Americas,  ER,  United States

The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811

A 19th-century print of New Madrid earthquake chaos. Photo Credit- Granger Collection, NYC via Smithsonian Magazine

New Madrid, Missouri was at the back end of nowhere.  It was technically a respectably sized town on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Natchez, but this was not a great achievement.  In 1811, the population was about 1,000 people made up of farmers, fur traders and pioneers supplemented by French Creoles and Native Americans traveling on the great river.  However, the events there beginning in 1811 shook the world.  Literally.

The first earthquake struck about 2:15 am local time on the morning of December 16, 1811 with an epicenter in nearby northeast Arkansas.  Because the area was sparsely populated, damage to manmade structures was limited.  However, eye witness eight year old Godfrey Lesieur told of the ground “rolling in waves”.  This was due to a phenomenon called soil liquefaction, which as the name suggests makes solid ground act like a liquid.  This phenomenon was responsible for the destruction of the Illinois town Big Prairie at the mouth of the St. Francis River.  Estimates today place the magnitude between 6.5 and 7 on the richter scale.

At this time, steamboat travel was gaining popularity.  The first steamboat to travel on western waters was anchored at Owensboro, Kentucky about 200 miles from New Madrid.  Captain Nicholas Roosevelt, travelling with his wife and young child, observed the family dog refused to sleep on deck the night of December 16, 1811.  He soon found out why.  As the boat headed on, they were greeted by a river choked with fallen trees, collapsed river banks and hostile Native Americans, who thought the “fire canoes” caused the earthquake.  On shore, there were no chimneys in the town of Henderson, Kentucky left standing.  They were anchored to an island when one of the aftershocks hit, and the island disappeared into the Mississippi.

There were two other large earthquakes- one on January 23, 1812 and February 7, 1812.  These are estimated at between 7 and 8 on the richter scale.  Some scientists estimate the February quake at 8.8 magnitude.  Boatman on the river reported the riverbed rose up to 15 feet causing the Mississippi to flow backwards and create two temporary waterfalls.  This also created Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee.  A Native American village was destroyed in the upheaval on the river, but a few boatman live to tell the tale.  Lights flashed from the ground caused by a phenomenon called seismoluminescence, which is the squeezing of quartz crystals.  Cracks and fissures appeared in the ground large enough to swallow people and cattle alike.  Smog and thunder filled the air.  Geysers of water, mud, coal and sand spewed into the air.  It must have seemed like end of the world.

In nearby Cape Girardeau,  famed Native American leader Tecumseh was visiting the Shawnee and Delaware villages there to drum up support against attacks by Indiana Territory Governor, William Henry Harrison.   Harrison had already dared Tecumseh to produce a miracle.  Unfortunately for Harrison,  Tecumseh and his brother, aptly named The Prophet, accurately predicted an eclipse (For more on historical eclipses, please see this post  )  No doubt, this was seen as another sign, and Tecumseh and his allies fought against the US in the War of 1812

Because the Midwest has a stiff lithosphere, the tremors traveled a greater distance. The future location of Memphis, Tennessee suffered level IX shaking on the Mercalli scale.  Houses in St. Louis were destroyed and church bells rang as far away as Boston and Washington DC.  Chimneys in Cincinnati, Ohio were toppled.  A 30,000 square mile area was affected.  

Geologists studying the sand blows in the area are finding earthquakes of this magnitude were not a one time thing in this area.  Artifacts found by paeloseismology expert Martitia Tuttle were as old as 2,000 years.  She concluded this was not a one time freak event and the Midwest had been hit with violent quakes around 1450 CE, 900 CE and 2350 BCE.  Will it happen again?  Some scientists say yes, but others assure us it won’t.   Northwestern geology professor Set Stein believes the evidence shows the fault is inactive.  However, its past due so be prepared.