Eyewitnesses to Mississippi River earthquake terror

1811-12 New Madrid quakes
The main quakes happened on Dec. 16, Jan. 23, and Feb. 7. Some consider the two later shocks of Dec. 16 to be aftershocks of the first.

It was the February quake that seriously sent the river waters in the New Madrid Bend racing backwards for at least a few hours, as nature threw diagonal dams and waterfalls in the river, forcing it to temporarily seek a new course, while it ate away at the sometimes more than 10-foot dams and waterfalls, and poured into huge holes in mid-river. Some now believe all quakes were high 7's instead of 8's.

A waterfall a bit upstream from New Madrid lasted for a few days. Residents could hear helpless cries of unsuspecting travelers on poorly-steerable flatboats, going over the falls, according to author David Stewart. See tour

Nicholas Roosevelt (related to the Presidents) brought the first steamboat to these waters, from Pittsburgh, in association with Robert Fulton. Nicholas and his wife were downriver from Louisville taking on coal in mid-December, 1811, when the ground started shaking with the first New Madrid quake.

On Feb 6, several boats which had waited for upstream Ohio river ice to break, were just arriving in the New Madrid area. They had a rude awakening, and some found themselves racing UP-river ...

William Shaler Letter to Samuel L. Mitchell (1814)

he soon found the current changed, and the boat hurried up, for about the space of a minute, with the velocity of the swiftest horse; he was obliged to hold his hand to his head to keep his hat on. On the current’s running its natural course, which it did gradually, he continued to proceed down the river, and at about daylight he came to a most terrific fall, which, he thinks, was at least six feet perpendicular, extending across the river, & about 1/2 mile wide."

at New Madrid "...the water ran 12 feet perpendicular...Another fall was formed about 8 miles below the town, similar to the one above, the roaring of which he could distinctly hear at New Madrid."

  • Steele, Rev. John M. (1892). In Jewell, Horace, "History of Methodism in Arkansas"
  • near New Madrid "The rushing of fire and coals through the water produced a wave that carried the water up stream for the distance of several miles. An eye-witness states that the flatboat he was on was carried up the river about four miles."


    22. Trousdale, Leon (1875). "Annual Address...." [eyewitness (G): Catharine Whittier]

    G near New Madrid "...from the deck of the primitive boat she saw the rapid current of the Mississippi suddenly change its course and run with racehorse speed, up-stream, accompanied by a sound like the most terrific thunder..."

    20. Van Tramp, John C. (1866). "Prairie and Rocky Mountain Adventures..."

    G near New Madrid "...records a witness of these strange phenomena, ‘...my (p. 99) boat suddenly swung around in the conflicting currents, and rapidly shot up the river. Looking ahead, I beheld the mightly Mississippi cut in twain, and pouring down a vast opening into the bowels of the earth."

    (p. 601) "The current of the Mississippi was turned back till the accumulating waters gained sufficient force to break through the newly raised barrier."

    28. Vertner (Vettner, Verner), John (1812). 4 accounts, earliest 2/29/1812 Lex. Reporter

    F1 NMad. vic. "It is said that a fall equal to that of the Ohio is near above New Madrid, and that several whirls are in the Mississippi river, some so strong as to sink every boat that comes within its suck"

    (from Lex. Reporter) "...some obstruction had presented itself in the river something like a rapids or falls..." and "There is a certainty that a bar composed of stone coal, burnt substance, &c. has been thrown up, directly under the bed of the river" and "...there was a back current in the river [just below New Madrid], which drove the boat several miles up a small bayou..."

    18. Willey, Susan (1984). "Mississippi Reversed" account of Looe Baker (Natchez)

    D1 New Madrid vic. "...the Mississippi is said to have been so greatly convulsed as to impel its water upstream for a few minutes with great velocity"

    29. Wiseman, John (n.d.) account of the earthquakes. In "Early History", NM archive

    D1 below N. Madrid ...if my flatboat load of wiskey had sprung a leak & made the ‘Father of Waters’ drunk it could not have committed more somersaults."

    F1? below N. Madrid "...we saw a sandbar form below us, that extended clear across the river, & the water commenced rolling in terrific waves up the current & broke our boat loose...This bar lasted only a short time; in a few hours the retrograde current soon spread over it again..."

    20. Writer’s Program, WPA (1941). "Missouri, A Guide to the ‘Show Me’ State"

    G New Madrid vic. "...the New Madrid earthquake, during which the current reversed and great chunks of land caved into the river. minutes with great velocity" (p. 97)

XVII. Mention of Waves on the land

1. Audubon, John James (1897). "Audubon and His Journals"

J1? western KY "...at that instant all the shurbs and trees began to move from their roots, the ground rose and fell in successive furrows, like the ruffled waters of a lake..."

