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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Denison UFO

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The January UFO sightings in Stephenville gave the national news media a brief respite from politics and conferred on the town millions of dollars in free advertising, but the Erath County incident isn’t the Lone Star State’s first rodeo when it comes to mysterious objects in the sky.

In fact, a bit of googling reveals that a variety of Web sites claim the first ever usage of the word “saucer” to describe a UFO occurred in 1878 near the Grayson County city of Denison, then a booming railroad town in North Texas.

The sighting made page-one news in the Jan. 25, 1878 edition of the long-defunct Denison Daily News. Here’s the complete story, long-since in the public domain:

A Strange Phenomenon

“From Mr. John Martin, a farmer who lives some six miles north of this city, we learn the following strange story: Tuesday morning [Jan. 22] while out hunting, his attention was directed to a dark object high up in the southern sky. The peculiar shape and velocity with which the object seemed to approach riveted his attention and he strained his eyes to discover its character.

“When first noticed, it appeared to be about the size of an orange, which continued to grow in size. After gazing at it for some time Mr. Martin became blind from long looking and left off viewing it for a time in order to rest his eyes. On resuming his view, the object was almost overhead and had increased considerably in size, and appeared to be going through space at wonderful speed.

“When directly over him it was about the size of a large saucer and was evidently at great height. Mr. Martin thought it resembled, as well as he could judge, a balloon. It went as rapidly as it had come and was soon lost to sight in the heavenly skies. Mr. Martin is a gentleman of undoubted veracity and this strange occurrence, if it was not a balloon, deserves the attention of our scientists.”

A careful reading of this 210-word story makes it clear that Martin did not say he saw a flying saucer, but an object “about the size of a large saucer.” Too, the piece makes no inference the object came from another world. In fact, Martin “thought it resembled…a balloon.”

But at some point, someone ran onto this story and inducted it into UFO lore.

An even more careful review of the facts surrounding this1878 story reveals the distinct possibility of a long-ago misunderstanding on someone’s part: It appears the UFO sighting occurred near Dallas, not Denison.

True, the story ran in the Denison newspaper, but according to the first-ever printed reference to the tale, an article in the Aug. 6, 1965 Dallas Morning News, the Denison newspaper merely reprinted a report that first appeared in the old Dallas Herald.

According to the News article, the story in the Denison newspaper “recounts a piece that appeared in the old Dallas Herald.”

If that is correct, Martin had a farm in Dallas County, not near Denison. At least both towns have names starting with a “D.” And back then, the two places were about the same size.

A check of the 1880 U.S. Census shows no farmers named Martin living in Dallas County, but enumerators found three John Martins living in Collin County, just to the north of Dallas. All made their living as farmers. To even further muddy the water, the same census also lists a tenant farmer named John E. Martin living in Grayson County.

Whichever John Martin saw the saucer-sized object, and wherever the story first appeared, it did not create much of a splash downstate. The Austin Daily Statesman, then an afternoon sheet in the capital city, was silent on the reported goings on in North Texas. Neither is there any easily-findable evidence that the tale received any national notice in the press, unlike whatever happened in the sky over Stephenville.

© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales" March 13 , 2008 column
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Announcement

Mike Cox's "The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900," the first of a two-volume, 250,000-word definitive history of the Rangers, will be released by Forge Books in New York on March 18, 2008

Kirkus Review, the American Library Association's Book List and the San Antonio Express-News have all written rave reviews about this book, the first mainstream, popular history of the Rangers since 1935.
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