The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes by Conevery Bolton Valencius by Conevery Bolton Valencius - Read Online

Vista previa del libro

The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes - Conevery Bolton Valencius

Ha llegado al final de esta vista previa. ¡Regístrese para leer más!
Página 1 de 1

Conevery Bolton Valencius is assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she teaches environmental history, history of science and medicine, and the American Civil War.

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 2013 by Conevery Bolton Valencius

All rights reserved. Published 2013.

Printed in the United States of America

22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13       1 2 3 4 5

This book was supported by a 2008–2009 research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a vital tax-supported source of intellectual inquiry in the United States. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

I am grateful to Cambridge University Press for permission to use material first published in Conevery Bolton Valencius, Accounts of the New Madrid Earthquakes: Personal Narratives and Seismology over the Last Two Centuries, in Deborah R. Coen, ed., Witness to Disaster: Earthquakes and Expertise in Comparative Perspective, special issue of Science in Context 25, no. 1 (February 2012): 17–48.

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-05389-9 (cloth)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-05392-9 (e-book)

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Valencius, Conevery Bolton, 1969–

The lost history of the New Madrid earthquakes / Conevery Bolton Valencius.

pages ; cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-226-05389-9 (cloth : alkaline paper) — ISBN 978-0-226-05392-9 (e-book)

1. New Madrid Earthquakes, 1811–1812.   2. Earthquakes—Mississippi River Valley—History.   I. Title.

QE535.2.U6V354 2013



This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992 (Permanence of Paper).


The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes

The University of Chicago Press

Chicago and London




Introduction: Earthquake Cracks

1. A Great Commotion: The Experience of the New Madrid Earthquakes

2. Earthquakes and the End of the New Madrid Hinterland

3. Revival and Resistance: Earthquakes on Native Ground

4. The Quaking Body: Sensation, Electricity, and Religious Revival

5. Vernacular Science: Knowing Earthquakes in the Early United States

6. Sunk Lands and Submerged Knowledge: How War, Swamps, and Seismographs Hid Evidence of the New Madrid Earthquakes

7. The Science of Deep History: Old Accounts and Modern Science of New Madrid

Conclusion: Memory and Earth in the Mississippi Valley






I.1. A challenging moment in the Crocket household

I.2. Sand blows in Mississippi County, Arkansas

1.1. United States, 1811–12, at the time of the New Madrid earthquakes

1.2. A Mississippi flat-boat

1.3. Side view of an earthquake fissure filled with intruded sand

1.4. Mississippi River, mid-quake

1.5. The Great Earthquake at New Madrid

1.6. Reelfoot Lake

1.7. First steamboat on the Western Waters, 1812

2.1. William Clark’s map of the New Madrid hinterland

2.2. The New Madrid hinterland, pre-earthquake

2.3. The middle Mississippi Valley after the New Madrid earthquakes

2.4. Downed timber in the Great Swamp

2.5. Sunken lands of Arkansas

3.1. Tecumseh

4.1. Bodily evidence of past earthquakes

6.1. Battle of Island Number 10

6.2. Louis Houck, railway workers, and engine

6.3. Logging camp, southeast Missouri

6.4. Floating dredge, Little River Drainage District

6.5. Pulling willows along a drainage ditch, Little River Drainage District

6.6. Regularizing the Great Swamp

6.7. Newly cleared land, newly straightened waterway

6.8. Cotton field near Kennett, Missouri

6.9. Jesuit seismologists tending instruments, 1920s

7.1. New Madrid-area epicenters, 1974–2012

Introduction: Earthquake Cracks

On a cold night early in 1826, Davy Crockett and his hunting dogs chased a bear through the rough terrain of west Tennessee. Crockett was above all a practical frontiersman. As he ran through the woods, his main concern was for his gun—he worried that he might break it as he stumbled on the earthquake cracks that ran through the ground beneath him. Eventually, the bear he was chasing wedged itself down inside a larger crack, about four feet deep, where Crockett’s hunting dogs could not surround it. Undeterred, Crockett crawled into the crevasse himself and knifed the bear from the side. The next morning, after Crockett’s hunting partner had caught up with him, the two men butchered the bear and salted and packed its meat. As they did so, his partner examined the crack and said he wouldn’t have gone into it . . . for all the bears in the woods. Sure enough, as Crockett recounted in his autobiography, that night a most terrible earthquake . . . shook the earth so, that we were rocked about like we had been in a cradle. We were very much alarmed, he explained, for though we were accustomed to feel earthquakes, we were now right in the region which had been torn to pieces by them in 1812, and we thought it might take a notion and swallow us up, like the big fish did Jonah.¹

Davy Crockett was not overly frightened to be shoulder-to-shoulder with a bear, but despite his bravado in crawling down into the earthquake crack, he admitted to being very much alarmed by the tremors that terrified his partner. At the same time, the earthquakes that periodically shook his favorite hunting grounds were for Crockett a recognizable feature of his environment. He knew them as reverberations of the great Mississippi Valley earthquakes that had rocked and reshaped his region in the winter of 1811–12. Those great shakes continued—and continue today—in smaller tremors felt by hunters, bears, dogs, and other inhabitants of the American heartland.

The New Madrid Earthquakes

The earthquakes Crockett remembered as having torn to pieces his hunting grounds in 1812 were what we now call the New Madrid earthquakes, a series of powerful tremors that rent the midcontinent and were felt across North America. From December 1811 to February 1812, three large earthquakes—and numerous others—shook an area centered on what is now the small jut of southeast Missouri known as the Missouri Bootheel (site of New Madrid, a small Mississippi River trading port named for the Spanish capital but now pronounced, defiantly and definitively, new MAD-rid).²

Around the epicenters of the 1811–12 quakes, the heart of the central continent where the present-day states of Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois draw near each other, these earthquakes’ effects were terrifyingly intense. The air filled with loud noise, foul stench, and mysterious flashes of light. Large areas were covered with rising warm water that threatened to drown many in what is now southeast Missouri. The surface of the earth rolled in visible ground waves so powerful that sections of forest snapped off midtrunk as the trees recoiled.