1. Brown, S. (1906). "Old Kaskaskia Days and Ways"

G Kaskaskia IL "…the earth several times waved like a river agitated by the winds…"

7. Eastwood, Martha (n.d.). verbal account of the earthquakes (G), in "Early History..."

G Big Prairie (n, NM) "...these earth fissures, caused apparently from the earth rolling in waves bursting and sinking......"

17. Lesieur, Godfrey (1871). "Letter to Mr. Hager" in the New Madrid Archive’s ‘Early History’

D3 Little Prairie "...the earth was observed to be as it were rolling in waves of a few feet in height, with visible depressions between. By and by these waves or swells were seen to burst, throwing up large volumes of water, sand and a species of charcoal..."

1. Moore, Edith Wyatt (1958). "Natchez Under-the-Hill"

G Natchez "The rippling or crawling motion of the earth was plainly

visible though not nearly so alarming as further north."

9. Ritchie, James (1859). informant to T. Dudley, Annual Rpt, Smithsonian, 1858

F1 New Madrid vic. "On the 8th of February, 1812, the day on which the severest shocks took place, the shocks seemed to go in waves, like the waves of the sea..."

8. Spears, Raymond (1910). "The New Madrid Earthquake Country" Americana

G near NMad "The ground began to quiver, and then waves rolled through the earth like the swell of the sea….The earth waves of some of these shocks were ‘a few feet in height."

18. Van Every, Dale (1964). "The Final Challenge..." p. 117 (this of course is 2nd hand)

G New Madrid vic. "In more open country the surface of the earth could be seen to undulate in regularly advancing waves proceeding at about the pace of a trotting horse"

8. White, Edgar (1925). "Missouri History Not Found in Textbooks" [Duck River Gibson]

D1 SW Illinois "...the ground waving up and down like a cloth..."

29. Wiseman, John (n.d.) account of the earthquakes. In "Early History", NM archive

F1? below N. Madrid "...the earth was rocked about like a cradle & its surface rolling like waves a few feet high & in places causing fissures in the earth from which large volumes of warm water, sand & charcoal was blown up..."



MATHIAS M. SPEED - heard the roar, navigated the falls

In descending the Mississippi, on the night of the 6th February, we tied our boat to a willow bar Island 9, 10, New Madrid river bendson 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 can conceive, who was not present or near to such a scene. The constant discharge of heavy cannon might give some idea of the noise for loudness, but this was infinitely more terrible, an 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 moved 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 bank - the swells in the river was so great as to threaten the sinking of the boat every moment.

We stopped the outholes with blankets to keep out the water - after remaining in this situation for some time, we perceived a light in the shore which we had left - (we having a lighted candle in a lanthorn 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.

They had moored for the night just below the "e" in the "New" on the map. Island #10 was in the bottom of the loop. The falls were perhaps halfway up the next section of river. Red indicates an uplift of ~30 feet. Blue is a drop. More

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 caused it to overflow its banks -

We took the right hand channel of the river of this island, and having reached within about half a mile of the lower end of the town, we were affrightened with the appearance of a dreadful rapid of falls in the river just below us; we were so far in the sock (?) that it was impossible now to land - all hopes 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.

Mississippi RiverAs 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 back, up the left channel, we thought the falls extended higher up the river on that side than on the other.

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 chimey standing - the people all having deserted their habitations, were in camps and tents back of the town, and their little watercrafts, such as skiffs, boats and canoes, handed out of the water to their camps, that they might be ready in case the country should sink.

I remained at New Madrid from the 7th till the 12th, during which time I think shocks of earthquakes were experienced every 15 or 20 minutes- those shocks were all attended with a rumbling noise, resembling distant thunder from the southwest, varying in report according to the force of the shock. When I left the place, the surface of the earth was very little, if any, above the tops of the boats in the river.

Islands 9 and 10, New MadridThere was one boat coming down on the same morning I landed; when they came in sight of the falls, the crew were so frightened at the prospect, that they abandoned their boat and made for the island in their canoe- two were left on the island, and two made for the west bank in the canoe -

about the time of their landing, they saw that the island was violently convulsed - one of the men on the island threw himself into the river to save himself by swimming - one of the men from the shore met him with the canoe and saved him. -

This man gave such an account of the convulsion of the island, that neither of the three dared to venture back for the remaining man. The three men reached New Madrid by land.

