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New Madrid Earthquakes


Picture and story courtesy of USGS

Shortly after 2 o'clock on the morning of December 16, 1811, the Mississippi River valley was convulsed by an earthquake so severe that it awakened people in cities as distant at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk, Virginia. This shock inaugurated what must have been the most frightening sequence of earthquakes ever to occur in the United States. Intermittent strong shaking continued through March 1812 and aftershocks strong enough to be felt occurred through the year 1817. The initial earthquake of December 16 was followed by two other principal shocks, one on January 23, 1812, and the other on February 7, 1812. Judging from newspaper accounts of damage to buildings, the February 7 earthquake was the biggest of the three.

Earthquake damage picture

Landslide trench and ridge in the Chickasaw bluffs, east of Reelfoot Lake, resulting from the New Madrid Earthquake. Obion County, Tennessee.
[Picture courtesy of USGS]

In the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys the earthquakes did much more than merely awaken sleepers. The scene was one of devastation in an area which is now the southeast part of Missouri, the northeast part of Arkansas, the southwest part of Kentucky, and the northwest part of Tennessee. Reelfoot Lake, in the northwest corner of Tennessee, stands today as evidence of the might of these great earthquakes. Stumps of trees killed by the sudden submergence of the ground can still be seen in Reelfoot Lake.

Uplift of over 3 meters was reported at one locality several hundred kilometers to the southwest of the epicentral zone where a lake formed by the St. Francis River had its water replaced by sand. Numerous dead fish were found in the former lake bottom. Large fissures, so wide that they could not be crossed on horseback, were formed in the soft alluvial ground. The earthquake made previously rich prairie land unfit for farming because of deep fissures, land subsidence which converted good fields to swamps, and numerous sand blows which covered the ground with sand and mud. The heavy damage inflicted on the land by these earthquakes led Congress to pass in 1815 the first disaster relief act providing the landowners of ravaged ground with an equal amount of land in unaffected regions.

Some of the most dramatic effects of the earthquakes occurred along rivers. Entire islands disappeared, banks caved into the rivers, and fissures opened and closed in the river beds. Water spouting from these fissures produced large waves in the river. New sections of river channel were formed and old channels cut off. Many boats were capsized and an unknown number of people were drowned. There are some graphic eyewitness descriptions in contemporary newspapers made by the boatmen caught on the Mississippi River near Little Prairie, not far from the present-day town of Caruthersville, Missouri.

Earthquake damage picture
Trees tilted by New Madrid earthquake, Chickasaw bluffs east side of Reelfoot Lake. Note twist of trees into upright position.
[Picture courtesy of USGS]


Graphic courtesy of USGS

1811, December 16, 08:15 UTC. Northeast Arkansas - Magnitude ~8.1

The Mississippi River valley earthquakes of 1811-1812 rank as some of the largest in the United States since its settlement by Europeans. The area of strong shaking associated with these shocks is two to three times larger than that of the 1964 Alaska earthquake and 10 times larger than that of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The first and second earthquakes occurred in Arkansas (December 16, 1811 - two shocks) and the third and fourth in Missouri (January 23, 1812; and February 7, 1812).

The first earthquake caused only slight damage to man-made structures, mainly because of the sparse population in the epicentral area. The extent of the area that experienced damaging earth motion is estimated to be 600,000 square kilometers. However, shaking strong enough to alarm the general population occurred over an area of 2.5 million square kilometers.

At the onset of the earthquake, the ground rose and fell - bending the trees until their branches intertwined and opening deep cracks in the ground. Landslides swept down the steeper bluffs and hillslides; large areas of land were uplifted; and still larger areas sank and were covered with water that emerged through fissures or craterlets. Huge waves on the Mississippi River overwhelmed many boats and washed others high on the shore. High banks caved and collapsed into the river; sand bars and points of islands gave way; whole islands disappeared. Surface rupturing did not occur, however. The region most seriously affected was characterized by raised or sunken lands, fissures, sinks, sand blows, and large landslides that covered an area of 78,000 - 129,000 square kilometers, extending from Cairo, Illinois, to Memphis, Tennessee, and from Crowleys Ridge to Chickasaw Bluffs, Tennessee.

