The stories about Sky Serpents first appear in medieval sources. In earlier centuries, these things were called dragons, the subject of a part of international folklore, mythology, and even (sometimes) sighting reports.
Some Sky Serpents look very much like ordinary snakes, except that they are huge and in the wrong place. Other Sky Serpents have some dragon features, including the ability to breathe fire or lightning.
The first reported sighting, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, occured in A.D. 793: “These were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air, and soon followed a great famine.” Nineteen years earlier, in 774, “red signs appeared in the sky after sunset, and horrid serpents were seen in Sudsexe, with great amazement,” wrote Henry, Archdeacon of Huntington, in Historia Anglorum.
In April 1388 a “flying dragon was seen … in many places,” according to the Knighton’s Continuator. On December 5, 1762, a “twisting serpent” lit up the sky as it slowly descended and vanished over Bideford,Devonshire, England. It was visible for six minutes.
In the mid-1800s Nebraska settlers claimed to have witnessed comparably bizarre sights. Western historian Mari Sandoz noted, “Back in the hard times of 1857–58 there were stories of a flying serpent that hovered over a Missouri River steamboat slowing for a landing.
In the late dusk it was like a great undulating serpent, in and out of the lowering clouds, breathing fire, it seemed, with lighted streaks along the sides.” A frontier folk ballad from the period refers to a “flyin’ engine/ Without no wing or wheel/ It came a-roarin’ in the sky/ With lights along the side/ And scales like a serpent’s hide.”
The reference to a “flyin’ engine” may suggest that the object was some sort of unearthly machine rather than a living creature, but other tales indicate otherwise. In June 1873 farmers near Bonham, Texas, sighted an “enormous serpent” in a cloud, the Bonham Enterprise asserted, and were — no surprise — “seriously frightened.” The account goes on:
“It seemed to be as large and as long as a telegraph pole, was of a yellow striped color, and seemed to float along without any effort.
“They could see it coil itself up, turn over, and thrust forward its huge head as if striking at something, displaying the maneuvers of a genuine snake. The cloud and serpent moved in an easterly direction, and were seen by persons a few miles this side of Honey Grove.”
A few days later, in its July 6, 1873, edition, the New York Times declared this the “very worst case of delirium tremens on record.” It had nothing to say, however, about another manifestation, chronicled in a Kansas newspaper, the Fort Scott Monitor, a few days earlier, on June 27:
“A strange and remarkable phenomenon was observed at sunrise yesterday morning… When the disc of the sun was about halfway above the horizon, the form of a huge serpent, apparently perfect in form, was plainly seen encircling it and was visible for some moments.”
In 1882 there was sightings of sky serpent reported on The Gridley Herald. The story were told by two lumberjacks called Thomas Camp and Joseph Howard.
At 4 pm on 10 March 1882, they were startled by the sound of many wings flapping in the air when they were cutting wood five miles northeast of Hurleton, California. Looking up, they saw -not more than 40ft above the tree tops- a creature that looked something like a crocodile.
When Howard fired a shotgun round, the pellets rattled as if they had struck sheet iron. The creature itself uttered a “cry similar to that of a calf and bear combined but gave no sign of being inconvenienced or injured”. A “number of Chinamen” also allegedly saw the thing. The Herald concluded the account with a statement affirming that Campbell and Howard were“reliable men”who should be taken at their word.
Another sky-serpent story comes from a man who signed himself “R. B.” in a letter to the editor of the Frederick News, a Maryland paper, on November 29, 1883.
At 6:30 one morning, he averred, he had been standing on a hilltop when he saw, over Catoctin Mountain, that a “monstrous dragon with glaring eye-balls, and mouth wide open displaying a tongue, which hung like a flame of fire from its jaws, reared and plunged.”
A short article from the New York Times which published on 27 May 1888 tells the story of three sisters in Darlington County, South Carolina, who while walking in the woods, spotted a hissing 15ft serpent sailing above the treetops.
The creature was moving at the speed of a hawk or buzzard. The Times noted that other residents of the area had reported the same phenomenon earlier in the day, though it provided no details.
John B. Rosa recalled an 1897 Detroit experience in a 1961 letter to a city newspaper:
“Going down Grand River for my papers (the Morning Tribune), about 4 in the morning, the policeman I was with and I saw an object that looked to be about three feet in diameter. It was about 1,000 feet in the air and was heading east. It was a silvery color and had a tail about three blocks long.
It traveled like those big sea serpents you read about skimming over the top of the water. It made a low hissing noise that we could just hear. My dad,who was leaving our home for work, also saw it as it seemed to pass right over our house on Rivard between Leland and Alexandrine.”
In F.W.Holiday’s book “The Dragon and the Disc” (1973) contends that the ancients had it right: Nessies and their relatives (Sky Serpents) are dragons in the most literal, traditional sense; they are supernatural and evil. He goes on to link dragons with UFOs, which have a sort of symbiotic relationship (reflected in many ancient religions) with these creature sightings.
Sources: Unexplained: “Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurences & Puzzling Physical Phenomena” by Jerome Clark