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What is a Seneca Gun?

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

civil war cannon facing water in the sun

If you were anywhere near the Outer Banks on September 27th, you may have heard a large, house-shaking boom that left you scrambling to your phone or computer to see what just happened. Most of what you read probably pointed to a sonic boom or maybe even a navy firing exercise. It turns out, however, that it was a little-known or understood natural phenomenon called a “Seneca Gun.”

Seneca Guns are loud booming noises, most often described as sounding like thunder or a cannon being shot, and can feel like a small earthquake on land. Similar phenomena are reported all around the world. In Bangladesh, they call them the Barisal Guns; in Japan, they are the uminari; in the Netherlands and Belgium, they are called mistpoeffers; and in many other locations, they are simply called skyquakes.

Why is it called a Seneca Gun in the U.S.?

There is a regional dispute on the origin of the term Seneca Gun here in the States. Because they are often heard in the Lake Seneca region of New York, in the Tidewater region of Virginia, and the northeastern shore of North Carolina, as well as in coastal South Carolina, each area lays some claim to the name.

New Yorkers say the name is attributed to its occurrence in Lake Seneca, while Southerners claim it is named after a Civil War battle in Seneca, Georgia - as the sound mimics the booms of cannon fire.

In 1850, a decade before the Civil War, James Fenimore Cooper is believed to be the first to write about the booms in a short piece entitled ‘The Lake Gun,’ published in the book The Parthenon. In it, he describes the booms as “a mystery ….. a sound resembling the explosion of a heavy piece of artillery that can be accounted for by none of the known laws of nature. The report is deep, hollow, distant, and imposing. The lake seems to be speaking to the surrounding hills, which send back the echoes of its voice in accurate reply.”

Cooper goes on to write of the Native American’s belief, held since long before the arrival of Europeans, that the booms are the voice of the Great Spirit, Manitou cursing the Wandering Chief, Agayentha, who had violated the hunting and fishing code.

“For a thousand winters, he is to swim in the waters of this lake,” a character in Cooper’s story explains. “Such is the tradition of my people. Five hundred winters are gone by since” he was knocked into the lake and killed by a lightning strike; “five hundred more must come before he will sink.”


Scientific Explanations

Given Seneca Guns have been part of lore for centuries, it seems less likely that they are all industrial or military in origin. Here are some of the most popular explanations, though experts cannot agree on which is the most likely.

Supersonic Aircraft

Over the years, many of the reported booms on the Atlantic Coast have been linked to sonic booms created by supersonic aircraft. In the late 1970s, the Concorde airliner, which had just begun its transatlantic flights, accounted for 2/3 of the reported Guns, according to a Mitre Corporation study.

Occasionally, the US Navy has accepted its role in creating some of the booms, but the first sonic boom didn’t occur until 1947 when Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound. So, sonic booms can’t explain the hundreds of years of this phenomenon.

Natural Gas

Some scientists believe that the Seneca Guns occurring around the Finger Lakes in New York are the result of massive natural gas releases that burst from the depths of Seneca and neighboring lakes. They have noted a reduction in the number of booms when mining and drilling in the area has helped release the underground gas deposits.

Other researchers, however, say that the amount of gas being released to create the phenomenon would also significantly damage surrounding areas, and to date, no such damage has been attributed to the booms. They believe the bubbles seen in the lakes simultaneously or just following a Seneca Gun is the result of the shaking of the earth that comes occurs from the thunderous sound.

Something in the air - Bolides

A study by the University of North Carolina, while not able to provide conclusive evidence, postulates that the Seneca Guns are caused by bolides – space rocks that travel so fast that when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere they explode, often dramatically. This theory, however, does not address the fact that these booms are only heard along coastal waters or Lakes and have never been recorded by anyone on the open seas or in the middle of a continent.

Shallow Earthquakes

The USGS says the most logical explanation is that shallow earthquakes cause high-frequency vibrations that result in booms (deeper earthquakes create vibrations that usually never reach the surface). “Sometimes these shallow earthquakes create booming sounds even when no vibrations are felt.”

Scientists continue to look for the cause of these mysterious, thundering sounds – likely for many years to come. If the Seneca tradition is correct, Agayentha has a long time to go before he can rest in peace.





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