Ground shaking caused the deep, soft soil of this vast floodplain region to separate (like a runny egg casserole if you took it out of the oven and shook it side to side, as New Madrid researcher Tish Tuttle described it),³ causing the earthquake cracks that could run for almost a mile and could be anywhere from centimeters to many meters deep. In areas near southeast Missouri and eastern Arkansas, water just under the surface of the earth was put under tremendous pressure by seismic movement. The water and sand under the soil in much of the Mississippi floodplain responded by liquefying—turning from solid foundation into volatile quicksand.*,⁴ Seeking an outlet, this liquefied sand shot upward through the clay underlayer and dirt of the surface into fountains of liquefied sand which created immense, round sand blows, volcano-like, rounded cones of white sand fed by a central channel or sand dike of white sand rising up through red clay or black dirt.†,⁵

Because of the seismic commotion, a portion of western Kentucky lurched upward, raising itself up into an enormous dome. This uplift is still visible today. It does not seem very dramatic at first, and in fact most people who live in the area or travel through pass by this uplift without a second thought—much as we can travel right on by the evidence of sand blows, fault scarps, and topographic change. Only in the context of the flat, broad expanse of the Mississippi floodplain does this seemingly gentle bulge in the terrain seem peculiar—and to the eyes of a seismologist, ominous indeed. The sudden uplift also turned the continent’s central river back on itself: the mighty Mississippi ran briefly but dramatically backward before the current wore down the new-made falls.

Even far from the epicenters, the New Madrid earthquakes were powerful. People felt them in southern New Hampshire. They terrified settlers in the Ohio Valley, woke sleepers on the lower Eastern Seaboard, and crashed furniture in the nation’s capital. In southwestern Kentucky, the tremors revealed a brutal murder by two slaveholders: nephews of Thomas Jefferson had in a drunken rage killed and dismembered a young slave and thrown his body parts into a fire. Only tremors that knocked over the chimney revealed their grisly crime. Further east in Kentucky, those same tremors badly frightened John James Audubon’s horse. In South Carolina, wells went dry afterward. For North Americans of the 1820s—Illinois settlers and Cherokee farmers, slaveholders and those living in slavery, East Coast city folks and backwoods hunters such as Davy Crockett and his partner—these disruptions were an obvious and well-remembered part of local history, a set of disturbances whose environmental traces were all too apparent and all too frightening.


A key question about all this disruption, for people of Davy Crockett’s time—and for many people today—is, what happened? And why did it happen? What explains such sudden tremors in the earth, much less the widespread reports of flashing lights, bad smells, ominous noises, and spouts of liquefied sand?

To a very large extent, we still do not know.

We know that there was a series of large earthquakes in 1811–12. Estimates of their magnitude have ranged from 7.0 to 8.7, though most current estimates are closer to 7 than 8.‡ Seismologists have mapped the intersecting faults around the New Madrid area and debate ongoing seismic movement in the region.⁷

But we still in some essential sense do not know why these ongoing quakes occur. We know—at least in the big picture—a fair amount about how earthquakes work. The framework of plate tectonics explains that our present-day continents are parts of what was once one enormous supercontinent, ripped apart as pieces of earth’s crust move apart from each other on flows of immensely slow-moving beds of mantle. This is why, as most schoolchildren with access to globes have noticed at one point or another, all the continents have a rather jigsaw-y look to them—a jigsaw puzzle long played with, the pieces worn and rounded into hazy approximation.

Most of the earthquakes we are familiar with occur when one huge piece of earth’s crust grinds up against another on its travels (think of Los Angeles’s slow, jerky, and inexorable movement northward toward San Francisco on the San Andreas fault), or when one piece of crust dives down like a sounding whale, being subsumed in the process by another massive plate (such subduction can produce massive waves—as happened, tragically, in the December 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake and tsunami that killed over a quarter-million people and caused devastation throughout southern and eastern Asia). If you hold your two hands flat in front of you, with their edges touching, and move them up and down next to each other, or move one under the other, you have a rough but workable model of why most earthquakes happen. For people worried about earthquakes in California—or Japan, or Indonesia, or anywhere else on a plate boundary—this basic model of crashing, scraping, and subducting plates works very well.

But this model does not explain why or how earthquakes occur in the middle of tectonic plates. New Madrid, Missouri, is roughly 1,500 miles from the San Andreas fault. So-called intraplate quakes are not well explained by plate tectonics, nor by any model in seismology. Earthquakes can occur for many reasons besides crunching tectonic plates: small local tremors are frequently produced by deep drilling, for instance, and significant seismicity may be attributable to the glacial rebound of continents relaxing back upward after being relieved of their heavy load of glacial ice after the last ice age—in fact, glacial rebound may be one main reason for the New Madrid earthquakes. Yet none of the current forms of explanation alone would seem to account for the scale of events that occurred in the Mississippi Valley in 1811–12. Something big enough to make the Mississippi River run backward has to have an awful lot of motive force behind it. Just where did all that power come from?

More than nineteenth-century history is at stake in the answer to that question. Recent research on New Madrid area seismicity has demonstrated that the 1811–12 earthquakes were not simply an anomaly, but part of a continuing series of earthquakes that goes back several thousand years. What is more, they seem to have occurred relatively frequently and regularly—possibly every two to six hundred years. Intraplate quakes can clearly pack a wallop. Two of the most lethal earthquakes in recorded history were intra-plate quakes, both in China: the 1556 earthquake in Shaanxi Province, which buried at least 830,000 people, and the July 1976 magnitude 7.7 earthquake which leveled the northeast China city of Tangshan, with an estimated death toll as high as 650,000. Figuring out more about the mechanisms and likelihood of future similar shocks in the New Madrid area is a clear public imperative.¹⁰

