The Last Total Eclipse

by John J. Grabowski, Ph.D.
Posted on April 01, 2024


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The last time Cleveland experienced a full eclipse of the sun was June 16, 1806.  The population of the settlement (yet, to be qualified even as a village) is impossible to determine. In 1800 it was recorded as 6 settlers and in 1810, approximately 57.  Native Americans still lived in the area, particularly west of the Cuyahoga River. So, there were perhaps two dozen people in the area that we know as Cleveland and more in the general area surrounding it.   What we don’t know, however, is exactly how they reacted to the eclipse as there are apparently no-first person accounts, from someone in the settlement at that time period. William Ganson Rose, who wrote the monumental, Cleveland: The Making of a City, makes no mention of the account in his description of events in the community in 1806, but he mentions it in the events of 1805!  We do, however, know how other Ohioans saw and remembered the eclipse.

Accounts of the event, recounted later to various Ohio newspapers and authors speak of the confusion of animals, both domestic and wild to the event, all acting as if it were an early evening. Ebenezer Smith Thomas, the editor of the Cincinnati Daily Evening Post recounted in 1838 how he experienced the eclipse in his hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He noted it was “truly and awfully sublime” and noted that “The birds flew about in evident distress and terror, the domestic fowls ran about in all directions cackling as in a fright,” Thomas wrote. “Horses galloped around their pastures neighing; while the horned cattle which seemed more affected than the rest, tore up the earth with their horns and feet in madness — all this uproar was followed by the silence of midnight.”

We do know, however, that the Indigenous population of Northern Ohio saw the event as something deeply spiritual — and it had a sad significance as it followed, by eleven months, the Treaty of Fort Industry. Executed on July 4, 1805 the treaty stripped the Native Americans of their claims to almost all of Northwestern Ohio. That treaty would open the Western Reserve lands west of the Cuyahoga to settlement. However, the eclipse was also used by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his younger brother Tenskwatawa (known as the Shawnee prophet) to convince their community of their authority — which was being challenged by William Henry Harrison, the governor of the Indiana Territory. Harrison wanted to diminish the power of the two brothers in order to open more land to settlement.  He supposedly did so by challenging them “…to cause the Sun to stand still or the Moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow or the dead to rise from their graves”.  Both brothers were multi-lingual and could read and it is suspected that they had access to an almanac that predicted the eclipse. Tenskwatawa predicted an unworldly event to his community and, when it came to pass exactly on the date he predicted, his authority and that of Tecumseh were unquestionable.

Even if we have no Cleveland-based first-person account of the 1806 eclipse, we do know that it came at a critical point in time – a point when the Indigenous population of Northern Ohio was being pushed further out of their homelands and a time when Cleveland was still a small community without a truly certain future.

We can also surmise that Moses Cleaveland also experienced the eclipse, but not in the city that bore his name.   He had returned to his home in Canterbury, Connecticut in late 1796 after leading the first survey party to the Western Reserve.  It was there, in Canterbury, where he likely saw the experience, as Connecticut was also in the path of totality.  He would die on November 16, 1806, exactly five months after the eclipse.

 [Photo courtesy of]

Western Reserve Historical Society is the oldest cultural institution in Northeast Ohio, the region's largest American history research center, and one of the leading genealogical research centers in the nation.

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