Historical Descriptions of Aurora Borealis: “those who did not see it missed a rare sight”

Earlier this week I was up early (5:45am or so) and I was able to watch the most amazing aurora borealis event I’d ever had the chance to witness. In person, they largely looked like grey-green wispy clouds with the occasional hint of purple or blue, but the colours really came out in the photos. I managed to take a few really decent photos with my phone on night mode, either with me bracing my arm against a tree or a picnic table for stability, or with a 5-second delay and then placed flat on a picnic table to be completely stable.

This display of course got my mind thinking about historical accounts of aurorae. I popped over to Peel’s Prairie Provinces, which has a large selection of entirely digitized, full text searchable, small town newspapers from what are now Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, to see how people described encountering the aurora borealis generations ago. Apparently, the feeling of people saying “oh my gosh it was amazing, let me describe it in detail” to those who slept right through amazing light shows is a traditional response.

The gorgeous display on Saturday evening of the beautiful aurora borealis seen in this district, is one which, though not often witnessed, will never be forgotten by the happy beholder. The electric storm (for such it is known by many) began about ten o’clock, and it seemed to centre in our Zenith, and then expand and radiate out from this centre to all the points of the compass, in ever changing shades and forms. There were displayed in the most beautiful and grotesque manner all the colours and shades of the rainbow. It was really such a profusion and richness of beauty and colouring which no wealth could purchase and no poet adequately describe, so in our humility, we will leave it to our considerate readers to imagine all the attractiveness of the scene which our poor pen has left untold.

The Calgary Weekly Herald, September 21, 1883. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

The Aurora
It is very seldom that the Aurora, or Northern Lights, look more splendid than they did yesterday evening just after darkness had set in. The sight was a magnificent one, the lights shooting far to the south of the zenith(?), and being all colors from a deep rose to a pure white. They shifted and changed their position constantly, at times only illuminating a portion of the heavens, at others spreading all over it. The sight was witnessed by numbers of our citizens, and the general opinion seems to have been that it is rarely – even in this district where the sight is not an uncommon one – the lights show out as magnificently as they did last night.

The Brandon Daily Mail, September 17, 1883. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Some Recent Displays of Aurora Borealis in the Far Northwest
The northern lights have been uncommonly fine and bright at Edmonton, N.W.T., for some weeks and the wise ones say that we shall have a long, sharp winter. Others hold that the aurora dances only when a cold spell is breaking up in the north and that we may expect mild weather so long as they are active. But whether the prophets say warm or cold, the people are sawing wood just the same and are not taking any chances. Last winter the mercury dropped to 40o below zero and the Edmontonians don’t propose to be left out in the cold in consequence of any northern lights.
The other night there was a remarkable outburst of polar lights that intensified until at 2 o’clock next morning, more than half of the sky was filled with them. A peculiarity of this display was that the arch was lifted so high and tilted, on our side of the earth, so far southward that it was seen not to be an arch but an immense circle, girdling the northern hemisphere, with its axis somewhere along the Mackenzie. In other words, the electrical core or magnetic pole, seemed to have shifted down until it was comparatively near us. . . . After keeping its place in mid-heaven for a time the band broke into clouds and receded toward the north.
A few nights ago an uncommonly brilliant display occurred, the celestial fireworks being visible during sunset. They lasted through the night and on the following evening were still there, showing themselves before the west was dark. Where the rays bunched themselves together the light was clearly intensified, and the still forest stood out against it in black silhouette. These rays frequently shot to the zenith and as they rolled together, formed beams of throbbing green light like that of the early gloaming in point of luminosity. It suggested indeed that the spear of Odin and the clubs of the frost giants were brandished above the domes of Walhalla in despair at the coming of Goetterdaemmerung; and, as if the fires of mundane destruction were alight already, there was a blood red glow at the northern horizon, a glare(?) as if the earth’s crust had been lifted out, and the boiling lava was surging out. For a time during the display portions of a double arch were seen, two segments of pale fire pushing out beneath the main arch, and afterward being absorbed by it. Frequently the lights assumed the form of drapery, a curtain thousands of miles long, and hundreds of miles high, spangled with stars, its green and blue and golden fringes flapping against the earth as it billowed(?) and tossed and rolled from side to side in the strain of gales blowing out of space, a loosened sail of the earth ship bounding – whither?

Qu’Appelle Progress, November 19, 1891. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Beautiful Display of Aurora Borealis
The heavens were illuminated last night with the most beautiful display of the aurora borealis it has ever been our experience to witness. About 9.30 in the northwestern sky appeared to mirror an immense fire and the apparent reflection cast a rich red hue over the heavens. This changed into the old fashioned northern lights with shooting rays from west to east. For a time the sky appeared to have cleared, but it was at 11.30 that the display reached its prettiest. At that time the whole sky was enveloped in a sea of loveliness which beggars description. From every corner of the horizon it was covered with a curtain that would make Joseph’s coat fade into insignificance. These flimsy curtain-like rays appeared to be gathered up in the centre immediately overhead and held by a large rosette of flaming red. From the centre the red faded into a soft cerise which, mingled with all the colors of the rainbow, created a setting which stood out as if defying the most skilled artist to paint anything half so beautiful.
The effect was wonderful and those who did not see it missed a rare sight.

