Friday, February 6, 2015

The earthquake of February 7th

Two hundred and three years ago the last of the New Madrid earthquakes occurred.  It was considered by many the strongest of the earthquakes and producede some dramatic effects. Here is an eyewitness account of the earthquake near the epicenter in the New Madrid, Missouri area. Read and enjoy:

In descending the Mississippi on the night of the 6th February, we tied our boat to a willow bar on the west bank of the river, opposite the head of the 9th Island, (counting from the mouth of the Ohio) we were lashed to another boat--About 3 o'clock on the morning of the 7th, we were waked by the violent agitation of the boat, attended with a noise more tremendous and terrific than I can describe or any one conceive, who was not present or near to such a scene--The constant discharge of a heavy cannon might give some idea of the noise for loudness, but this was infinitely more terrible, on account of its appearing to be subterraneous.
As soon as we waked we discovered that the bar to which we were tied was sinking, we cut loose and rowed our boats for the middle of the river--After getting out so far as to be out of danger from the trees, which were falling in from the banks--the swells in the river were so great as to threaten the sinking of the boat every moment. We stopped the oarholes with blankets to keep out the water. After remaining in this situation for some time, we perceived light on the shore which we had left--(we having a lighted candle in a lantern on our boat,) were hailed and advised to land, which we attempted to do but could not effect it, finding the banks and trees still falling in.
At day light we perceived the head of the tenth Island. During all this time we had made only about four miles down the river--from which circumstance, and from that of an immense quantity of water rushing into the river from the woods--it is evident that the earth at this place or below, had been raised so high as to stop the progress of the river, and cause it to overflow its banks--We took the right hand channel of the river at this Island, and having reached within about half a mile of the lower end of the town, we were affrightened by the appearance of a dreadful rapid or falls in the river just below us; we were so far in the suck that it was impossible now to land--all hope of surviving was now lost and certain destruction appeared to await us! We having passed the rapids without injury, keeping our bow foremost, both boats being still lashed together.
As we passed the point on the left hand below the Island, the bank and trees were rapidly falling in. From the state of alarm I was in at this time, I cannot pretend to be correct as to the length or height of the falls--but my impression is that they were about equal to the rapids of the Ohio. As we passed the lower point of the Island looking up at the left channel, we thought the falls extended higher up the river on that side than on the right.
The water of the river after it was fairly light, appeared to be almost black, with something like the dust of stone-coal--We landed at New Madrid about breakfast time, without having experienced any injury--The appearance of the town and the situation of the inhabitants, were such as to afford but little relief to our minds. The former elevation of the bank on which the town stood, was estimated by the inhabitants at about 25 feet above common water--when we reached it the elevation was only about 12 or 13 feet--There was scarcely a house left entire--some wholly prostrated, others unroofed and not a chimney standing--The people all having deserted their inhabitations, were in camps and tents back of the town, and their little water crafts, such as skiffs, boats and canoes hauled out of the water to their camps, that they might be ready in case the country should sink.

Account of Matthias Speed from New Madrid Far Field Database  Number 56 from
the  Frankfort(KY) American, March 20, 1812.


Monday, January 26, 2015

A Weekend Earthquake

It seems that the New Madrid seismic zone likes to be active when the workaday world is at rest during the weekend. On Saturday an earthquake occurred southwest of Blytheville Arkansas.  The magnitude was 2.9 and should have been felt by people near the epicenter. For more details go to Arkansas earthquake  If you felt it go to the links provided to report what you experienced. Any data is appreciated.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Second Great Quake

