by Michael Haynes
© 2002 by Michael Haynes Collection, North Dakota Bicentennial Lewis & Clark Foundation.
In his 1814 edition of the Lewis and Clark journals, Nicholas Biddle expanded upon the journalists' brief, breathless description of the night-sky phenomenon they observed from Fort Mandan on the night of November 5, 1804.1
Late at night we were awaked by the sergeant on guard to see the beautiful phenomenon called the northern light: along the northern sky was a large space occupied by a light of a pale but brilliant white colour: which rising from the horizon, extended itself to nearly twenty degrees above it. After glittering for some time its colours would be overcast, and almost obscured, but again it would burst out with renewed beauty; the uniform colour was pale light, but its shapes were various and fantastic: at times the sky was lined with light coloured streaks rising perpendicularly from the horizon, and gradually expanding into a body of light in which we could trace the floating columns sometimes advancing, sometimes retreating and shaping into infinite forms, the space in which they moved. It all faded away before the morning.
They saw them the next night too, "very brilliant in perpendiculer collums frequently changing position," Clark wrote. In mid-August of 1806, coincidentally again at the Mandan villages, they saw them. They had first seen them at Camp Dubois, on the first of April, 1804.
Since humans first had looked into the night sky, people in high northern and southern latitudes had tried to explain these dazzling curtains, spears, and arches of light. Appearing above the magnetic poles, near the North Pole and South Pole, the lights have been seen as far away as 40° north or south latitude. At Fort Mandan, the captains were at 47° north latitude.
The northern lights were portents of trouble or signs of celestial joy in different cultures. The phenomenon's modern name, aurora borealis, combines the name of Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, with a word meaning north derived from the name of Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. (In the southern hemisphere, the phenomenon is called southern lights or, scientifically, aurora australis-from the Latin for southern.
What did Meriwether Lewis and William Clark understand about the aurora borealis–literally, "Dawn of the North"? Even though the captains were well past mythological explanations, scientific theories of their time may sound a bit fanciful today. Yet, scientists of the early 21st century still cannot completely explain what causes the northern lights.
1. Nicholas Biddle, History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark. (2 vols., 1814; reprint, with an introduction by John Bakeless, New York: Heritage Press, 1962), I:78.