Close Encounters of the Lone Star Kind

Pamela Colloff’s extra-terrestrial experiences.
Wed December 31, 1969 6:00 am

In 1973, when Palacios Mayor W. C. Jackson invited extraterrestrials to visit Texas (“No one has ever made those fellas welcome,” he told reporters), his hospitality came almost a century too late. Long before anyone had heard of Roswell, flying saucers were first spotted in Texas in 1878, according to local legend, and first touched down here in 1897. In fact, Texas can boast of having some of the most compelling evidence ever uncovered of alien visitors—such as Aurora’s crash site, Lubbock’s mysterious lights or Dayton’s close encounters. Texas has also bred its share of peculiar UFO devotees, such as Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite, who was born in Spur and had his first spiritual vision while walking along a Galveston beach, as well as some members of the Republic of Texas, who reportedly believe that the Marfa Lights are proof of a subterranean energy grid that the Pentagon is trying to tap into with alien technology. MUFON, the world’s largest UFO investigation organization, is based in Texas, as is NASA, which oversees an intergalactic radio signal monitoring program called SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

1878: Denison, Texas

Thanks to a long-forgotten nineteenth-century farmer named John Martin, unidentified flying objects were first described as “saucers” here in Texas. According to the article “A Strange Phenomenon” that appeared in the

Denison Daily News on January 25, 1878, Martin was hunting when he saw “a dark object high in the northern sky.” The news account states that “the peculiar shape and the 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, after which it continued to grow larger.

After gazing at it for some time,” the article continues, “Mr. Martin became blind from long looking and left of viewing 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 a wonderful speed. When directly over him it was about the size of a large saucer and was evidently at great height.”

Although Martin clearly saw a “saucer,” Idaho pilot Kenneth Arnold is widely—and incorrectly—credited as the first person to describe an unidentified flying object as such. Arnold ushered in the post-war wave of UFO hysteria in 1947 when he told a local reporter, and in turn, the Associated Press, that he had seen an object in the sky over Washington’s Cascade Mountains that “flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” Arnold’s account coined the term “flying saucer,” although that honor rightly belongs to Texan John Martin, who had spotted one 69 years earlier.

1883: Marfa, Texas

According to Apache legend, the ghostly flashes of light that appear in the night sky of West Texas are the incarnation of the wandering spirit of Apache Chief Alaste, who has haunted the Chinati Mountains since his execution at the hands of Mexican Rurales in the 1860s. White settlers first noticed these lights, now known as the Marfa Mystery Lights, in 1883 when rancher Robert Ellison was driving his cattle a few miles east of Marfa. He and his companions spotted flickering lights along the horizon and feared that they were Apache camp fires, but when they searched the area the next day, they found no traces of encampments.

Since that time, people have flocked to what is now Route 90, nine miles east of Marfa, to try to spot the lights, which have appeared in white, pink, yellow, green, and blue hues to the east of the Chinati Mountains. Sometimes the lights dance erratically, while other times they remain motionless, slowly brightening with intensity. Skeptics believe that the lights are simply car headlights skimming across the mountains, but that would not explain sightings in the last century, or the fact that the lights often move in circles or zig zag formations. Others have argued that the lights are nothing more than ball lightening, reflections, mirages, swamp gas, or static electricity, but scientists have not been able to prove that any of those phenomena could happen in West Texas terrain with such regularity. According to local folklore, the lights are believed to be many things: Alaste’s spirit, the reflections of Spanish gold, the hidden treasures of Pancho Villa, “brujas” (witches) who are learning to fly, and most recently, UFOs.

Related Links: More on the Marfa Lights and Texas Primer: The Marfa Lights Scotland has its Loch Ness monster. Bermuda has its triangle. We’ve got the Marfa lights. by Gary Cartwright

1897: Aurora, Texas

On April 17, 1897, six years before the first plane was flown by the Wright brothers, an “airship” visited Aurora, Texas. After having been spotted sporadically in the Midwest, the illuminated, cigar-shaped craft was next seen in North Texas—first in Denton, and then in Weatherford, Corsicana, and Stephenville. The editor of the Stephenville newspaper claimed that the airship hovered so close to the town that he was able to yell out a request for an interview, which the extraterrestrial pilot denied.

Moving on to Aurora, the airship reportedly circled the town square, crashed into a windmill, and exploded, leaving behind the pilot’s charred body and a note written in indecipherable hieroglyphics. According to an article published in the Dallas Morning News two days later, the pilot was thought to be “a native of the planet Mars.”

Rumors about the airship persisted, and in 1973, a team of UFO buffs and television crews descended on Aurora to see if they could substantiate the story. Some Aurora elders claimed to remember the close encounter, while most of the town’s 300 residents emphatically insisted that it was an old hoax designed to revive Aurora’s declining fortunes. The incident may always remain a mystery, however, since a district court blocked an effort to exhume an Aurora grave that some believed held the pilot’s body. According to local legend, the grave was marked only by a headstone


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