The man remained on the Island from Friday morning until Sunday evening, when he was taken off by a canoe sent from a boat coming down. I was several days in company with this man - he stated that during his stay in the island, there were frequent eruptions, in which sand and stone, coal and water were thrown up.

The violent agitation of the ground was such at one time as induced him to hold to a tree to support himself; the earth gave way at the place, and he with the tree sunk down, and he got wounded in the fall. - The fissure was so deep as to put it out of his power to get out at that place - he made his way along the fissure until a sloping slide offered him an opportunity of crawling out.

He states that frequent lights appeared - that in one instance, after one of the explosions near where he stood, he approached the hole from which the coal and land had been thrown up, which was now filled with water, and on putting his hand into it he found it was warm.

During my stay at new Madrid there were upwards of twenty boats landed, all of whom spoke of the rapids above, and conceived of it as I had done.

Several persons, who came up the river in a small barge, represented that there were other falls in the Mississippi, about 7 miles below New Madrid, principally on the eastern side - more dangerous than those above - and that some boats had certainly been lost in attempting to pass them - but they thought it was practicable to pass by keeping close to the western shore.

From what I had seen and heard I was deterred from proceeding further, and nearly gave away what property I had. On my return by land up the right side of the river, I found the surface of the earth for 10 or 12 miles cracked in numberless places, running in different directions - some of which were bridged and some filled with logs to make them passable - others were so wide that they were obliged to be surrounded.

In some of these cracks the earth sank on one side from the level to the distance of five feet, and from one to three feet there was water in most of them. Above this the cracks were not so numerous nor so great - but the inhabitants have generally left their dwellings and gone to the higher grounds.

Nothing appeared to have issued from the cracks but where there was sand and stone coal, they seem to have been thrown up from holes; in most of those, which varied in size, there was water standing. In the town of New Madrid there were four, but neither of them had vented stone or sand - the size of them, in diameter, varied from 12 to 50 feet, and in depth from, 5 to 10 feet from the surface to the water.

In traveling out from New Madrid those were very frequent, and were to be seen in different places, as high as fort Massac, in the Ohio.

MATHIAS M. SPEED (Jefferson County, March 2, 1812)

from this link... has other eyewitnesses:

List and accounts of eyewitnesses:

3 eyewitnesses


from Ornithological Biography By John James Audubon pub. 1832

[Barrens indicate grassland, few trees. Barren County, Ky county seat is Glascow, south central Ky, between Louisville and Nashville, 200 air miles from New Madrid. Barrens of Ky., - described as a 6,000 square mile crescent-shaped meadow surrounded by virgin forest.]

TRAVELLING through the Barrens of Kentucky in the month of November, I was jogging on one afternoon, when I remarked a sudden and strange darkness rising from the western horizon. Accustomed to our heavy storms of thunder and rain, I took no more notice of it, as I thought the speed of my horse might enable me to get under shelter of the roof of an acquaintance, who lived not far distant, before it should come up.

I had proceeded about a mile, when I heard what I imagined to be the distant rumbling of a violent tornado, on which I spurred my steed, with a wish to gallop as fast as possible to the place of shelter; but it would not do, the animal knew better than I what was forthcoming, and, instead of going faster, so nearly stopped, that I remarked he placed one foot after another on the ground with as much precaution as if walking on a smooth sheet of ice.I thought he had suddenly foundered, and, speaking to him, was on the point of dismounting and leading him, when he all of a sudden fell a-groaning piteously, hung his head, spread out his four legs, as if to save himself from falling, and stood stock still, continuing to groan.

I thought my horse was about to die, and would have sprung from his back had a minute more elapsed, but at that instant 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, and I became bewildered in my ideas, as I too plainly discovered that all this awful commotion in nature was the result of an earthquake.

I had never witnessed any thing of the kind before, although, like every other person, I knew of earthquakes by description. But what is description compared with the reality? Who can tell of the sensations which I experienced when I found myself rocking as it were on my horse, and with him moved to and fro like a child in a cradle, with the most imminent danger around, and expecting the ground every moment to open, and present to my eye such an abyss as might engulf myself and all around me.

The fearful convulsion, however, lasted only a few minutes, and the heavens again brightened as quickly as they had become obscured; my horse brought his feet to the natural position, raised his head, and galloped off as if loose and frolicking without a rider.

I was not, however, without great apprehension respecting my family, from which I was yet many miles distant, fearful that where they were the shock might have caused greater havock than I had witnessed. I gave the bridle to my steed, and was glad to see him appear as anxious to get home as myself. The pace at which he galloped accomplished this sooner than I had expected, and I found, with much pleasure, that hardly any greater harm had taken place than the apprehension excited for my own safety.

