The Red River Meteorite
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In 1808, a party of explorers in the interior of Texas was shown a large mass of metal. In the expectation that it was platinum, 2 rival expeditions were soon organized to retrieve it from the wilderness, each led by a member of the original party that had seen it. The first group to arrive did indeed find it, but in their greedy haste had neglected to take along a means of carrying away this unwieldy mass that weighed the better part of a ton. They hid it “under a flat stone” and left in search of horses.

 

The second group “arrived a few days afterwards, and after searching several days succeeded in finding their object. Being provided with tools they made a truck-waggon [sic] to which they harnessed six horses, and set off with their prize towards the Red River.” After a long and difficult journey overland, made more difficult when Indians stole all their horses one night, they managed to reach the Red River, and proceeded by boat to the Mississippi and New Orleans.

The mass was then shipped to New York; the owners intended to send it on to Europe and sell it for a large amount of money, but were stopped by Colonel Gibbs, who recognized it for what it was—not platinum, but only iron, possibly a meteorite. After a chemical analysis by Benjamin Silliman confirmed the meteoritic nature of the mass by showing the presence of nickel, Colonel Gibbs bought it from the disappointed owners, and lent it to the New-York Historical Society, of which he was a member.

In 1829, the Society’s collections were given to the Lyceum of Natural History of New York (where Colonel Gibbs was also a member). In 1831, the Lyceum was forced to vacate its temporary headquarters, a building on the edge of Central Park, and the large meteorite was placed outside on the ground. Colonel Gibbs died in 1833.

One day in 1835, “it happened fortunately that Mrs. Gibbs…was passing through the Park when she saw some Irish laborers digging a hole in the earth. Approaching them, she enquired what they were doing, when they replied that they were going to bury that great ugly mass of iron out of sight as it was of no use. She was, of course, displeased….” Mrs. Gibbs rescued the meteorite, known today as Red River, and presented it to Yale University in memory of her husband. At that time, and for many years to come, it was the largest meteorite in any collection in the world. Several pieces had been removed from it while it was in New York; it weighed 1,635 pounds (742 kilograms) when it came off the boat that brought it to New Haven, and is probably close to that today.


Adapted from “The Peabody Museum Meteorite Collection: A Historic Account, ” by Barbara L. Narendra. 1978. Discovery 13(1):10–23.