John Winthrop's alleged alien encounter?John Winthrop's "History of New England" (1790) states that he, as well as many other witnesses saw a "light" entering in and out of lakes, rivers, and...

John Winthrop's alleged alien encounter?

John Winthrop's "History of New England" (1790) states that he, as well as many other witnesses saw a "light" entering in and out of lakes, rivers, and settlements. The journal it says, verbatim, that "other credible persons saw the SAME light" as credible witnesses.

What is your stand on this allegation?

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Whatever Winthrop and the others reported as "lights" going in and out of settlements probably was not the same phenomenon (natural or otherwise) as what is reported today by credible observers like pilots, military generals, elected government officials, astronauts, because what is reported today would be far greater than "a light" if such were to go in and out of settlements.

Credible witnesses see things that are physically presented before them with accuracy as to composition, structure, sound, smell, size, dimensions, and other physical properties so that these observations accord in the main with the observations of other credible witnesses (Pete: It was a horse. Sam: It was cloud. Joe: It was a falling waterfall. Pete and Sam and Joe are not credible.) Credible witnesses observe accurately though surely not without looking through the cognitive "lens" of their milieu when interpretation of data is called for, hence: Salem Witch Trials.

And make no mistake, the "lens" of our present is a very dark and cloudy one what with weapons in schools, clothing fashions that imitate the worst elements of our society, language and behavior rampant that is demeaning to human decency and dignity ... on and on and on. So while we are too enlightened to have witch trials, we have neo-Nazi hate groups, Internet suicides, racial profiling, and fundamentalist religious hate groups within both Christianity and Islam.

Now, would this ideological failing of ours make us any less credible as witnesses? Certainly not. What we are able to see and describe and report on is distinctly separate from we evaluate, judge, condone, participate in and condemn based on our ideological perspective. The reasonableness found in credible witnessing seems sadly separated from the evaluation of distorted social ideology.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Winthrop, like many people of the time, was heavily religious. 

The East Anglian Stour River valley produced many fervent Puritans like Winthrop in the later sixteenth century, but in his case an appreciation of English common law tempered his religious enthusiasm. (see first link)

Although that would often lead to a religious explanation for phenomenon, that is not necessarily the case.

In times before technology, it makes sense that people would make up fantastical stories for what they don’t understand.  I was just reading in The Week magazine about vampire scares in 19th century New England.  To me, it’s basically the same thing.  People observe—either illness or lights in the sky—but they can’t explain.  So they just go with stories they have heard.

Though scholars today still struggle to explain the vampire panics, a key detail unites them: The public hysteria almost invariably occurred in the midst of savage tuberculosis outbreaks.  (see second link)

There is a certain amount of mass hysteria in everyone seeing the same light, and being afraid of vampires.  People see what they expect to see, or they give it the same name as what others call it.  There are all kinds of natural phenomenon that make lights in the sky.  Something similar happened in modern times.  A bunch of people thought they saw a UFO with a triangle of lights, and it was just three independent lights (see last link).

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Puritans (and indeed most early modern people) often witnessed what they saw as supernatural occurrences. The Salem Trials were only the tip of the iceberg. In his classic book Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement, historian David Hall describes New Englanders as living in a world that was literally alive with the supernatural:

Ghosts came to people in the night, and trumpets blared, though no one saw the trumpeters. In this enchanted world, the sky on a 'clear day' could fill with 'many companies of armed men in the air'...Voices spoke from heaven and children from their cradles. All of these events were 'wonders' to the colonists, events betokening the presence of the supernatural.

As Hall points out, this didn't exactly make the colonists unique, as people all across Europe saw the same things. There was an entire literature in Europe, in fact, that described such phenomena, and probably, along with contemporary religous and scientific beliefs, encouraged them. (The parallel with modern UFO sightings as cultural phenomena should be pretty clear) So whatever Winthrop and co. saw, they didn't understand it as a UFO, and our attempts to do so are projecting our understanding of our own "world of wonder" back onto them. As far as making an objective judgement as to existence of extraterrestrial spacecraft visiting Earth, then or now, well, fantastic claims require fantastic evidence.


Further Reading:
belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John Winthrop, like most people in his time, had little enough understanding of science and objective reality to know when a light was an unidentified flying object (not necessarily alien but simply "unidentified") or just, say, the moon shining on the water. The most interesting part is that he assigns "credible witnesses" to the same light, as if they all got together much later and compared notes instead of clustering together and saying "See that? Look at that! Oh yes, I see it too!" (The former is conjecture; I can't say how or when they saw their lights.)

To this day, there is no undisputed evidence that there is anything supernatural, alien, or otherwise inhuman flying around in the skies. Many reports and videos are faulty at best, entirely fabricated at worst. To give John Winthrop, a man of his time and susceptible to hysteria and superstition, any more credence than other sightings is to ignore objective and critical thinking altogether.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The part I find the most concerning regarding the quote is "other credible persons saw the SAME light." My question is who defines a person as credible?

Outside of that, I would agree with the above statements. This was the same period in time where close to one hundred people were put to death for being found guilty of being witches. This culture was superstitious and fearful of anything unexplainable. The light, as pohnpei points out, very well could have been definable as something natural--yet, their lack of scientific understanding did not allow this to be determined.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have no inclination to believe that John Winthrop or anyone else in his time (or since, for that matter) actually saw an alien.  First of all, if there really were alien ships visiting Earth, it is inconceivable that solid proof would not yet have been found.  Second of all, in that day and age, people were very superstitious and lacked the level of scientific knowledge we have.  After all, these were the people who did the Salem Witch Trials.  Therefore, I have no doubt that if they really saw anything, what they saw was some natural phenomenon.

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A healthy dose of skepticism seems applicable here.

On the one hand, it is hard to completely disbelieve the possibility of miracles. There are many happenings in the world that are difficult to explain...but that does not mean that every claim, historical or contemporary, should be given a pass and accepted as true. Considering Winthrop's claims in this light, it is hard to lean toward giving 100% credence to them, though we might open-mindedly presume there is some chance that they were true.