Redcliff Review, August 9, 1917. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Bishop Newnham Says Aurora Display Brightest Since 1870 in West
The northern lights witnessed in Edmonton last Thursday evening played havoc with the telegraphic wires all over Canada and resulted in big delay[s] in telegraphic business according to city telegraphic men.
The display was one of the finest ever witnessed in the west. Bishop Newnham of Prince Albert, who is a great student of this phenomenon, says it was the most striking that he has ever seen.
In a statement to the Canadian Press he says:
‘The only time I have seen anything like it was in 1870, when, during the Franco-Prussian war, Paris was besieged by the Germans. I [saw] that from London, England, and many people were under the impression that Paris was being burned.’
Bishop Newnham says that the aurora Thursday night was of a bright red color similar to the reflection of a gigantic fire. The news dispatches indicated that the aurora was visible in England and probably aided a German aerial raid.

The Edmonton Bulletin, March 11, 1918. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
The Edmonton Bulletin, March 8, 1918. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Read the Plaque: Off the Beaten Track in Elk Island

Stopping to read commemorative plaques is an excellent way to do public history. They tell us what people in the past thought was important to commemorate. They tell us stories about these places. Often people may walk right past them on busy thoroughfares: just another part of the urban landscape, safely ignored. (Don’t be that guy: consciously stop and read the plaques!)

Other times, plaques are so far off the beaten track you have to wonder what their intended audience was. Such is the case of this plaque at Elk Island National Park.


It tells an interesting point of history:  the plaque marks the spot of a cabin staffed by the first fire warden in the area, William Henry Stephens. (No mention that there were in fact two wardens at the time – the other man was a Lakota-Sioux man named “Black Jack” Sanderson.)

The plaque is firmly secured to a glacial erratic – a large boulder. It does mark the site of the cabin, but the site is so far out of the way the plaque can’t be seen by more than a dozen or two people a year, largely park staff. You see, it sits along what’s known as Rob’s Road: a disused warden trail in the little-used Wood Bison Area of the park. It is technically accessible to visitors, but would be a 20km hike or so along an unofficial trail.  I think bison see it more often than people do.

Nevertheless, it is a pleasant surprise to stumble across this little memorial! Do continue five minute’s north along the path. You’ll see the only two maple trees in the entire park, planted alongside a different warden cabin, now gone.

Want to know where to find this plaque? See the map on this entry of ReadThePlaque.com.

Further Resources


“Additional Information: Ate His Family”: Wendigos and Murder Trials in 19th Century Western Canada

Sometimes, when you’re scrolling through online archival entries or flipping through dusty boxes of otherwise banal documents, you spot something that sticks out: something alarming. These documents are all the more tantalizing because of a lack of context – or just enough context to leave you wondering.

A few weeks back, I was prepping a powerpoint presentation on the natural and cultural history of the Beaver Hills east of Edmonton (as I have been known to do) and I was searching for images of local Cree people from the nineteenth century. I wasn’t having much luck so I had literally plugged in the word “Cree” into Library and Archive Canada’s image database and was trolling through the hundreds of images there. Then I ran across this one:

“Cree cannibal executed at Fort Saskatchewan.” 1879-1880. Photographer: G.M. Dawson. Image from Library and Archives Canada.

The focus of the image is what appears to be a First Nations man wearing a dark coat, mocassins, and holding a chain on a ring. Standing next to him is a man who, judging from his hat and uniform, is a member of the North-West Mounted Police: an early Mountie.  I almost scrolled past it, but then I saw the arresting image title: “Cree cannibal executed at Fort Saskatchewan.

I had in fact sort of achieved my research goal: I had found a photograph of a Cree man taken in the local area. Fort Saskatchewan (at that time a NWMP post and prison), after all, lies between the Beaver Hills (where Elk Island National Park is) and Edmonton. However, I had stumbled upon a much more fascinating story than the one I had initially set out to tell… albeit one with minimal available details.

What information I could find in the LAC database entry on this case is slim. The photo is apparently from 1879-1880, and taken by a person called George M. Dawson. From the accession number, this photo was acquired by the LAC in 1969. In the entry for the photographed of the chained man, under “additional information”,  reads this tantalizing phrase: “ate his family.” According to the photograph title, this man was executed as a cannibal. Other files with the same accession number show images from the Canadian Geological survey, mostly from the 1890s onwards, of viewscapes and travelling scenes. Here, for instance, is a lovely undated photo of a train of horses at Jasper Lake. There appear to be thousands of these along a similar vein.

I did find another photograph, also taken by the same photographer, which I suspect to be from the same case as it is from the same year: “Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.”

Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.
“Indian Bones, victims of Cree Cannibal, brought in as evidence by the Mounted Police. 1879.” Photographer: G.M. Dawson. From Library and Archives Canada.

Again, very little information accompanies this gruesome image, especially not the reason why a photographer who apparently accompanies geological surveys would be in a position to take a picture like this. I can only speculate as to why these photographs were taken – it’s unlikely it was for a newspaper and too early to be put on a picture postcard for the ghoulish. (People did send postcards with morbid subjects, because human beings are terrible, but the popularity of photographic postcards didn’t take off until 1900 or so.) I do know that crime scene photography wasn’t really yet a thing, and anyway these bones look like they were retrieved and put on display.

So at this point in my research, I still didn’t know much of anything about this specific case or the people involved beyond the captions provided by the LAC. I still didn’t know the name of the accused “cannibal” in the photograph. It was not uncommon for everyone in a photograph to be named except First Nations people, who were almost invariably labelled “Indian” or by their nation; white photographers didn’t often bother to find out the names of these peope as their racial identity was apparently enough of an identifier.

What I do know is that there were multiple cannibal scares in what is now Northern Alberta in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In this area fear of the Wendigo (cannibal monster) was very, very real, and people did die. What I found absolutely fascinating while conducting this research was the confluence of supernatural Indigenous explanations for gruesome behaviour like cannibalism (due to famine or insanity or both) and the newly imposed Canadian law by North-West Mounted Police.

In short, in the late nineteenth century you had the unusual situation of Mounties arresting bogeymen and putting them on trial for murder. 

A Wendigo (or “wîhtikôw” in Cree) is a cannibal spirit that can take over a person and compel them to eat other people. According to my friend and fellow scholar Caitlin Elm, who is Tall Cree, when she was young she was told wendigos are so famished that they eat their own lips so they always look like they’re baring their teeth. Once they have tasted human flesh, there is no going back.

Historian Nathan Carlson describes Wendigos in this way:

“Wîhtikôw was regarded by the Native people as a type of supernatural or spiritual condition that compelled its sufferers to bouts of rage, insanity, and— if the condition went unchecked— homicide and cannibalism. Moreover, it was oftentimes believed that the only way to stop wîhtikôw, if cures were unsuccessful, was to execute the sufferers by beheading them and then burning their hearts over a funeral pyre.”

The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3, Item Ar00308: Incident peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/BRM/1896/04/30/3/Ar00308.html
Newspaper headline for an article recounting the Wendigo incident at Trout Lake described by historian Nathan Carlson. The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3, Item Ar00308. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

There was a spate of Wendigo incidents reported in newspapers in Western Canada throughout the 1890s. In 1897, two women from Whitefish Lake were brought to a missionary for treatment after one of them had a dream of her brother (who had been dead for four years) who offered her human flesh to eat in a bowl of ice, and both women subsequently became sick and were thought to be wendigos. Both of them ultimately recovered and they never consumed human flesh. In 1899, two men at Cat Lake were arrested and put on trial for murdering a man who had been overtaken by the wendigo spirit. The afflicted man had asked them to kill him before he killed others, and they had done so.  A contemporary newspaper article on the 1896 Trout Lake Wendigo (an incident described in detail in an article by Nathan Carlson in Recollecting: Lives of Aboriginal Women of the Canadian Northwest and Borderlands; you can read the article in full on the publisher’s website here) describes the justification for disposing of the wendigo in this way:

“The reason that an axe was used was that there is a belief amongst the Indians that a bullet will not pierce a “wendigo” or man eater. The body was burned and large trees felled over the grave to prevent the possibility of a re-apperance of the “wendigo.” Some days after the death of the man the people of the settlement were terror stricken, believing that he might reappear and destroy them. His murder is justified on the ground that unless he was killed he would have killed others, and that it is the custom of the country.”

– “A Trout Lake Tragedy,” The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3.

In the 1890s, people were being killed and eaten by wendigos, but other people were being charged by Candian lawmen for murdering those possessed by the cannibal spirit (sometimes before the monster could even kill anybody). At least one man – or wendigo – was executed in Fort Saskatchewan for his actions: the one photographed above.

Now, I am not saying that the man in the first photograph was possessed by the Wendigo spirit. I’m also not saying that he wasn’t, or that others didn’t see him that way.

After having written all of the above and trolled through as many photos as I could at Library and Archives Canada, I did a Google search and ran across an article from the Edmonton Journal with a copy of the above photograph. It had much more written detail than I was able to uncover, from documents held at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, including trial records. According to the article, the man in the photograph was named Swift Runner or Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin and he was the first man hanged in Fort Saskatchewan. He was convicted and executed for the “murder and cannibalism of wife, mother, brother, and six children.” His wife is the only named victim: Charlotte.

Swift Runner was hanged for his actions on December 20th, 1879, at 7:30 in the morning.