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When I was growing up in the late 1970s, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind practically owned the big screen, and Hollywood followed up with a Mork & Mindy takeover of network TV. Folks were captivated by galaxies “far, far away,” and I was no different; but Texas seemed light-years away from everything that was going on in deep space.
I recently stumbled across something that dispelled this youthful misperception.
Mork, Han Solo, Chewbacca and the visitors portrayed in Close Encounters were all space travelers, and the modern archetype for alien space travelers is the “flying saucer.” As it turns out, the first recorded sighting of a flying saucer was not in Roswell, New Mexico, or Boulder, Colorado, or at the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. One was spotted in Texas on January 22, 1878.
According to a January 25, 1878, front-page report in the Denison Daily News—which was attributed to the Dallas Herald and headlined A Strange Phenomenon—a farmer named John Martin was hunting “six miles north of this city” when he spotted something in the distance. Martin’s “attention was directed to a dark object high up in the southern sky,” the story said. The “shape and velocity with which the object seemed to approach riveted his attention, and he strained his eyes to discover its character.”
At first the object appeared to be the “size of an orange,” but it got bigger and brighter as it approached. Martin stared at it so long he was temporarily blinded, and by the time his vision was restored, the object was almost directly overhead. By then it was “about the size of a large saucer” and was soaring across the sky at high altitude and with incredible speed. Martin said it resembled a balloon, and the Herald reporter noted that if it was not a balloon, “it deserved the attention of our scientists.”
The story appeared in The Dallas Weekly Herald on January 26 and the Daily Oklahoman soon after. There is no evidence that the incident ever actually received examination from local, state or national scientists at the time, but it did grab the attention of stargazers and researchers decades later. It was discussed in the influential book The Flying Saucers Are Real (Fawcett Publications, 1950) by Donald Keyhoe, revisited in The Dallas Morning News on August 6, 1965, and examined in Close Encounters of the Lone Star Kind in Texas Monthly in 1969.
Although mysterious objects in the sky have been recorded throughout human history, the sighting in Denison led to the first-ever mention of a flying saucer, and flying saucers have been a staple of UFO lore ever since.
Where Martin saw the saucer is not exactly clear. According to the 1880 U.S. census, there was a tenant farmer named John E. Martin living in Grayson County (where Denison is located), but there were five John Martins working as farmers in Collin County (just north of Dallas and Dallas County): three Johns (two of whom were listed in the 1870 census), one John P. and one John W. The 1880 census listed no John Martin in Dallas County.
Regardless of which John Martin saw a flying saucer in North Texas in 1878, at least three local newspapers reported it—at a time when no one had even heard of a UFO, much less space aliens, “close encounters” or R2-D2. This sighting occurred before there was a genuine context or compelling rhetoric for such events. It also took place before the sightings themselves became cliché—lending credence to the original account and firmly cementing the notion of visitors from galaxies “far, far away” right here in our own backyard.
E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo.