Early on the Morning of December 16, 1811, the City of Charleston’s watchman stationed in one of the city’s tall church steeples to give warning of fire to sleeping residents, began to notice the structure he was in began to sway in a fashion to cause the bell of the church to start ringing. Onlookers in the street below called up to ask if there was a fire and the watchman replied it was an earthquake!. Little did they know they were witnessing the effects of an earthquake far to the west, centered near the small town of Little Prairie in the bootheel area of the future state of Missouri. There the effect of the quake was more catastrophic with fissures opening in the ground and sand and subsurface material violently being ejected into the air as trees snapped and clashed together. Eyewitnesses there watched as the river became turbulent boiling and sloshing while riverbanks caved in.
As the seismic waves traveled across the continent, people experienced them not knowing their origin. Frontier cabins quaked as buildings on the East coast trembled. Closer to the epicenter chimneys cracked or tumbled to the ground. Farm animals bellowed in terror as chickens flew from their roosts into the dark. Everywhere people wondered about the source of the vibrations they were feeling. It would be weeks until news reached them of the earthquake and its aftershocks. Although the earthquake of December 16, 1811 was a major one it would be followed in the coming months by aftershocks and two more major quakes on January 23, 1812, and February 7, 1812. These quakes would soon be lost in the tides of time until being rediscovered in the modern era and studied to understand their real impact.
For more information on eyewitness accounts of the earthquakes visit the New Madrid Compendium website