, 1831 (Rockville, Indiana), it states:

"BURNING PRAIRIES!!

This law respecting the burning of prairies is as follows:

'That if any person shall willfully and maliciously set on fire or cause to be set on fire, any  woods or prairie, or other grounds within this state, other than his own, or shall intentionally permit the fire to pass from his own prairie or grounds to the injury of any other person or persons, every person so offending, shall of conviction thereof, for every such offence, be fined in a sum not exceeding fifty dollars & stand committed until fine and costs are paid, and shall be liable to the party injured, for injured for the damages which he, she & stand committed until have sustained consequence of such fire.'"

As European settlement encroached on the Native American forests & prairies that had been burned for thousands of years, the worst drought conditions since 1816-21 occurred over the area 1829-32.

Although drought conditions were focused northeast & southwest of Minneapolis, there is reference to the Spring-Summer 1831 dryness in records taken at Fort Snelling (modern-day Minneapolis-St. Paul).  Charles Fisk of climatestations.com writes in researching the original records from that site:

"Droughty weather made up May, with just four days’ rain and extremes of both heat and cold. On the 10th, another early warm surge brought 88 F, hottest yet so early in the season here, the 11th almost as warm with 86 F. The first precipitation since the 3-inch snowstorm 22 days previous came as rain on the 14th, the mercury just in the low 50’s at mid-afternoon. On the 22nd and 23rd, the second episode of late-May frosts in as many years visited, tying 1822’s late-date record, but summery heat quickly followed, the last five afternoons all near or above 80 F, including two at 86 F.

Summer ’31 was without last year’s prolonged heat, roughly seasonable in mean temperature, but it shared its infrequent falls of rain....... 

Further indicative of the summer’s absence of moisture, the Mississippi was reported “very low” on the 7th. Starting the second week, an extended two-week period of persistent southerly winds brought the summer’s longest warm spell. Twelve of thirteen days from the 7th had prevailing winds from this quarter, afternoon readings consistently reaching the mid-80’s, peaking with a tie for the summer’s highest with 92 F on the 16th."

In digging into relatively nearby daily weather records (rare in the Midwest in the 1829-31 period), we see exceptional heat in May 1829 at Rock Island, Illinois (Fort Armstrong).  Temperatures were in the lower to middle 80s at 7 a.m. for the last 4 days of May.

May 31, 1829 was 96 at 2 p.m. & upwards of 35 days were in the 90s in the summer of 1829 with the dryness there.

Copy of original document courtesy of the University of Illinois:

July 16-25, 1830 saw mid to upper 90s at 2 p.m.; one of several significant heat waves at Rock Island 1829-31.

Mid-August 1831 saw upper 80s to lower 90s for highs with mostly south winds at the time of the blue sun. 

This tells us that the fires were east of due south in our area because smoke was not reported here.  Rather than Texas, it was more likely occurring in the flammable pinelands east of Texas, where the drought was maximized.

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