Tectonic events such as a 5.8 earthquake in California and a volcanic eruption in Washington – captured our attention. But they failed to match the New Madrid earthquakes from December 1811 to February. 1812 which caused a brief ebb of the mighty Mississippi.
Consider the eyewitness testimony of Firmin La Roche, a French fur trader from Saint-Louis.
The western border of the Mississippi had been sold by France to the United States just eight years before the earthquake. Missouri was a territory, not yet a state.
LaRoche’s account – held in the archives of the Missouri Historical Review – was written in New Orleans on February 20, 1812, when the sequelae were still frequent. He had just finished a disastrous journey that started with three flat-boats:
Sounds like thunder
“I was present at the earthquake that recently occurred above and below the mouth of the Ohio River, along both sides of the Mississippi River.
“I took three boats for New Orleans with furs bought in Saint-Louis. On the evening of December 15th, we moored eight miles north of New Madrid near the home of my cousin, John LeClerq.
“There was with me Father Joseph from the Mission aux Osages, returning home to France – also Jaques Menier, Dominic Berges, Léon Sarpy, Henry Lamel, five other men and the black slave, Ben, who was killed. in New Madrid.
“After supper, we fell asleep. I was awakened by a crash like thunder. The boat turned on its side so that Lamel, who was sleeping next door, was thrown at me. We fell against the side. It was very dark.
“We walked away from shore in about half an hour, and I looked at my watch. It was 3 o’clock. I could see trees falling on the shore. Large masses of land fell into the river.
“Lamel cut the rope that tied us to a log. In an instant, such a big wave came up the river that I never saw one like it at sea. It brought us back north, upstream, for over a mile. The water spilled over the shores – covering three or four miles inland.
“It was a current going backwards. Then this wave stopped, and slowly the river turned to the right.
“Everywhere there was a noise like thunder. The ground shook the trees. The air was thick with something like smoke. There was a lot of lightning.
“We thought we must surely die. Fr. Joseph gave absolution. We didn’t see either of the other two boats. One of them we never saw again – and I don’t know either not if the men there were drowned, and we were all in great terror, waiting for death.
“Trees were thrown down. People said big cracks in the ground – some very deep – stretched for 10 or 15 miles.” We were told there is a new lake in Tennessee (Reelfoot) and the waterways there have been changed. The Yazoo River has a new mouth.
“I was in great pain with a broken arm. Among those who were with me, there is only Father Joseph. My personal loss that I am making is $ 600 (about $ 12,000 per currency today.) ”
Remembrance of a priest
In an appendix to the story of La Rouche, Father Joseph declares:
“I think there were two big shocks about half an hour apart and many small ones in between and after. The water rose up so that a tree on the shore – the top of which must have been being 9 meters above the level of the river – was covered everywhere.
“We saw two houses on fire on the left bank. When we arrived in New Madrid, there were also houses that were on fire there.
“We docked at the shore around dawn, and a hickory hit the boat – killing the negro, Ben, and shattering Boss LaRouche’s left arm.
“We made no effort to find out how many people were killed, although we were told many were. We saw the bodies of several people. Then we saw drowned people floating in the river.
“The loads of fur were thrown into the river by the people who piled into the ship with us until we couldn’t take any more.”
Another eyewitness testimony (edited here for brevity) was filed by Eliza Bryan, a New Madrid resident, four years after the event.
“On December 16, 1811, around 2 am, we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake. It was accompanied by a very awful noise resembling a loud thunder but distant, but more hoarse and vibrating.
“This was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere with sulphurous vapor, causing complete darkness.
“Truly horrible were the cries of the frightened locals who came and went, not knowing where to go or what to do – the cries of birds and beasts of all species – the crackle of falling trees – and the roar of the Mississippi that was retrograde for a few minutes.
“Residents fled in all directions, assuming there was less danger at a distance than near the river.
“There were several lighter shocks each day until January 23, 1812. Then one occurred as violent as the most severe of the first.
“From that time until February 4 the land was in continual turmoil – visibly shaking like a gentle sea.
“On February 7, around 4 am, a concussion took place so much more violent than the ones that caused it, that it was called ‘the hard shock’.
“The dreadful darkness of the sulphurous vapor-saturated atmosphere, and the violence of stormy thunder, formed a scene beyond imagination.
“At first, the Mississippi seemed to drift away from its shores, its waters coming together like a mountain. For a while, many of the boats that were on their way to New Orleans remained on the bare sand. The poor sailors escaped.
“The river then rose 15 to 20 feet perpendicularly, and widened. The banks overflowed with the retrograde current. The boats that had been left on the sand now were torn from their moorings.
“The river, falling as quickly as it had risen, carried with it whole groves of poplars. There were still a lot of fish on the banks.
“In all the violent shocks the earth was horribly torn apart. Hundreds of acres were covered with sand coming out of cracks. In some places there was a coal-like substance.
“Recently it was discovered that a lake (Reelfoot) had formed across the Mississippi in an Indian country (west of Tennessee). It is over 100 miles long, one to six miles wide, and depths of 10 to 50 feet.
“For eighteen months we were constrained by the fear that our houses would fall from the continuous shocks and therefore lived in small, light camps. Some people fled, never to return, but most of them left.
Giant earth rift
The US Geological Survey classifies the three major earthquakes in the central Mississippi Valley during the winter of 1811-12 as “the most powerful in the history of the United States.”
There were no seismographs at the time. However, the magnitude of the changes in terrain indicates three closely related earthquakes – magnitudes of 8 or greater on the Richter seismograph scale of ten points.
The strongest earthquake on record is the Richter 8.4 for the 1964 Alaska earthquake.
According to the USGS, “Earthquakes in the central United States affect much larger areas than earthquakes of similar magnitude in the western United States.
“The San Francisco, California earthquake of 1906 (magnitude 7.8) was felt 350 miles away. The first New Madrid earthquake rang church bells in Boston, Mass., A thousand miles away.
New Madrid in 1811 consisted of 400 log cabins. Saint Louis and Memphis were small towns. “If a Category 8 earthquake happened there today, most of these cities would be destroyed and thousands of people would be killed,” says U.S.G.S.
Last year, 470 measurable earthquakes were recorded in the central Mississippi Valley.
USGS warning: “The probability of a magnitude 6-7 earthquake to occur in the New Madrid seismic zone in the next 50 years is greater than 90%.”
Which is the worst – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, forest fires, landslides, volcanoes or earthquakes?
Source by Lindsey Williams