Thursday, January 6, 2011

Earthquakes of 1811 - 1812

Two Hundred years ago the earth rolled and swayed, causing great fear in western Kentucky and beyond.  A series of earthquakes centered on the New Madrid fault line  began in the early morning hours of the 16th of December 1811. The earth split open, sometimes swallowing animals, trees and even people.  The earthquakes  were felt as far away as Charleston, South Carolina and Quebec, Canada.

The following account was given in a letter to a gentleman in Lexington from a friend at New Madrid, reported in the  Kentucky Reporter and accessed on GenealogyBank.

 "About two o'clock this morning we were awakened by a most tremendous noise, while the house danced about, and seemed as if it would fall on our heads. I soon conjectured the cause of our trouble, and cried out it was an earthquake, and for the family to leave the house, which we found very difficult to do, owing to its rolling and jostling about. The shock was soon over and no injury was sustained except the loss of the chimney, and the exposure of my family to the cold of the night. At the time of this shock the heavens were very clear and serene, not a breath of air stirring, but in five minutes it became very dark, and a vapour which seemed to  impregnate the atmosphere, had a disagreeable smell, and produced a difficulty of respiration.

"Fifteen minutes after seven o'clock, we had another shock. This was the most severe one we have yet had -- the darkness returned and the noise was remarkably loud.  The first motions of the earth were similar to the preceding shocks but before it ceased we rebounded up and down, and it was with great  difficulty we kept our seats.  At this instant I expected a dreadful catastrophe - the uproar of the people heightened the colouring of the picture - the screams and yells were heard at a great distance."

The aftershocks lasted into the new year. On 23 January 1812, an earthquake of intensity comparable to the one in December occurred. That one was followed on 7 February by an even stronger earthquake. It is said the Mississippi River even ran backwards briefly, the course of the river was changed and Reelfoot Lake was formed. The aftershocks were numerous, but the three mentioned here were the most severe.

In Jefferson's Nephews  A Frontier Tragedy,  the author, Boynton Merrill Jr., referencing "The Winter the Mississippi River Ran Backwards" by Wayne Viitanten (The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 71, January 1973, 51-68) stated the following:  "The writhing and distortions of the Mississippi River were almost beyond belief. Above New Madrid the river bottom rose and formed a six foot waterfall that stretched entirely across the river. Boats were swept over this barrier until it, in turn, was wiped away by the current. Other boats were tossed about by freak waves that rose thirty feet above the normal water level."

Each of the three main earthquakes in this series have been estimated at a magnitude of over  7.0.  Western Kentucky was not heavily populated and no known deaths were caused by the earthquakes, but how frightened the people must have been! 


1 comment:

Cindy said...

As always, your blog is full of interesting information! A note about coincidence and lucky breaks in genealogy research... I'm reading a fascinating book entitled "A Crack at the Edge of the World" by Simon Winchester. Coming across a segment about the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812, a "voila'" moment ensued. I had long ago been familiar with the New Madrid quakes from a geological standpoint but the time frame forgotten. In recent years' pursuit of genealogy, I discovered a new ancestor, Charles P. Coleman, b. 1762 NC and that he lived in Smithland, Livingston County, KY from 1806-1812. Always wondered what prompted him to move away, at about age 50, after such a short period of time there. After spending a few hours today reading numerous eye-witness accounts of the quakes, including the one in your blog, I strongly believe he took his wife and younger children and left the area for Mississippi Territory as a result of the quakes and the horrific human experiences associated with them. At this point, it appears to me that some of his young adult children may have stayed in the area or moved to Indiana. His descendants now live all over the U.S. How might our history have been different had the earthquakes not occurred?