A Lost History

For much of the last two hundred years, Americans and residents of the middle Mississippi Valley have forgotten the earthquake history that presented such obvious pragmatic challenges for Davy Crockett. Accounts like Crockett’s are part of the reason why this story has been lost. Stories of earthquakes powerful enough to remake the topography of the midcontinent became just another part of the tradition of American frontier tall tales told by larger-than-life figures like Davy Crockett.§ Down-home narratives like this hunting tale might strike most of us as quaint Americana, not as evidence for serious and sober analysis. Narratives like Crockett’s cast doubt upon the very events they chronicle.¹¹

In the years, decades, and two centuries since, human enterprise and the effects of nature itself worked to wipe away the traces of earth and memory linked to the New Madrid quakes. The 1811–12 quakes damaged the local landscape in dramatic and visible ways, rending the surface of the earth, spewing forth material from underground, and scarring the landscape. Yet such changes to soft-soiled floodplain were subject to rapid erosion. Only the deepest of earthquake cracks are now recognizable as earthquake evidence. Sand blows easily visible even in the early twentieth century as barren spots upon which little will grow became harder to identify by the early twenty-first century. Generations of plowing and grading blurred earthquake traces in the soft soil of the middle Mississippi Valley. In some of the open fields, when the cotton or soybeans are just starting to grow in early spring, sand blows become visible after spring rains: the surrounding soil darkens with water that drains swiftly through the white sand of the blows. Yet such ghostly white circles might strike most casual observers as an agricultural problem, not seismic testimony. Unlike fault lines that tear rocky outcrops, the New Madrid earthquakes left comparatively few unambiguous environmental traces.¹²

FIG. I.1. A challenging moment in the Crockett household. This kind of image made Davy Crockett a well-known figure in nineteenth-century America. Pale East Coast shop clerks pored over woodcuts like this and dreamed of life in the backwoods. This kind of image also made Crockett’s stories of earthquakes—and those of many of his contemporaries—easily to dismiss and ignore. Tales of huge cracks in the earth, shooting sand blows, and retrograde rivers seemed exactly as credible as this bear-versus-family battle. (The Crockett Almanac, vol. 1, no. 3 (1837), RB 95164, reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA)

Over the twentieth century, earth scientists and casual observers alike have become fascinated by the more frequent and more easily explained kind of earthquakes, at the borders of the planet’s massive tectonic plates. Contemporary towns and cities of the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys—Memphis, St. Louis, Louisville—do not figure in contemporary culture as earthquake zones in the way that Tokyo or San Francisco do. We walk along the deceptively smooth surfaces of the New Madrid seismic zone in ignorance and unconcern.

Every once in a while, though, someone stumbles into cracks left by these quakes. People living in the small, sleepy towns of eastern Arkansas will awaken in the middle of the night to hear a roaring, rushing noise, feel their beds shaking, and see pictures rattling against the walls. Paddlers or hunters out on the region’s many streams and sloughs will notice white arms of sand branching upward through the dark color of a sharply cut stream bank, remnants of sand dikes that once spewed hot liquefied sand and organic matter high into the air. Historians in North Carolina, in Ohio, in Georgia, gently unfolding stiff sheets of correspondence from the early nineteenth century, will come across startled news of the late awful visitation of Providence.¹³

FIG. I.2. Sand blows in Mississippi County, Arkansas, two centuries after the New Madrid earthquakes. This photograph from New Madrid researcher Tish Tuttle shows the dramatic size and extent of earthquake sand blows (notice the nearby trees). Paradoxically, this image also shows the relative invisibility of such dramatic events: if most of us driving by even noticed white splotches in a floodplain field, we might assume they had something to do with irrigation or local soils, not huge long-ago earthquakes. (Courtesy of Martitia Tuttle, M. Tuttle and Associates)

Like Davy Crockett, The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes crawls down into the cracks left by these dramatic New Madrid quakes. In dim crevices, we can find the traces of environmental and social upheaval. We can reconstruct broken shards of long-neglected history and bring into the light this story, once well known and now virtually forgotten.

This book answers many of the mysteries surrounding these dramatic early nineteenth-century earthquakes. First, how did these frightening events matter at the time? Careful investigation reveals that they were key events in the social, political, religious, and territorial upheavals of the moment. They were well known not only to those whose lives and livelihoods were transformed by them, but by people across the country, who gave voice to a uniquely American vernacular science as they debated the import of the quakes. Second, how could earthquakes that mattered so much, to so many, be almost completely forgotten in the decades and centuries following, especially when they carried the threat of a repeat performance? No one factor could erase these earthquakes: rather, a combination of changes—social, environmental, and scientific—combined to submerge knowledge of the New Madrid earthquakes for much of the modernizing twentieth century. It took the American Civil War and its aftermath, new racial and social tensions of the twentieth century, environmental transformations wrought by swamp drainage, timbering, and farming, and a radical shift in the way seismology was done to erase the signs and memories of such a dramatic set of events. Third, how did scientists come to rediscover these earthquakes after centuries of neglect? Even as seismology became a science of instruments and careful measurement, old narratives of long-past quakes turn out to have surprising salience for contemporary investigation. And finally, what should we make of the threat of future earthquakes in the New Madrid seismic zone, given this history? What might seem a set of questions about the past become challenges still unresolved about priorities for the future.¹⁴

To explore how people first made sense of the New Madrid earthquakes, we begin with an account by a literate Mississippi River traveler named William Leigh Pierce. His account serves both to introduce the exciting events of the earthquakes and to show us how people of his era investigated and came to understand puzzling natural phenomena: through sometimes chatty first-person narratives that included evaluation of trading routes, measurements of sand blows, and commentary on religion as equal ingredients. Making knowledge about the natural world was not separate from other kinds of reporting and conversation. Rather, early Americans folded the creation of knowledge into storytelling and the work of building commercial networks. Reading carefully such documents of the past, we learn how people of earlier times thought and put together their picture of the world—about earthquakes and about all manner of phenomena.

One reason the New Madrid earthquakes have been so effectively forgotten is that they do not seem to have mattered much—at least not in the histories written by those who gained social and economic power after the quakes. Nothing much was happening in that obscure part of the world before the quakes, goes the conventional story, and nothing much of importance happened there afterward. These may have been physically dramatic events, but they did not have much impact on human history.