On this day 205 years ago the second of the New Madrid earthquakes occurred.  Near the epicenter eyewitness accounts were confused and scattered probably due to the numerous aftershocks of the December 16, 1811 earthquake. But at a distance away from the epicentral area eyewitnesses noted it as a distinct event. Here is an account from Coshockton Ohio:
"This morning, at seventeen minutes past eight o'clock, a severe shake of a earthquake was felt in this place. It lasted nearly a minute; it shook so as to nearly half empty a bucket, standing on the floor, full of water; and the river being frozen over, it caused the ice to crack considerably. A stone chimney in the house of col. Williams in this place, seven by five feet square, solid and well built, was so severely shaken as to cause it to crack in several places; and one or perhaps more brick chimneys in this place have been considerably injured by the shock. I have been informed that several houses in the neighborhood of this place were so shook that much of the chinkin dropt out; and the commotions of the trees and bushes was so great as to cause persons I the woods to observe the phenomenon. The shock was succeeded by a thick haze, and several people were affected with giddiness, although the air was quite serene at the time of the shock. The course of the above shock was from S.W. to N.E. nearly.
A. JOHNSTON."
Boston Independent Chronicle February 17, 1812, Page 1, Column 1, New Madrid Compendium Far Field item Number 37
The A. Johnston is no relation to our Arch Johnston, but Arch appreciated the reference from the past that shared his name. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

205th New Madrid Anniversary( A Bell Ringing Event)

205 years ago the first of the New Madrid earthquakes occurred. Here is an account of one of the more dramatic effects of the first quake:


The  first of the New Madrid earthquakes occurred on December 16, 1811.  This quake was felt across a wide swath of the United States and was felt on the Atlantic Coast. One of the locations that noted the earthquakes was Charleston South Carolina.  Charleston at the time of the event was the fifth largest city in the United States in 1810 with a population of  24, 711.[1]  It was a center of culture with several newspapers like the Times and the Charleston Courier.  These newspapers would provide a vital source of information for accounts of what was experienced  when the earthquake shook the city.  These accounts give in great detail the effects of the December 16, 1811 earthquake in the far field.
The Month of December 1811 was remarkable in that the Comet of 1811 was visible in the sky of Charleston throughout the month. [2]The night of  December 15-16 in Charleston was clear with a light wind and some clouds to the northwest of the city.[3] Another observer noted that “For an hour previous the air was  perfectly calm and several stars visible.”[4]
The onset of the earthquake was announced by a sound resembling the “rattling of a carriage on pavement.”[5]  The time noted for the first quake was “5 minutes before 3:00 am.  As the earthquake continued shaking the city a most dramatic effect was noted .” The vibration was so great as to set the house bells and the bell of St. Phillip’s Church ringing, and the furniture in motion some of which in several houses was thrown down.  The pendlums of house clocks stopped, and in some house the glasses in the pictures which were hanging against the wall were broken”” The effect on people was dramatic with individuals experiencing nausea from the motion of the earthquake.  The duration of the first quake was noted as being a minute and a half. [6] Another account notes that the bell ringing at St. Phillips was the clock bell. [7]
Aftershocks soon followed with one occurring at “as the clocks were chiming 3” of twenty seconds duration and slighter than the first  were felt  and third and fourth were felt around 8 oclock and of a very brief duration. With the third one being described as severe. [8]  Another curious  effects noted was the water in wells being agitated. It  was unknown at the time how widespread the earthquake was felt but it was noted to be felt at Rantoule’s in the local area.[9] Another quake was felt that evening at 11pm and again on December 17th at 9:20 am and on the 20th a final quake for the month was felt at 3 minutes before 12. ”[10]

The earthquakes caused speculation as to their cause with publication of a catalog of previous earthquakes to give the citizens of Charleston some perspective. Slight earthquakes were noted in September 1754. April 1799 and the last in January 1811 that was felt  in the region but not at Charleston.  [11]


[1] U. S. Census Data from website  1810 Fast Facts
[2] “Meteorological Oobservations at Charleston(S. C.) for December 1811”. Charleston Courier, January 8, 1812, Page 3. Column 2, New Madrid Far Field Number 308.
[3] Extract of a Letter..” Charleston, The Times, December 18, 1811 Page 3, Column 1, New Madrid Far Field Number 95
[4] “An Earthquake” Lexington KY, Reporter January 11, 1812, Page 3, Column 1. New Madrid Far Field Number 258
[5] “Meteorological Observations at Charleston(S. C.) for December 1811”. Charleston Courier, January 8, 1812, Page 3. Column 2, New Madrid Far Field Number 308.
[6] “An Earthquake” The Times, Charleston South Carolina, December 16, 1811, page 3, Column 1, New Madrid Far Field Number 92.
[7] “An Earthquake” The Times, Charleston South Carolina, December 16, 1811, page 3, Column 1, New Madrid Far Field Number 92.
[8] “Earthquake,” Charleston Courier, December 17, 1811, Page 3, column 1, New Madrid Far Field Number 79.
[9] “An Earthquake” The Times, Charleston South Carolina, December 16, 1811, page 3, Column 1, New Madrid Far Field Number 92.
[10] “Meteorological Observations at Charleston(S. C.) for December 1811”. Charleston Courier, January 8, 1812, Page 3. Column 2, New Madrid Far Field Number 308.
[11] “An Earthquake” The Times, Charleston South Carolina, December 16, 1811, page 3, Column 1, New Madrid Far Field Number 92.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Another Small Earthquake

