Clearing away the accumulated brush:
1. The printed item in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society
is not a modern hoax; TAPS is a recognized early American
journal, and this specific item is to be found printed in that number of the journal, which does date back to the date it says.
2. Dunbar — or anyone else — can always be accused of perpetrating a hoax; but as I mention in my footnote to the transcription on my site, he was
a recognized observer of the time, from whom other contributions on various subjects, mostly in (greater) Louisiana, were received and published. His
credibility would have been on the line, and his report is most unlikely to be a hoax. There is as much evidence (or, if we are skeptically inclined)
as little evidence of a fact underlying the report as there is with any other happening witnessed by a single person.
3. "Color" for "colour" is common enough in America by that time; and in view of the wild diversity of spelling up to about 1840, nothing can be
deduced from it one way or the other.
4. Similarly the units of measurement; it's Dunbar's report, not Jefferson's; Dunbar used the common units of his time and place; nothing much can be
deduced from that. Note by the way that Dunbar never says that he himself witnessed the event; merely that "It was seen".
5. Meteorites were a subject of hot debate; scientific opinion, as I point out in one of my notes, didn't shift until Biot's careful report in 1803,
three years after Dunbar's sighting. Dunbar's report is printed neutrally, without additions by the journal editors; naturally, the journal's readers
would know just what current context it fit into, and it need not have been mentioned. Dunbar's report is itself neutral: it suggests no hypothesis,
it just states what was seen.
As for what the object was, two good points have been made that I failed to think of in my quick annotation: (a) the noise heard may not have been a
crash at all, but a sonic boom, and certainly, even at the relatively low speed I guess for it (very roughly, around 2200 mph, not above), there must
have been one; and (b) it is probably naïve of us to assume any value to Dunbar's estimate of the object's size if it was on fire: the most we can
say is that it was no larger
than a house.
That speed is more reliable an estimate than the size of the object, and 2200 mph (or even triple that) is slower than a meteor fall, which, with the
flat trajectory, is the only real argument in favor of the object being something else. On the other hand faced with such a startling phenomenon even
a seasoned observer might well feel "a few seconds" when say only one second had elapsed, as do people in earthquakes, who report temblors lasting a
minute or two when in fact instruments record only 20 seconds; if "15 seconds" — an estimate of mine based on Dunbar's "a few seconds" (see my note
for why the extrapolation) — can be compressed to "3 seconds" then the object may have been traveling at the type of speed of a falling meteor. The
flat trajectory is what bothers me most: meteors don't strike the earth at a 2° angle.
As pointed out, if it was a house-sized object coming in at a meteoric speed, it would have been a huge event, with no survivors for miles, flattened
trees, etc. So of that one thing we can be sure: if it was the size of a house, it crashed at a low speed; if it was a meteor, it was not the size of
If the object crashed, I don't know of any investigation to try and find a crater (similar to the exhaustive early Soviet investigation at Tunguska,
in which no crater or apparent débris were ever found). I don't mean to suggest that none was made, just that I don't know of any. If it didn't
vaporize but actually did crash, as it appears from the report, the indications of the Earth Impact Effects Program that I link to in my note are that
the object should still be intact and roughly 3 meters below the surface of the ground (11.6 - 8.7 meters). Unfortunately, Dunbar or the original
witness(es) had no GPS, and although someone seems to have known exactly where it fell, since "search has been made in the place where the burning
body fell, and that a considerable portion of the surface of the earth was found broken up, and every vegetable body burned or greatly scorched", no
detailed location has been passed on that I know of: it kinda puts a crimp on the investigation.
My own opinion, for what it's worth — I'm not an expert in any field related to this event — is that (a) some object did crash to earth; (b) we
don't have enough information to determine what the object was. Occam's Razor suggests that it was a meteor after all, but the flat trajectory still
bothers me, and I'm perfectly open to the usual alternatives, including spacecraft. This may be the 21st century, but we hardly know everything quite
edit on 20-1-2011 by WPThayer because: minor goof