Although the motion during the first shock was violent at New Madrid, Missouri, it was not as heavy and destructive as that caused by two aftershocks about 6 hours later. Only one life was lost in falling buildings at New Madrid, but chimneys were toppled and log cabins were thrown down as far distant as Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Missouri; and in many places in Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee.

Large waves were generated on the Mississippi River by fissures opening and closing below the surface. Local uplifts of the ground and water waves moving upstream gave the illusion that the river was flowing upstream. Ponds of water also were agitated noticeably.

It was reported that more than 200 moderate to large earthquakes occurred on the New Madrid fault between December 16, 1811, and March 15, 1812

1811, December 16, 14:15 UTC, Northeast Arkansas

On the basis of the effects reported at the same locations, the intensity of this earthquake has been inferred to be similar to that of the earlier shock at 08:15.

1812, January 23, 15:00 UTC, New Madrid, Missouri
Magnitude ~7.8

This is the third principal shock of the 1811-1812 sequence. The first earthquake of this series on December 16, 1811, was located in northeast Arkansas. It is difficult to assign intensities to the principal shocks that occurred after 1811 because many of the published accounts describe the cumulative effects of all the earthquakes. Using the December 16 earthquake as a standard, however, a comparison between it and the shock on January 23 indicates that the intensities were about equal at similar locations. The meizoseismal area was characterized by general ground warping, ejections, fissuring, severe landslides, and caving of stream banks.

1812, February 7, 09:45 UTC, New Madrid, Missouri
Magnitude ~8

This is the fourth earthquake of the 1811-1812 series. Several destructive shocks occurred on February 7, the last of which equaled or surpassed the magnitude of any previous event. The town of New Madrid was destroyed. At St. Louis, many houses were damaged severely and their chimneys were thrown down. The meizoseismal area was characterized by general ground warping, ejections, fissuring, severe landslides, and caving of stream banks.

Newspaper Accounts of the Earthquakes

16th of December, 1811

Taken From the Centinel, Gettysburg, PA
February 12, 1812

At New Madrid, (Louisiana Territory) the shocks have been uncommonly violent – throwing down chimnies and houses, and compelling one-third of the inhabitants to remove from the place to the adjacent hills, and the remainder to encamp in tents in open fields. The earth was so convulsed, as to tender it difficult for one to keep their perpendicular position, the motion being estimated at about 12 inches, to and fro. The shocks were accompanied with a partial darkness, a tremendous noise and sulphureous smell.

Sixty-seven shocks have been witnessed, in all, which have split and cracked the earth in an hundred places in the neighborhood. During the violent shocks, the people, their yells and shrieks, discovering their extreme alarm, and upon one of those occasions, a lady was known to fait and never recover!

The face of the country below, about Little Prairie, has almost entirely changed; large lakes having been converted into dry land, and fields into lakes – the banks of the river fallen in – mills destroyed, and the earth cracked in every direction. The St. Francis was, at one time very low – at another overflowing the surrounding country. At Little Prairie, the Mississippi is said to have formed an eddy and resented a rerregade motion, and in 15 or 20 minutes afterwards resumed its course, and rose about 5 feet.

SEVEN Indians are said to have been swallowed up in one of those apertures in the earth, one of whom only made his escape, who states, that this calamity was foretold by the Shawanne Prophet, for the destruction of the whites. – Lexington Statesman.
[contributed by Nancy Piper]


Ashville, N.C., December 19

To the Editors of the Raleigh Star.

