John Winthrop and Aliens and Missing Time - Oh My!

When one thinks about the great American UFO stories, no doubt Roswell comes to mind. Although Roswell might be the most popular, it was hardly the first story to shake the American public. One of the most interesting, and earliest, sightings occurred in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639. 

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John Winthrop, one of the cofounders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and governor, recorded an event when a man named James Everell approached him. The entry in his diary recounting his meeting with Everell and Everell’s strange story stands in stark contrast with the other entries into his journal. Much of the other entries rack the wins and losses of developing the new world, Puritanism, and daily notes about being a governor. However, his March 1st entry covering the strange event on Muddy River doesn’t resemble the day-to-day happenings of the governor.

James Everell begins his story by saying that he and two colleagues had boarded a small boat and set out for Muddy River in Boston. As they made their way downstream, roughly a mile from where they left, mysterious events began to occur.

First, they a huge, bright light hovered above them in the sky. According to the journal entry, Everell says the light covered an area of about “three yards square”, or about 27 square feet. To set the scene, these men did not live in a world filled with light like we do today. So, imagine their intense fear and wonder as the pitch-black above them erupted into light. As they watched the light, mesmerized, they reported that it began to contract and change shapes, even taking the figure of a pig. It moved quickly through the sky, seeming to head towards Charlton. 

As they continued to navigate their small boat, they watched as the light moved back and forth between their location and Charlton. When the light finally left the sky, the men realized that, inexplicably, they ended up exactly where they had left from. The men have no memory of rowing against the tide, dropping the anchor, turning around, or otherwise making sure the boat moved anywhere but its intended location (the Muddy River in Boston). 

Winthrop must have taken an interest in this case and asked about town a bit because the journal entry also notes, “Divers other credible persons saw the same light, after, about the same place.”

But did those people see a UFO...or was it something else? Some historians explain away this strange occurrence with “ignis fatuus”...yes, swamp gas! Ignis fatuus usually appears over marshland (the Muddy River got its name for a reason) during the evening. Typically, what happens is that gas from decomposed organic matter combusts and rises from the marsh. However, the movement and where the light originated from (the sky, not the ground) that explanation doesn’t quite make sense. 

At the time, some people who encountered the story believed it was the work of the devil trying to mislead and tamper with good Puritans. Others believe this is a classic ‘fisherman story’ used to distract from the fact that the three men never made it to their destination to finish out whatever job they were supposed to do. However, Winthrop did describe Everell as a “sober, discreet man”...but even seemingly sober, discreet men might lie if enough is on the line.

Winthrop continues in his journals to discuss strange, similar events that suggest that Everell’s story was powerful enough to stay in the back of his mind for years. On January 18th, 1644 Winthrop writes about a similar incident, also including a group of three men headed to Boston. Then, another event that happened a week after that in Boston Harbor...this time with a strange voice attached to the light. Winthrop offered up his own theory on this incident - the devil had taken possession of a recently deceased sailor who had died in the harbor. But, for what purpose did the devil have to give such pointed, light-filled attacks in this city?

The header image is Title: The Muddy River Creator: Peter H. Dreyer Date: 1965 October Source: Collection 9800.007, Peter H. Dreyer slide collection File name: 9800007_072 Photographer: Peter H. Dreyer Rights: Public Domain, Please credit Peter H. Dreyer Citation: Peter H. Dreyer slide collection, Collection #9800.007, City of Boston Archives, Boston. It is licensed under CC BY 2.0.