Unidentified flying objects soared into American popular culture with the dawn of the jet age in the 1940s.
The post-World War II flying saucer craze still rivets the imagination. It inspired movies, books and a subculture of UFO enthusiasts, and turned remote, dusty Roswell, New Mexico into a global destination of paranormal pilgrimage.
UFOs, it turns out, have mystified Americans since the earliest days of colonial settlement.
The first known UFO encounter in America was recorded in 1639 by Puritan leader and prolific journal-keeper John Winthrop — leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a foundational figure in the national pantheon.
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Winthrop’s sensational account of “a great light in the night” was witnessed by a group of “sober, discreet” and “credible persons” over Muddy River in Boston — a trickle of a creek that today wraps around American sports landmark Fenway Park.
Winthrop’s leadership of the fledgling Massachusetts colony shaped the destiny of the United States, established more than a century after his death. He has serious street cred in academia.
“John Winthrop’s journal has long served as a cornerstone of Massachusetts historical scholarship,” the Massachusetts Historical Society writes in a recent look at the Puritan’s UFO sightings.
“He diligently recorded the events of his life, along with the trials and tribulations of the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the first 19 years of its existence.”
Buried among his prolific writings are words that suggest a mystifying object may have abducted three men in a boat.
Winthrop reported two more UFO sightings over Boston Harbor in 1644.
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Winthrop’s incredible tales of aerial phenomena in early America, long unknown, generated sudden interest in recent years, after federal government and military officials admitted that it’s been studying UFOs for decades.
Stories of paranormal, unexplained and perhaps extraterrestrial encounters, long considered fringe conspiracy, were effectively mainstreamed for academics and serious analysts.
Few Americans were more serious than Winthrop.
He was a devout Christian and an industrious nation builder. Despite the hardship of carving a new civilization from the wilderness, and governing a new society, he dutifully kept almost daily records of life in the colony for nearly two decades.
One 2005 biography is titled “John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father.”
“His energies seemed prodigious and inexhaustible,” PBS Frontline said of Winthrop.
“Whatever needed doing, he tried to do it. Repeatedly elected governor, he was chiefly responsible for maintaining civic and social order.”
John Winthrop was born on Jan. 12, 1587 or 1588, in Edwardstone, Suffolk County, England, to Adam and Anne (Browne) Winthrop.
Both his parents came from prosperous families, according to various accounts.
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He began journal-keeping in 1605 while still a teenager, chronicling his growing devotion to Christ. His faith was increasingly at odds with national sentiment after King Charles I, an Anglican sympathetic to Roman Catholicism, gained the throne in 1625.
Winthrop departed for the New World in the spring of 1630 aboard the Arbella with an expedition of Puritans to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony, about 35 miles north of the Plymouth Colony settled by the Pilgrims in 1620.
Winthrop issued a message on the ship that has echoed through American history.
It’s remembered today as the “city upon a hill” sermon — inspired by several biblical passages and delivered to a daring people fleeing decrepit old Europe to create a New World in service of Christ.
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop said; his sermon was recorded in written form.
“So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
The “city upon a hill” sermon helped establish the concept of American exceptionalism — a new society that would be a “model of Christian charity” for the world to admire and emulate.
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The phrase “A city upon a hill” has been widely quoted by following generations, most notably by President Ronald Reagan, who cited Winthrop by name in his farewell address.
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life,” Reagan said to the nation on Jan. 11, 1989.
“But I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace … That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
Winthrop was God-fearing, intrepid, faithful, hard-working and diligent — serious in faith and deed. Few people in American history had less time, inclination or motive to devote to fantasy or foolishness.
Yet amid shaping the future of the “city upon a hill” that would change human history, he reported mystifying events that defy explanation.
Winthrop’s report of an eerie UFO encounter on a winter night in Boston is sandwiched between perfunctory passages about business dealings with the natives.
The subject turned suddenly.
“In this year one James Everell, a sober, discreet man, and two others, saw a great light in the night at Muddy River,” Winthrop wrote on March 1, 1639.
“When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square; when it ran it was contracted into the figure of a swine.”
Winthrop went on, “It ran swift as an arrow toward Charlton [Charlestown] and up and down about two or three hours. They were come down in their lighter [a small barge] about a mile, and, when it was over, they found themselves carried quite back against the tide to the place they came from. Divers[e] other persons saw the same light, after, about the same place.”
At hearing of the encounter for the first time, UFO researcher Nick Pope told Fox News Digital this week, “That’s stunning.”
Pope is a former UFO investigator for the U.K. Ministry of Defense and contributor to “Ancient Aliens” on The History Channel.
He will appear this coming weekend at AlienCon, a gathering of UFO experts and enthusiasts in Pasadena, California, hosted by A+E Networks.
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“I think it speaks to the fact that those skeptics don’t like to admit, but most UFO witnesses, like Everell or Winthrop, are serious, sober individuals,” said Pope.
Several sources say ignis fatuus, a spark of swamp gas, is the likely cause of the strange light.
But that doesn’t explain how the phantom light raced across the river — or why Everell and the other men in the boat wound up a mile downstream.
“Some researchers would interpret this as a possible alien abduction if it happened today,” authors Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck wrote in “Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times.”
Winthrop reported two more UFO sightings in 1644, the first on Jan. 18.
“About midnight, three men, coming in a boat to Boston, saw two lights arise out of the water near the north point of the town cove, in form like a man, and went at a small distance to the town, and so to the south point, and there vanished away.”
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A week later another supernatural encounter was “seen by many,” he wrote.
“A light like the moon arose about the N.E. point in Boston, and met the former at Nottles Island, and there they closed in one, and then parted, and closed and parted diverse times, and so went over the hill in the island and vanished. Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles.”
Winthrop never mentioned the events again.
His journal was not published until 1825. The mysterious passages were ignored amid the insight into colonial history culled from his voluminous writings.
The eerie unidentified objects remain a mystery today, yet come from one of the most trusted sources of his time.
“If you look at modern [UFO] accounts, very often they’re [from] police officers, pilots, military personnel, radar operators,” said Pope.
“It doesn’t surprise me you have these very historical figures seeing these things. It’s vindication of what we see today” from government officials and from military leaders, he also said.
John Winthrop died of natural causes on March 26, 1649. He was 61 or 62 years old.
He’s buried today in King’s Chapel Burying Ground in the heart of downtown Boston. Established in 1630, it’s one of the nation’s oldest cemeteries.
Boston to this day comprises the bulk of Suffolk County, Massachusetts — the area still carrying the name of Winthrop’s homeland in England nearly 400 years later.
The town of Winthrop, next to Boston, juts proudly out into the harbor today. Winthrop Square is a landmark in downtown Boston. The Puritan leader is the namesake of schools, squares, communities and memorials around Massachusetts and in other parts of the country.
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More importantly for human events, the city he established and nurtured would, 145 years later, lead the charge for independence in the American Revolution.
Winthrop helped build a mighty “city upon a hill” — even while recording ephemeral mysteries that defied logic in 1639 and still defy it today.
“People have this misconception that this all started with flying saucers and Roswell,” said Pope.
“It goes back to the dawn of time,” he went on.
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“What we’re just beginning to realize is that people have always seen these strange things. We have fiery chariots in the Bible and we have strange images in medieval and renaissance paintings and in old petroglyphs.”
He added, “There’s no smoke without fire. And the believers only have to be right once.”
To read more stories in this unique “Meet the American Who…” series from Fox News Digital, click here.