It seems the New Madrid seismic zone is reminding us its still busy. Last night there was a 2.3 magnitude quake near New Madrid.  It was strong enough that some of the people in the vicinity of the epicenter would have felt it. For more information look here at New Madrid earthquake.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Labor Day Weekend Earthquake

It seems the New Madrid seismic zone does not respect holiday weekends. While the region was enjoying a well deserved three day holiday a light earthquake occurred to stir things up.  The location of the quake was 5 miles west north west(5km) of Tiptonville, Tennessee and the magnitude was 2.9. The depth of the quake was 4 miles(7km) For more information please go to Tiptonville Earthquake.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Memphis Eyewitness to the New Madrid Earthquakes

Sometimes in doing unrelated research you will find things for which you were originally looking.  My wife and I have been doing genealogical research on poorly documented Memphians of the 19th Century, buried in the many cemeteries of the city.  Each of these individuals had a fascinating story that gave a depth to the region’s history. Buried and forgotten, some with surviving monuments, and at other times their memorials were swept away by the tide of progress. Mary Moran uncovered this gem of New Madrid history with a Memphis connection. (Thanks, Mary!)


The Winchester Cemetery, one of the earliest burial grounds in the city in existence from the 1830’s until its conversion to a city park in the 1930’s,was one of these old city cemeteries. Numerous pioneer Memphians, both famous and anonymous, were buried there. Catherine Whittier’s passing, (age 74 in 1870), was noted by the Old Folks at Home, an organization of history-minded Memphians consisting of elderly Memphians and others interested in the city’s history.  Their preservation of old records and other efforts ensured the early history of the city was not forgotten. Their article in the September 1870 Memphis Daily Appeal, took note of Ms. Whittier’s death.
Here is a portion of that article:
“Of the members of the Old Folks at Home who have died during that brief period, the record is unusually crowded, and I regret that time will not permit an enlargement upon their useful lives, for I must be brief.
Mrs. Catherine Whittier, who died at her residence in the city on the 21st of April last, was born in Kentucky in 1796. She was therefore seventy-four years old. She came to Shelby County in 1811, she and her husband settling six miles above the city, on the place known in the annals of the late war as Fort Harris.
She was fifteen years old when her father, with his family, launched out on the then uncertain waters of the Mississippi on a flat boat. There were no burning steamers or exploding boilers at that time to make the passengers on those rude crafts uneasy. Yet Mrs. Whittier witnessed one of the most terrible and dangerous scenes known to river navigation, one that she often related and never forgot.
The earthquakes at New Madrid bend were hourly occurring, and when opposite that
locality, from the deck of the primitive boat, she saw the rapid current of the Mississippi suddenly change its course and run with lightning speed up streams, accompanied by a sound like the most terrific thunder, and diversified by occasional maelstroms, as though the bottom of the river had sunk in places to an unknown depth. The scene was terribly grand, and yet the frail craft weathered out the peril and landed the girl of fifteen on our shores, to live a useful, long and honorable life, leaving a son in the county and some grandchildren.”

“Old Folks Anniversary”, Memphis Daily Appeal, September 30, 1870, Page 4.  Column 2


This account, though years after the fact, is quite accurate. The year of the earthquake is noted as 1811 even though there were 3 separate earthquakes spanning the 1811-1812 period.  Her memory of the event correlates with the February 7, 1812 earthquake as it was experienced at New Madrid when the fault ruptured. It is quite a riveting tale from quite an unexpected source.