Shock succeeded shock almost every day or night for several weeks, diminishing, however, so gradually as to dwindle away into the mere vibrations of the earth. Strange to say, I for one became so accustomed to the feeling as rather to enjoy the fears manifested by others. I never can forget the effects of one of the slighter shocks which took place when I was at a friend's house, where I had gone to enjoy the merriment that, in our western country, attends a wedding.

The ceremony being performed, supper over, and the fiddles tuned, dancing became the order of the moment. This was merrily followed up to a late hour, when the party retired to rest. We were in what is called, with great propriety, a Log-house, one of large dimensions, and solidly constructed. The owner was a physician, and in one corner were not only his lancets, tourniquets, amputating-knives, and other sanguinary apparatus, but all the drugs which he employed for the relief of his patients, arranged in jars and phials of different sizes. These had some days before made a narrow escape from destruction, but had been fortunately preserved by closing the doors of the cases in which they were contained.

As I have said, we had all retired to rest, some to dream of sighs and smiles, and others to sink into oblivion. Morning was fast approaching, when the rumbling noise that precedes the earthquake began so loudly, as to waken and alarm the whole party, and drive them out of bed in the greatest consternation. The scene which ensued it is impossible for me to describe, and it would require the humorous pencil of CRUICKSHANK to do justice to it. Fear knows no restraints.

Every person, old and young, filled with alarm at the creaking of the log-house, and apprehending instant destruction, rushed wildly out to the grass enclosure fronting the building. The full moon was slowly descending from her throne, covered at times by clouds that rolled heavily along, as if to conceal from her view the scenes of terror which prevailed on the earth below.

On the grass-plat we all met, in such condition as rendered it next to impossible to discriminate any of the party, all huddled together in a state of almost perfect nudity.The earth waved like a field of corn before the breeze: the birds left their perches, and flew about not knowing whither; and the Doctor, recollecting the danger of his gallipots, ran to his shop-room, to prevent their dancing off the shelves to the floor.

Never for a moment did he think of closing the doors, but spreading his arms, jumped about the front of the cases, pushing back here and there the falling jars; with so little success, however, that before the shock was over, he had lost nearly all he possessed.

The shock at length ceased, and the frightened females, now sensible of their dishabille, fled to their several apartments. The earthquakes produced more serious consequences in other places. Near New Madrid, and for some distance on the Mississippi, the earth was rent asunder in several places, one or two islands sunk for ever, and the inhabitants fled in dismay towards the eastern shores.

account of William Leigh Pierce

The following quotes are taken from newspaper articles published after the December 16, 1811, quake.

Frankfort . "About two o'clock on Sunday night was felt in this place a violent shock of an earthquake. It continued for several minutes and produced a considerable vibration of houses. Some bricks are said to have fell from the top of the court house chimney" (The American Republic, Frankfort , Ky. ).

Henderson . "A severe shock of an earthquake was felt at this place on the 16th inst. At half past 2 o'clock, A.M. -- many chimneys were cracked by the motion; -- and at sun-rise another shock threw down most of the chimneys so injured" (The Weekly Register-Chronicle, Washington , D.C. ).

Lexington . "About half after two o'clock, yesterday morning, a severe shock of an earthquake was felt at this place: the earth vibrated two or three times in a second, which continued for several minutes, and so great was the shaking that the windows were agitated equal to what they would have been in a hard gust of wind" (Kentucky Gazette, Lexington, Ky.).

Louisville . "On Monday morning the 16th instant, this place was visited by a most alarming Earthquake. . . . We are induced to believe, the continuation was from 4 to 6 minutes, though some say it was not so long; -- about an hour afterwards, another shock was felt; and a little after sunrise, a third, which broke off several chimneys, and injured some houses otherwise" (Poulson's American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, Pa.).

--from http://www.uky.edu/KGS/geologichazards/eqinky.htm

Savannah Ga - felt the big one. So did Knoxville Tn. (newspaper clips)

Learning from History

Geologist-turned-Congressman Samuel Mitchill in 1815 said "[when] five or six witnesses, who seem to have been wholly unknown to each other, agree in so many particulars, [then] their united evidence may be considered as near to the truth as we can expect to arrive."

Mitchill had set out shortly after the New Madrid sequence of 1811-1812 to compile accounts of the earthquakes and develop a satisfactory physical explanation for them. His 1815 publication provides an invaluable compendium of accounts from all over the United States of that time.

http://pasadena.wr.usgs.gov/office/hough/mitchill.html | "felt" reports

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