Tennessee History: The great earthquakes (plural) of 1811 and 1812

At about 2 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1811, the ground began to shake.

Large trees swayed, then snapped throughout Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois and other states. Steep bluffs tumbled into the Mississippi River, which overflowed its banks and appeared to flow backward in places. Cracks in the ground appeared, some of them miles long and wide enough to swallow deer and bears. Black rocks shot into the air through holes that instantaneously developed in the ground.

Today, we refer to this as the New Madrid Earthquake. But it wasn't a single event; it was a series of quakes that started in December 1811 and continued through March 1812.

In fact, based on the records of a Louisville, Kentucky, resident named Jared Brooks, there were 1,874 different quakes. The three most severe are believed to have been on Dec. 16, Jan. 23 and Feb. 7, and those three are each estimated to have measured in excess of 7.5 on the Richter scale.

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In terms of area affected, the New Madrid earthquakes were the most dramatic in American history. They were felt strongly over 50,000 square miles — nearly 10 times the land affected by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. People felt the quakes in places such as Detroit and Charleston, South Carolina.

The New Madrid earthquakes also left permanent marks on the Tennessee landscape. Several islands that had been mapped on the Mississippi River vanished. The subtle 15-to-30 foot rise in the terrain on which the town of Tiptonville sits, known as the Tiptonville Dome, is believed to have been made higher by the quakes. East of Tiptonville, water poured into a swampy area that sank several feet, creating Reelfoot Lake.

We don't know how many people lost their lives due to the New Madrid earthquakes because the territory was so sparsely populated and because communication was not good at the time. We know there were some deaths. Timothy Flint, a Presbyterian minister living in New Madrid, Missouri, recalled that "one woman, frightened by the shock, ran until her strength ran out and expired by fear and exhaustion." People who were on or near the Mississippi River saw flatboats and canoes drift by with no one in them and made the assumption that people on board had been swept away.

Because the New Madrid earthquakes occurred so long ago, we also have no photographs to document what took place. We have a few first-person accounts of what people felt, heard, saw and smelled. The accounts tell a vivid story of what the catastrophe was like.

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Eliza Bryan, a resident of New Madrid, said that early in the morning of Dec. 16, 1811, "We were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise, resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere with sulphurous vapor.

"The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go or what to do — the cries of the fowl and the beasts of every species, the cracking of trees falling and the roaring of the Mississippi River ... formed a scene truly terrible."

Another resident of New Madrid said that after the first quake struck, "We sought a high open spot of ground and remained there until morning, which it seemed to us would never come. When morning dawned, no sun shone on us to gladden our hearts. A dense vapor arose from the seams of the earth and hid it from view."

Many things are submerged in the Mississippi River, and some of them shot out of the river. One riverman said that "near our boat, a spout of confined air, breaking its way through the waters, burst forth, and with a loud report discharged mud, sticks, etc. above the surface."

Animals have a way of knowing about natural disasters before people do. Artist John James Audubon was riding somewhere in Kentucky when his horse stopped and began acting as if something was wrong, placing "one foot after another on the ground, with as much precaution as if walking on a smooth sheet of ice." A few moments later, "all the shrubs and trees began to move from their very roots. The ground rose and fell in successive furrows, like the ruffled waters of a lake."

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As I read the various accounts, I could not help but wonder about the emotional state of people who endured the earthquakes and tremors. However, one tidbit from Myron Fuller's 1912 government report "The New Madrid Earthquake" makes me think that people were thinking clearly. You see, the long cracks in the ground that were caused by the quakes had a tendency to extend in the same direction. It crossed the minds of many people that big trees, strategically toppled at right angles to these cracks, might be the safest thing to cling to during a tremor. Upon these very tree trunks "they climbed for safety at times of severe shocks when new fissures were to be expected."

I am strangely comforted by the idea of our ancestors holding on for dear life to these logs, knowing as they did so that their logic in cutting these trees down was impeccable.

  photo  Bill Carey

Bill Carey is the executive director of Tennessee History for Kids, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers teach social studies in general and Tennessee history in particular.

This column is an excerpt from his new book "True Tales of Tennessee: Earthquake to Railroad," now for sale at places books are sold.