Gentlemen, - I take the liberty to transmit the following account of an earthquake, which happened on the night between the 15th and 16th instant. For several nights previous, the Aurora Borealis brilliantly illuminated the the sky with its trembling coruscations; the late appearance of a splendid comet, and the blondlike colour of the sun for several days, had alarmed a great many superstitious people. They taled of war, and when the news of governor Harrison’s dear bought victory arrived, it brought to their recollection all those appearances, which are still believed (as these are now) to have been the awful precuriers of that bloody war, by which we gained our independence.

On Monday morning, about one o’clock, the inhabitants of this place were routed from their peaceful slumbers by a dreadful sound. Some waggoners, who were up at the time it began, said it resembled, but was louder, than if 100 waggons were driven at full speed down the mountain. This gave us a considerable alarm: The timid took to prayer, expecting every moment (as they lay) to hear the sound of the last trumpet. The more courageous ventured to open their doors, to discover what occasioned the noise. – A sudden trembling of the earth caused fresh terror and alarm, from which we had not time to recover, when we felt a violent shock, which lasted about three minutes, and was attended with a hollow rumbling noise, and ended with a dreadful crash, leaving behind a strong sulphurous stench.

For the remainder of the night all was still and calm, but was spent by us in trembling anxiety. When the wished for morning came we were happy to find no lives were lost; but while some of us were in the street, congratulating each other on our happy escape we were again alarmed by a much louder noise than we had heard before. It was quickly followed by a more violent shock, which gave the earth an undulating motion, resembling the waves of the sea. Two of those who were standing with me were thrown off their feet, the rest of us with difficulty kept from falling, while two or three cows that were near us were unable to stand, and testified their fears by their loud bellowing, which with the cries of the women and children, and the terror that was depicted in the countenances of the men, presented a scene of horror I am unable to describe.

It is somewhat strange that its effects were more violent in the valley than on the mountains; a graveyard in a valley near this place had several vats displaced – the edges of some were raised three feet above their former level, others were moved partly round, and let in a zigzag manner. It would far exceed the bounds of this letter to describe all the phenomenon produced by this awful convulsion of nature; rock moved, hills shook, houses shattered, &c.

A wonderful change has taken place in the manners of the people. I believe so many fervent prayers never were put up in this place as on that fearful night and morning. I hope what has been done may product a revival in religion.

I have just seen a gentleman from Knoxville, who passed Sunday night with Mr. Nelson at the warm springs: from his account, his situation was more terrifying than ours. For several hours previous to the shock, the most tremendous noise was heard from the neighbouring mountains. At intervals it was quiet, but would begin with so much violence, that each repetition was believes to be the last groan of expiring nature. The shock at that place did but little damage, except to a few huts that were built near the springs for the accommodation of invalids. The fulminating of the mountains was accompanied with flashes of fire seen issuing from their sides. Each flash ended with a snap, or crack, like that which is heard on discharging an electric battery but so times as loud. This induced him to believe the Earthquake was caused by the electric fluid.

In the morning it was observed that a large stream of warm warm (temperature by Feh. 142 degree) issued from a fissure in a rock, on the side of the mountain, which had been opened the preceding night. While they wre examining it, another shock was felt, which lasted two minutes. Although a perfect calm, the tops of the trees appeared to be greatly agitated, the earth shook violently, and the water of the warm springs, at that time overflowed by French Broad River, was thrown up several times to the height of thirty or forty feet.

Several masies of stone were loosed from their ancient beds, and precipitated from the summits and sides of the mountains. One in particular, well known to Western travelers by the name of the Painted Rock, was torn from its base, and fell across the road that leads from hence to Knoxville’ it has completely blocked up the passage for wagons. A great many people, who were moving westerly, are to a pitiable situation at this inclement season, being unable to proceed until a new road is made round the rock, (no easy task). In this they are cheerfully assisted by the neighbors.