Reading carefully the records of the New Madrid quakes shows how very wrong that conventional story has been. The area right around the earthquakes’ epicenters was in fact a hotbed of cultural change and settlement in the tumultuous period of the beginning of the nineteenth century, especially settlement by Indian groups from east of the Mississippi. The earthquakes transformed the terrain by creating swampy sunk lands and effectively erased Indian settlement in what was once a thriving New Madrid hinterland.

The New Madrid earthquakes also mattered a great deal to Indian communities across eastern North America. For Cherokees in the midst of cultural upheaval, the earthquakes gave fire to a movement of apocalyptic prophecy. For Creeks resisting American takeover, the earthquakes became part of a war of resistance. For Indian people throughout eastern North America, the spiritual symbolism of the quakes served as a call to ally with the Shawnee leaders and prophets Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa in a movement of cultural and military resistance.

The New Madrid earthquakes similarly became an element of American spiritual movement, as they underscored the physically demonstrative spirituality of the Great Revival. People felt the quakes in their bodies, feeling odd, ill, and off-balance. Just so, they worked through the spiritual meaning of the earthquakes as physical manifestations of Christian faith. The New Madrid earthquakes jolted early Americans into belief—and also, in surprising ways, into scientific questioning. The shocks of earthquake felt like the shocks of the Holy Spirit, and also like the shocks of the fascinating new science of electricity. Musing about the jolts of earthquakes, Americans thought through profound questions of spirit and of causation.

Historians have dismissed early American science as derivative and inconsequential, struggling unsuccessfully to catch up to the breakthroughs and insights of European courts and laboratories. Looking at the New Madrid earthquakes—obscure events of an obscure cultural frontier—reveals how mistaken this view is. Across North America, people rushed to exchange information, questions, theories, and arguments about the causes of these earthquakes. Scientific inquiry, scientific conversation, and scientific thinking existed throughout early American society. The surprise is that this everyday science of early America was not just performed in labs or associated with those we might recognize as scientists: it was connected with almost all forms of society.

Listening to early Americans discuss and debate these earthquakes shows us what science really was in the early United States: a set of questions and debates in which many people, from a wide range of geographic and social places, regarded themselves as engaged participants. We have let these conversations lie invisible because they do not in any way resemble our usual histories of science. To recognize how American vernacular science was constructed through the New Madrid earthquakes is to recognize how fundamentally scientific thinking and scientific questions have shaped many aspects of early American civic and intellectual life.

But this story of how people came to grapple with the New Madrid earthquakes does not stop with William Leigh Pierce, Davy Crockett, and their early American contemporaries. Once well known, the New Madrid earthquakes were gradually and inexorably forgotten, the memory of them dormant for over a century. Huge dredging machines remade earthquake terrain into farmland; photos of African American sharecroppers protesting deep social injustice displaced older images of early nineteenth-century Native settlers; and the river around New Madrid became known as the site of an exciting battle rather than alarming seismic upheaval. In the extended process of forgetting, narratives of the New Madrid earthquakes, from folksy stories like Crockett’s to early scientific reports and Native American oral histories, were all rendered virtually invisible—just as the Cherokees and other Indians settling the middle Mississippi Valley, who reacted so clearly and forcefully to the earthquakes, were themselves rendered invisible, their own history of resettlement in the region buried and denied.

To early twentieth-century boosters of the area trying to encourage new settlement, to hardscrabble tenant farmers just trying to get by, to scientists enthralled by the new techniques of instrumental seismology, stories of wide-eyed river men and awestruck Indians seemed quaint, irrelevant, even ridiculous. Until recently, historians also forgot these narratives, conventionally regarding the history of American seismology as beginning when experts invented modern devices to measure the earth. Because the New Madrid quakes occurred in the preinstrumental era of the earth sciences, before the invention of seismometers, there are no instrumental records of their movements. Unrecorded, unregistered, the New Madrid earthquakes submerged into a haze of inexact hearsay—the subject of a few novels, but little mentioned in our history textbooks. For the better part of a century and a half, the New Madrid earthquakes became the subject of derision and doubt.¹⁵

Then, because of late twentieth-century changes within seismology, accounts like Davy Crockett’s moved once again into the center of discussion. Eyewitness accounts, so long doubted and derided, have become once again a crucial source of evidence. Present-day seismologists compile, quote, and argue about personal letters from 1812; they debate settlement patterns of the Ohio Valley; they pore over census data from the young United States. They act, in other words, like historians.

Modern researchers engage with other forms of early nineteenth-century knowledge as well. The local perspective of people working the land has begun, in small but consequential ways, to figure in scientific reassessments of the New Madrid earthquakes. Bodily knowledge, once a common form of information about earthquakes and then utterly rejected as unscientific, is once again a form of information about the severity and extent of seismic shocks. Such reassessments suggest further ways that once-valued and subsequently rejected information about the earthquakes, especially earthquake reports from Indian communities, information about the response of animals, or testimony about the lights and weather associated with tremors, might usefully inform some of the questions asked in our modern sciences of the earth.

As the New Madrid earthquakes have come back to light, the science and the history of the quakes have become the subject of contentious public policy debate. Different scientific theories have practical implications for infrastructure regulations. Is the New Madrid seismic zone cooling down in ways that present decreasing risk for the future? Or are the 1811–12 events fair warning of similar seismic tumult likely to recur beneath cities and farms of the American heartland? The financial burden of earthquake preparation and seismic building codes would be felt heavily in the affected areas, so scientific theories and risk assessments matter a great deal in practical terms. The facts and forecasts of the New Madrid earthquakes are presently debated in city council meetings, insurance industry websites, and the pages of local newspapers, as communities try to create appropriate responses to earthquake threats about which prominent scientists still struggle to come to consensus.

How do we know what we know—or what we think we know—about the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–12, and possibly of the future? The smelly barking dogs of a famous American backwoods bear hunter might seem a strange setting for the search for thinking about natural events in the United States. Yet in just such places, and through just such records, was knowledge about natural processes created in early American life. Later scientists would come back to reports like Crockett’s to try to figure out what had actually happened. Accounts of the New Madrid earthquakes are not just a colorful curiosity, but a fundamental ingredient of modern scientific analysis of the puzzling midcontinent.

