In the week after the first quake news slowly spread of the extent of the damage in the New Madrid area. Boats passing down the river noted the damage and their experiences as the quake occurred and relayed that information wherever they landed downstream. At places such as Natchez and the first Chickasaw Bluff. Travelers relayed fantastic sounding tales of the ground rupturing, geysers of sand and debris and trees breaking as wildlife screamed in terror. The also noted the Mississippi river either, shaking, boiling or even flowing against the current as the quake occurred. Eyewitnesses such as William L. Pierce struggled to comprehend the dimensions of the disaster and write them down. These accounts would become the basis of investigation in the succeeding years to unravel the mystery of the quakes.
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.
The year leading up to the New Madrid earthquakes was packed with events with global implications.
The continent of Europe was embroiled in the Napoleonic wars.Reports from Europe resounded with the clash of vast armies and fleets at sea. Revolutionary movements spreading in the empire of Spain were convulsing the New World. From Texas to Argentina, revolutionaries struggled to gain control of their countries from the decaying Spanish Empire.American newspapers were filled with accounts of revolts springing up across the South American continent and Spanish Mexico.
The United States witnessed conflict on the frontier between Indian tribes and the United States government.This struggle culminated in the Battle of Tippecanoe where United States troops under the command of William Henry Harrison defeated the Indian alliance that had been formed by the charismatic leader Tecumseh.Meanwhile on the Ohio River a steam powered boat, later named the New Orleans, was being constructed at Pittsburgh that would revolutionize travel in the Central United States. The Louisiana Purchase was slowly being settled and organized into smaller territories. Already there was a push to divide the area into Upper and Lower Louisiana to make it easier to administer.
In addition to the turmoil on the continents it seemed that nature was also stirring.In 1811 a comet appeared that was visible until 1812.Flooding occurred in the Mississippi river valley and extreme cold weather gripped the New England area. Storms racked the east coast of the United States and caused massive damage and loss of shipping.In September a partial solar eclipse was visible in the United States.These unusual phenomena probably stirred some to wonder what they portended.
It was in conjunction with all these events that the people of the United States would experience the most unprecedented phenomena of all, a series of earthquakes that would be felt across the broad expanse of the continent.
In conjunction with CERI the IRIS consortium has put together a Web display function that can be used by public instiutions to showcase seismic information, Also included is information on historic earthquakes such as the New Madrid earthquakes. For more information follow this link:
On December 16, 1811 the first of the New Madrid earthquakes occurred. These seismic events were unprecedented in their size and scope with the effects being felt in areas far remote from the epicentral region. The earthquakes sparked a drama of both geological and human events that are still with us to this day. This blog will try and account some of these events during the bicentennial year to give the readers some idea of what the New Madrid earthquakes were and their impact.