Eyewitnesses to Mississippi River earthquake terror
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
There 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.
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:
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.
account of William Leigh Pierce
The following quotes are taken from newspaper articles published after the December 16, 1811, quake.
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.
Powered by ShowMe-Net