For North Americans of the early nineteenth century, it was clear that these disruptions—events only slowly even named as earthquakes—had created important material changes. The New Madrid earthquakes marked the land and the people on it. Digging into a past landscape, a landscape of physical terrain and imaginative questioning, brings to the surface evidence of earthquakes with possible implications for the American future.


A Great Commotion: The Experience of the New Madrid Earthquakes


We have postponed a number of articles prepared for this evening’s paper, to make room for the following very interesting communication from an intelligent friend at New Orleans.

It is we presume the most particular and satisfactory account of the earthquakes on the Mississippi which has yet been published: And Mr. Pierce being an ear and eye witness to the scenes he describes, the authenticity of his narrative cannot be doubted.¹

Hampshire Federalist, Springfield, Massachusetts, February 11, [1812]

.   .   .

By February 1812, many people in North America were unsettlingly aware of a series of disruptions that had occurred somewhere along the edge of the growing American nation. From the upper Missouri River to Upper Canada, from Georgia to Connecticut, many people over the previous three months had felt rocking and shaking, heard strange sounds, witnessed the movement of objects and the alarm of animals and birds, or felt disturbing symptoms in their own bodies. These puzzling and sometimes frightening events were big news in 1812.

In widely circulated journals and idiosyncratic local papers, from substantial communities and tiny settlements, people shared their impressions and sought others’ knowledge about these natural disturbances. Some reports were just a few snippets of description—questions, really: had anyone else felt the shakes? heard all the noise?—while other accounts went on for long passages comparing many neighbors’ experiences or offering parallels from historical tremors. Surveying the abundant printed evidence of the New Madrid earthquakes is like looking through the pieces of a massive puzzle spilled from a box onto a table top. The brightly colored pieces are hard to sort for order and connection.

FIG. 1.1. United States, 1811–12, at the time of the New Madrid earthquakes. (Geographer: Bill Keegan)

One particular New Madrid account, published by the Hampshire Federalist on 11 February 1812, brings the larger pattern into clear focus. Written by river traveler William Leigh Pierce, this interesting communication was among the longest of the immediate eyewitness reports; it appeared in scores of different newspapers, and it addressed events and fears that appear common to many other accounts. His narrative thus provides a guide for modern people interested in the quakes just as it did for readers of many newspapers in 1812. To follow Pierce in his downriver journey is to read how the New Madrid earthquakes would enter American experience.

Pierce’s account held great interest in 1812, and it remains fascinating in the early twenty-first century. In the 1960s and ’70s, during the beginnings of seismological reassessment of the New Madrid earthquakes, researchers lamented their reliance upon often exaggerated, inaccurate, and sometimes fanciful narratives prepared at the time.² More recently, researchers have returned to reassess accounts like his, to piece together a modern scientific explanation for the events he chronicles. Pierce’s narrative thus offers a window not simply into the experience of the earthquakes when they happened, but into how successive generations of researchers have come to comprehend them.

FIG. 1.2. A Mississippi flat-boat. William Leigh Pierce was traveling the Mississippi in a boat much like this when the first shocks of the New Madrid earthquakes hit in December 1811. Earthquakes that disrupted American access to the commercial artery of the Mississippi were of national interest, as the many reprintings of Pierce’s earthquake account make clear. (Samuel Adams Drake, The Making of the Great West, 1512–1883 (1891), 164, image 2003-0517, courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri–Columbia)

Public interest in New Madrid accounts like Pierce’s reveals the tensions of 1812, when new commercial networks were spreading further across North America, explorers sought to survey western territories only recently claimed by the United States, and war over commerce, territory, and culture was brewing between beleaguered Native nations and a young American republic and between the United States and Britain. As we follow Pierce on his journey downriver, we can discern with vivid clarity the scenes of destruction he describes, the lens of natural inquiry through which he registers and describes the devastation, and his assessment of its social and political consequences in the national and environmental context of early nineteenth-century America. Reading Pierce, we can see how knowledge was made in early America.

William Leigh Pierce and His Account of the Earthquakes

At the end of 1811, William Leigh Pierce was part of a convoy of shallow-bottomed boats taking goods from the Ohio River down the Mississippi to the international trading port of New Orleans. Pierce was part of the United States’ second national generation. His mother had been a Carolina planter and his father (also a writer and also named William Leigh Pierce) fought in the American Revolution and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention that had formed the framework for the country.³

On the night the first of the hard shocks hit, Pierce’s convoy happened to be lying anchored off the small community of Big Prairie, a little below the trading town of New Madrid, Missouri, in the Mississippi River below the confluence of the Ohio and Missouri. He mailed off a long narrative of his journey once he reached New Orleans. His account thus traced the earthquakes’ effects along the middle and lower Mississippi. The Hampshire Federalist’s staff felt evident relish at being able to relay Pierce’s report of what he saw and heard. It promised to be a good one.

The reading public at the time evidently agreed: Pierce’s account of the earthquakes—which eventually included several follow-up reports as well—was excerpted, quoted, and reprinted throughout the American popular press in 1812. Such multiple and overlapping publishing was typical of the conversations about the New Madrid earthquakes: accounts frequently appeared in multiple forms, quoted and re-cited, their information hashed through repeatedly in various abridgements or compilations. Newspapers such as the Hampshire Federalist were where people got news and argued opinions in early America: almost every town had at least one. They were stridently partisan (just like the Federalist), and they were passed along and shared long after their particular issue date. More literary readers could also have encountered Pierce’s report in several books and pamphlets on the recent quakes, as well as in his own narrative poem, The Year, published in 1814 to commemorate the war and earthquakes of 1812.* Collections of earthquake accounts were soon rushed into wider circulation: Robert Smith, a Philadelphia printer, published a pamphlet compiling reports on the quakes in 1812, as did an anonymous printer in Newburyport, Massachusetts.⁴

Accounts of the New Madrid earthquakes were generally written as letters, and their form bears witness to the close connections between letter writing and newspaper reporting in the early nineteenth century. Like reports of new settlement sites, relations with Native groups, or recent epidemics, many accounts of the quakes began as letters from one individual to another person or family, with the explicit understanding that they were for common consumption and might be forwarded to a local paper. Particularly vivid recountings of the New Madrid earthquakes were reprinted several times over, appearing often in newspapers located successively further East.⁵,†

Little can be gleaned from many authors, who followed nineteenth-century conventions of letter writing and publication in signing many reports only with an initial or pseudonym—J.S. or Dr. M. or A Concerned Resident. Such conventions may have allowed for the participation of female writers at the time, but hide them now. Women also may have sent their own accounts through male family members, as was common practice.

