© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Red Sunsets over Dakota Territory


In late October of 1883, unusual colors began to illuminate the evening and morning skies over Dakota Territory. Everyone could see that something was in the air those autumn months and on into the winter of 1883-84.

The “azure skies” of a Dakota sunrise, wrote a Fargo journalist on this date, mellowed to a “golden yellow and crimson” making the “fall of 1883 . . . a phenomenal one.”

The brilliant colors at dawn and dusk were the subject of speculation in Dakota Territory and elsewhere. During the day, the sun was “obscured by a thin veil of a dull leaden hue,” according to an article in the Bismarck Tribune, and it “became more luminous, then yellow, then orange, then red; and as night settled down upon the earth, a dull purple.”

What caused the “sun glows?”

Writers speculated that the blazing horizon had been caused by “either the misty substance of the tail of some unseen comet” or a “stratum of world dust” or by “very small meteors.”

As November passed, the sunsets across all of North America became even more brilliant and red. So brilliant, in fact, that fire departments in New York City, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and New Haven, Connecticut, were called out to fight phantom fires.

As winter came to the Great Plains, the twilights deepened in color, creating what some observers called "Blood Afterglows."

Many Americans wondered if these celestial signs had a cosmic significance, perhaps foretelling a “coming disaster,” maybe a cataclysmic war, or a pestilence, or the death of great leaders, or the “downfall of dynasties.”

Well the red skies in the evening DID tell of a disaster, but it was a calamity that had already taken place. For this had been a global event. The crimson skies had come to Dakota Territory from halfway around the globe, for the particles in the air arose from the catastrophic volcanic destruction of the island of Krakatoa in early October of 1883. The cosmic dust from Mount Krakatoa lit the evening skies over the northern hemisphere for three years. The red sunsets diminished as the dust settled.

Another volcano affected North Dakota about a century later, when Mount St. Helens in Washington State erupted in May of 1980. The volcanic ash rose into the air and was carried to North Dakota towns and cities on the westerly winds. Residents of the state might recall wiping a light coating of the volcano’s fallout from the hood of their cars as it settled on the state and elsewhere in the days following the eruption. Once again, there were red sunsets and sunrises, repeating the phenomenon of almost one hundred years before.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Climatic,” Fargo Daily Argus, November 19, 1883, p. 2.

“The Red Sunset,” Minneapolis Tribune, December 22, 1883, p. 4.

“The Red Sunsets in the Pacific,” New York Times, December 24, 1883, p. 4.

“An Eruption in Krakatoa,” Minneapolis Tribune, October 7, 1883, p. 12.

“The Krakatoa Eruption,” New York Times, October 22, 1883, p. 5.

“A Terrible Prophecy: The Red Sunsets, Cyclones, and Earthquakes Foretelling Coming Disaster,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, December 21, 1883, p. 3, actually an advertisement for a patent medicine, cashing in on the red sunsets.

Firefighters in Tom Simkin and Richard S. Fiske, Krakatau 1883: The Volcanic Eruption and Its Effects (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983), 15, 49.

The sunglows were first reported in North America at Yuma, Arizona, on October 19, 1883, and were noted in the eastern United States on October 30, 1883. A direct mention of the sunsets on the Great Plains is found in an editorial in The Yellowstone.

Journal [Miles City, Montana], 22 December 1883, 2.

Editorial page, San Antonio [TX] Light, January 7, 1884, p. 2.

“Volcanic Dust Arrives Above New York City,” New York Times, May 21, 1980, p. A20.

“Volcano Fallout Is Expected to Have Little Effect on Health or Crops,” New York Times, May 22, 1980, p. B12.