I have been for three months in these dreary regions, examining a mine of Cobalt. The ore is rich. It abounds with Arsenick. In May we intend to calcine the ore and prepare it for exportation, or perhaps manufacture it into Smak. The mine is within a few miles of Mackeysville.
[contributed by Nancy Piper]

Extract of a letter to the Editors of the Baltimore Federal Republican, dated West River, Jan. 23

This morning at about 9 o’clock a friend of mine captain Franklin, Miss Webster and myself had just sat down to breakfast, when Capt. F. observed "What’s that! An Earthquake!" at the same instant, we felt as if we were in the cabin of a vessel, during a heavy swell. This sensation continued from one to two minutes, possibly longer, - For although I had the presence of mind to take out my watch, I felt too sick to observe accurately its duration. The feeling was by no means tremulous, but a steady vibration. A portrait about four feet in length, suspended from the ceiling by a hook and staple, and about five eights of an inch from the side wall, vibrated at least from eighteen inches to 2 feet each side, and so very steady, as not to touch the wall.

My next neighbour and his daughter felt the same sensation about the same time. The latter supposed it a gout in his dead. The daughter got up and walked to a window, supposing the heat of the fire had caused what she considered a faintness. Two others that I have seen, mentioned to have felt the same, but none of them had thought of an earthquake.

The two last being mechanics and up late, mentioned that they were much alarmed about 11 o’clock last night, by a great rumbling, as they thought, in the earth, attended with several flashes of lightening, which so lightened their house that they could have picked up the smallest pin – one mentioned that the rumbling and light was accompanied by a noise like that produced by throwing a hot iron into snow, only very loud and terrific, so much so, that he that he was fearful to go out to look what it was, for he never once thought of an earthquake.

I have thrown together the above particulars, supposing an extract may meet with corroborating accounts, and afford some satisfaction to your readers.

P.S. – The lightening and rumbling noise came from the fourth. I have just heard of its being felt in several other houses, but not any particulars more than related.
[contributed by Nancy Piper]

Chillicothe, Feb. 1

Earthquake Again

On Monday last another slight trembling of the earth was felt at this place. These frequent concussions have caused very considerable alarm in the town and neighbourhoods; and are considered, by many, to forebode some awful calamity. The shock which was severely felt here, on the 23rd ult., has, we believe, been as extensively felt as those on the 16th and 17th of December. At Marietta and Washington (Ky.) it was accompanied by a rumbling noise. The Courier, printed at Louisville, (Ky) states, that several chimnies were broken off, the clocks stopped, glasses thrown off the tables, and it is said, by some, that fissures, in the ground, several yards long, and an inch and an half wide, were discovered in the street, near the market house.
[contributed by Nancy Piper]

The New Madrid Earthquake, 1811
From the "Annals of St. Louis: and a Brief Account of its Foundation and Progress, 1764-1928", ©1930

"I was present at the earthquake which lately occurred above and below the mouth of the River Ohio on both sides of the river. We set out from St. Louis November 8th. It was chilly. I do not remember that there were clouds in the sky. After supper, we went to sleep. I was awakened by a crash like thunder, and the boat turned on its side so that the man who slept by me was thrown on me and both of us fell against the side of the boat. It was very dark, about three o'clock in the morning. When I could see, the trees on the shore were falling down and great masses of earth tumbling into the river. Lamel cut the rope that tied us to a log that was there, and in a moment so great a wave came up the river that it carried us back north upstream for more than a mile and the water spread out on the banks three or four miles inland. Everywhere was a noise like thunder. The ground was shaking. The air was thick, as though it were full of smoke. There was much lightning. We thought we should die. The priest gave us absolution. One of the other boats was never seen again. There were two shocks, about half an hour apart, and many small ones between. The water rose so high that a tree on the bank, whose top must have been thirty feet above the water, was covered all over. There was much rumbling that frightened us. The sound was in the ground, muffled and groaning, and sometimes there were cracks like thunder, as though great sheets of ice had been broken. We saw dead bodies floating down the river."
[contributed by K. Torp]

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