Of course, not all of the discussion in the early nineteenth century about New Madrid—or anything else—was written down. People discussed the New Madrid earthquakes in trading houses, around campfires, in Indian lodges, in sewing parlors, and in big-city coffeehouses. At two centuries’ distance, what remains are the parts that got written down. Only a few snatches of conversation and discussion remain caught in diaries or letters like tufts of fur caught on barbed wire, small but telling clues to a larger whole.⁷ Through this written record emerges a story of the gradual creation of public knowledge and public memory about these earthquakes—knowledge and memory that would all but disappear by the end of the nineteenth century, only to re-emerge through close consideration of accounts like Pierce’s as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first.


BIG PRAIRIE, (on the Mississippi, 761 miles from New Orleans,) Dec. 25th, 1811.


Desirous of offering the most correct information to society at large, and of contributing in some degree to the speculations of the philosopher, I am induced to give publicity to a few remarks concerning a Phenomenon of the most alarming nature. Through you, therefore, I take the liberty of addressing the world, and describing, as far as the inadequacy of my means at present will permit, the most prominent and interesting features of the events, which have recently occurred upon this portion of our Western Waters.

To begin his account, Pierce situated himself in terms everyone of his day would understand: 761 miles north of New Orleans, a vast distance by land or upstream, but a distance traversable in less than three weeks downstream. He had entered the Mississippi from the Ohio, a central river route of the eastern American country; to his north was St. Louis, a small but important and growing trading town that anchored the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. He was on the Western Waters, that is, on the flowing network of rivers that Americans envisioned as soon connecting communities and settlements of east and west.

Pierce also situated himself intellectually, as part of a community of observers responsible for contributing usefully both to society at large and to the speculations of the philosopher. Far from implying some esoteric or removed group, in Pierce’s intellectual world this was a typically ornate way of talking about the widespread process of figuring out why the world worked as it did. This was the job not of remote, long-bearded elites in a high tower, but of men of education and substance casting keen eyes upon the world—among whom Pierce clearly included himself.

Proceeding on a tour from Pittsburg to New Orleans, I entered the Mississippi where it receives the waters of the Ohio, on Friday, the 13th day of this month, and on the 15th, in the evening, landed on the left bank of this river about 116 miles from the mouth of the Ohio. The night was extremely dark and cloudy; not a star appeared in the Heavens and there was every indication of a severe rain—for the three last days indeed, the sky had been continually overcast, and the weather unusually thick and hazy.

Unusual weather was no small side comment. In the natural philosophy of Pierce’s day, processes of earth and sky were closely related, and many theorists posited that changes in weather might cause or at least might indicate earthquakes. Such clues would prove important to those attempting to tease out the web of connections that bound and made sense of such an overwhelming phenomenon of the earth.

A trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, similarly, was no small undertaking: it meant venturing across what American imagination viewed as the heart of the continent, to the confluence region where the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the vast Missouri Rivers all came together in an area of longstanding commercial and cultural importance. Such a trip encompassed the middle Mississippi Valley—the area roughly from the coming together of those three rivers to the mouth of the Arkansas, pulling together the modern American states of Missouri and Arkansas, western Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi, and southern Illinois.

The region where Pierce anchored during that first hard shock was at the northern end of what is known as the Mississippi Delta or the Mississippi embayment: the deep, gradually broadening and widening, roughly conical trough formed by the gradual deposition of organic sediment by the ancient grandparent of the Mississippi River. Over vast time, this long-flowing ancient river formed all of the Mississippi Delta, from just below the mouth of the Ohio down to the Gulf of Mexico. The rich sediment deposited by the ancient Mississippi and lack of underlying rock structure endow the Mississippi floodplains with their astonishing fertility: corn and cotton grow extremely well in soils hundreds of meters thick. The loosely deposited soil (in geological terms, the unconsolidated sediment) also endowed the region with the propensity to shake astoundingly and alarmingly when subjected to seismic waves.‡ The entire Mississippi basin is the large-scale equivalent of fill land, much like the portions of the San Francisco Marina neighborhood that turned to liquefied morass during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. In geological terms, the structure and history of the Mississippi embayment would later become part of what was under debate as researchers struggled to understand the events that Pierce was about to relate. In political and cultural terms, the Mississippi embayment was an area of conflict and struggle in December 1811.¹⁰

The west bank of the Mississippi had just become legally American a few short years before, with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Beginning in the late 1600s, the French had worked with Quapaws along the Arkansas River and with Osages on the branches of the Missouri to negotiate trade, mining, and small-scale French settlements. After the multinational conflict known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War and in North America as the French and Indian War, France ceded international control to Spain in 1763. Spanish control was even weaker than France’s had been, and Spain’s diplomacy less adept at the familial metaphors and elaborate exchanges of mutual obligation by which Native groups like the Quapaws and Osages were accustomed to maintain peace or wage war. In 1800, because of European financial and political pressure, Spain ceded Louisiana (much of the area between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains) to the French under secret agreement. Soon thereafter, American negotiators found themselves somewhat surprised to be negotiating with a weary Napoleon a purchase price for the mid-American continent between the Mississippi and the Stony Mountains.¹¹

The Louisiana Purchase is justly famous in American history, but it was somewhat puzzling to leaders at the time. President Thomas Jefferson fretted that his purchase was expedient but constitutionally unsanctioned, and no one had a very precise idea of what territory had in fact changed hands. But what was clear to most people—Indian, French, American, and various others—was that the middle Mississippi, the area that opened out onto the Purchase, was a crucial area for shaping the diplomacy, trade, and politics of future settlement.§,¹²

An important concern for Americans, both in the Louisiana Purchase and in later conflicts with European powers that resulted in the War of 1812, was keeping Mississippi commerce flowing. One of the first acts of American possession of Louisiana was to lift trade limits imposed by the Spanish. By the time William Leigh Pierce’s convoy was descending the river, many people on both sides of the Atlantic looked with anticipation or anxiety to a British assertion of control over the Mississippi Valley and its commerce, perhaps beginning with a military strike on the vulnerable port of New Orleans.¹³

It would not be improper to observe, that these waters are descended in a variety of small craft, but most generally in flat bottomed boats, built to serve a temporary purpose, and intended to float with the current, being supplied with oars, not so much to accelerate progress as to assist in navigating the boats, and avoiding the numerous bars, trees and timber, which greatly impede the navigation of this river. In one of these boats I had embarked—and the more effectually to guard against the Savages, who are said to be at present much exasperated against the whites, several boats had proceeded in company.

Merchants like Pierce might be taking a boatload of commodities—cotton, sorghum, whiskey—down to the port at New Orleans, or they might descend the Mississippi carrying the trade goods Indian and American settlers wanted, such as cloth, buttons, tools such as needles or awls, salt, jewelry, tobacco, specialized devices for a variety of trades, weapons and ammunition, books and newspapers, and news. They bartered sometimes for money, but often for trade goods: animal fat, crops, lead from the open-pit mines of Missouri. Farmers and traders plying the frontier often traveled in rough craft constructed for one journey: on arrival in New Orleans, the boats would be torn up and sold for the lumber while the merchant might simply walk home. In his introduction, Pierce makes clear that his trip was like many such trading voyages, leaving laden with goods from the eastern entrepôt of Pittsburgh.¹⁴

Pierce’s trip was also typical in his fear of interactions with the Indian groups along the river. War seemed likely with Great Britain, as well as with confederacies of Native peoples, especially the Creeks in the Southeast and the Shawnee-led coalition headed by Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. In the spring of 1811, there were several killings and kidnappings along the Mississippi River and in Illinois Territory, and fear of many more to come. Rumors flew up and down the Ohio and the Mississippi. The same newspaper editions that brought news of earthquakes in the Mississippi Valley to American cities and towns also reported fears of formidable combinations of the savages. Early in 1812, confused (and erroneous) reports from St. Louis appeared in national newspapers of attacks on the settlement of St. Francis by four or five hundred Osages. Spies reported back that Indians had stolen horses and killed stock. American settlers along the upper Mississippi abandoned their farms for fear of attack.¹⁵

Precisely at two o’clock on Monday morning the 16th instant, we were all alarmed by the violent and convulsive agitation of the boats accompanied by a noise similar to that which would have been produced by running over a sand bar—every man was immediately roused and rushed upon deck.—We were first of opinion that the Indians, studious of some mischief, had loosed our cables, and thus situated we were foundering. Upon examination however, we discovered that we were yet safely and securely moored. The idea of an Earthquake then suggested itself to my mind, and this idea was confirmed by a second shock, and two others in immediate succession. These continued for the space of eight minutes. So complete and general had been the convulsion, that tremulous motion was communicated to the very leaves on the surface of the earth. A few yards from the spot, where we lay, the body of a large oak was snapped in two, and the falling part precipitated to the margin of the river; the trees in the forest shook like rushes: the alarming clattering of their branches, may be compared to the effect which would be produced by a severe wind passing through a large cane brake.

Many people experienced an ordinary world in commotion. Since the big December quakes hit late at night, those who were awake were often engaged in quiet activities like reading (or at least many of the people who later reported that they felt the quakes while awake in their beds late at night said that what they were doing was quietly reading). Many people—especially those further off—noticed paintings, mirrors, or curtains swaying and reached to close windows against a stray breeze. Bells and clocks tolled unaccountably. Some people felt lurching, jerky sensations, while others described sounds that were not so much heard as felt. A householder in the Creek nation awoke to horrible squawking and thought someone was stealing all her turkeys and chickens in the middle of the night. A man named Major Burlison, who lived along the great road leading into the Mississippi River port of New Madrid, sprang from bed at the first shocks, between sleep and awake. He never thought of an earthquake, he recounted, but concluded that either the house was haunted, or the end of the world was at hand. As they felt the tumult of the hard shocks near the epicenters, many people struggled to figure out what was happening—a struggle that would continue as people tried to piece together why earthquakes happen at all.**,¹⁶

Ordinary objects served to register the strangeness of the earth. Water in a small brook, reported one New York man, was shaken by the tremors. Tremors set cradles rocking, threw books down, and upset the livestock. In Annapolis, during the January shock, people who were skaiting on the inlets of the Chesapeake Bay fled in terror for the shore, while the steeple of the historic Maryland statehouse was seen to vibrate six or eight feet at the top of its 181-foot height. In Dayton, a surveyor attempting to lay a straight road was unable to get his magnetic needle to settle for several days after the December shakes.¹⁷

Confronted with such strangeness, people reached for familiar metaphors. A traveler through the Creek nation felt the earthquakes’ motion as similar to a cradle rocking from one side to the other. John J. Audubon noted in Kentucky that the earth waved like a field of corn before the breeze. Others felt themselves buffeted by waves on a ship at sea.¹⁸

For people who felt only mild effects like the tinkling and swaying of apothecary bottles in a shop in New Haven, the recognition that they were caused by a far-off earthquake might come only as they read continuing and more detailed accounts from others in places nearer the epicenters. Politician and planter Winthrop Sargent observed that in general the effects were more like those of a tornado or whirlwind, than of an earthquake. Discussion of the New Madrid earthquakes was in large measure a project of understanding them as earthquakes. For some like Pierce, the movement of the earth was unmistakable—he very quickly identified the event as an earthquake. What marked all of the New Madrid accounts, however, was a sense of events as tumult in every plane, not restricted to the movement of earth—what one writer from Lancaster Ohio called a conflict of the elements.¹⁹

What was not surprising was that William Leigh Pierce and his crew would think first that they were being attacked. International and cross-cultural tensions made that all too likely. In the winter of 1811, the United States and Britain growled and raised hackles at each other, not least over control of the waterways on which Pierce traveled. At the same time, a Native confederacy based in the upper Ohio Valley, led by brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, threatened to ally with the British to retake control of key lands of American commerce and settlement. Similar trouble seemed brewing in the southeastern territory of the Creeks. Few Americans had any clear sense of what might be happening in the northern and western territories along the upper Missouri, or indeed in the southwestern portions of the Louisiana Purchase, but recent reconnaissance like that of President Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery under William Clark and Meriwether Lewis had made clear that French traders and Native groups skilled with horses, guns, and trading languages had well-established networks that would be challenged only with difficulty by Americans pushing west with trade or territorial claims. Along the Mississippi, recent harassment of river traffic heightened tensions and suspicions for people with valuable cargo under their care. American control of the Mississippi was shaky, contested not only by the sovereignty of Indian groups but by brigands and river pirates. Pierce had good reason to fear attack by Indians or marauders.²⁰

Exposed to a most unpleasant alternative we were compelled to remain where we were for the night, or subject ourselves to imminent hazard in navigating through the innumerable obstructions in the river, considering the danger of running two fold, we concluded to remain. At the dawn of day I went on shore to examine the effects of the shocks; the earth about 20 feet from the water’s edge was deeply cracked, but no visible injury of moment had been sustained, fearing, however, to remain longer where we were, it was thought most advisable to leave our landing as expeditiously as possible: this was immediately done—at a few rods distance from the shore, we experienced a last shock more severe than either of the preceding. I had expected this from the lowering appearances of the weather; it was indeed most providential that we had started, for such was the strength of this last shock that the bank to which we were (but a few moments since) attached, was rent and fell into the river, whilst the trees rushed from the forests, precipitating themselves into the water with force sufficient to have dashed us into a thousand atoms.

Pierce did not know this when writing his letter, but he was describing only the first of what would ultimately be three series of shocks—a pattern of serial tremors very different from the foreshock-main shock-aftershock sequence more typical of earthquakes on plate boundaries. The dawn aftershock he described is often discussed as a major tremor on par with the smart shock of the night before. Subsequent main shocks followed on 23 January and 7 February. Naming such upheaval proved challenging at the time and proves challenging still. A local trapper describing events to visiting scientific tourist Charles Lyell in 1846 referred to the great shake. Others described terrible heavings of the earth or simply, the "Shakes." Even the unclarity of naming reflects uneasiness about how to structure understanding of these events.²¹

It was now light, and we had an opportunity of beholding in full extent all the horrors of our situation. During the first four shocks tremendous and uninterrupted explosions, resembling a discharge of artillery, was heard from the opposite shore, at that time I imputed them to the falling of the river banks.

Pierce was not alone in registering the huge noises of weapons and warfare. Others similarly felt earthquake shocks followed by distinct reports like cannon. Many other witnesses emphasized how colossally noisy the earthquakes were, like carriages running over cobblestoned streets, like a violent tornado, like the burning out of a chimney, or like the noise made by emptying loads of small stones. In the sensory world of the early nineteenth century, sounds were meaningful, a significant part of how people apprehended an environment. For many who heard as well as felt the New Madrid quakes, the bewildering noise of the events symbolized disruption and confusion. In Lancaster, Ohio, The ringing of the bells occasioned by the violent agitation of the earth was matched by the howling of dogs; the bellowing of cattle, and the running to and fro of horses.²²

The ways in which people described the disturbing noises of the New Madrid tremors hint at larger frameworks for how they understood the world. The noise of earthquakes was associated with the sounds of air and fire: tremors sounded like the blowing of bellows, like steam escaping from a boiler, like a blaze of fire acted upon by wind. Such reports indicate the continuing currency of essentially Aristotelian geological theories about the earth as a hollow sphere or as a partial solid containing underground passages: much theorizing about earthquakes argued that they were the surface manifestation of explosions in vast underground cavities.²³

Sounds could also indicate that earthquakes of the Mississippi Valley were linked with other phenomena spanning the globe. An 1869 geography of the Mississippi Valley echoed early nineteenth-century concerns by situating the events of New Madrid in a global context. "The telluric†† activity of which these events were a part, argued the author, extended over half a hemisphere: the effects of this larger convulsion—felt in the Mississippi Valley as dramatic quakes—included the elevation of an island in the Azores, earthquakes in Caracas in the spring of 1812, a volcano in St. Vincent, and the fearful subterranean noises which were heard on the Llanos of Calabazo, and at the mouth of the Rio Apure [both in Venezuela], and even far out at sea." If the groaning and roaring sounds beneath foreign seas were like those of the Mississippi Valley, then those utterly distant locations could in fact be related through as-yet-unknown geologic cause. Writers on the nineteenth-century borderlands of the United States regarded themselves as connected to world events and distant places not only through networks of communication and trade, but through the resonance of the earth itself.²⁴

This fifth shock explained the real cause. Wherever the veins of the earthquake ran; there was a volcanic discharge of combustible matter to great heights, an incessant rumbling was heard below, and the bed of the river was excessively agitated, whilst the water assumed a turbid and boiling appearance—near our boat a spout of confined air breaking its way through the waters, burst forth, and with a loud report discharged mud, sticks, &c. from the river’s bed at least 30 feet above the surface. These spoutings were frequent, and in many places appeared to rise to the very heavens. Large trees which had lain for ages at the bottom of the river were shot up in thousands of instances, some with their roots uppermost and their tops planted; others were hurled into the air; many again were only loosened, and floated upon the surface. Never was a scene