If they didn’t hurry away from New Madrid, Missouri the ground was going to eat them alive! This was how people felt after the earthquake that occurred on December 16, 1811.
This quake, which was followed by three additional ones, is estimated by modern methods to have registered between 7.2 to over 9.5. The second quake occurred January 23, 1812, followed by a third quake on January 27th. February 13th brought a final tremor that lasted nearly an hour and caused as much damage as the previous three combined. The quakes and their some 1,874 aftershocks were felt from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast and from Mexico to Canada.
In 1811 science had no means by which to predict earthly disturbances but Shawnee Chief Tecumseh had been prophesying this devastating upheaval for the past two years. It was to be a great sign for all tribes to rise up and unite against the white invaders. There is no explanation of how this Indian leader knew the exact date and time of this earthquake that caused the Mississippi River to reverse its course, thus creating 18 mile long Reelfoot Lake in Northwestern Tennessee.
Many had theories about the cause of the quakes. Because of pumice and other volcanic matter discovered along several rivers some believed a volcano to the Far West, or in the Andes, had erupted. Other theories concerned subterranean fires, interior combustion and fermentation, electric fluid, or possibly terrestrial and atmospheric electricity. Another idea was that the earth and the moon had come in contact with each other.
During that period of time a comet was passing over westward and some thought it had struck a mountain in California. Others were certain God was punishing man. Many believed the quakes indicated the end of the world. One fellow, using logic, determined the Day of Judgment could not be at hand. Though he had been rudely bounced from his bed in the darkness by the disruption he was convinced that “Judgment Day” could not come at “night.”
For those traveling on the rivers it surely must have seemed like the end. One man reported waterlogged trees rising from the bottom of the river. This situation was observed by many. To this man it seemed as though every tree that had been deposited in the river since Noah’s flood had surfaced. The Mississippi River changed course in many places as banks caved in and ancient trees were uprooted and pitched into the turbulence. For some time navigation was near impossible as well as extremely deadly.
The death rate caused by the quake was slight due to the sparse population. But the earth was horribly torn to pieces. Hundreds of acres, at various times, were covered with sand, water and coal that had spewed from great fissures. During the quake five towns in three states disappeared. Many islands in the Mississippi River vanished while lakes formed where none had previously existed.
New Madrid, Missouri sunk some fifteen feet. Cabins and stone chimneys toppled as people fled into the dark night, attempting to save their lives. A half-mile below this town on the bank of the Mississippi River there was little sign of the quake. And yet, back a short distance many large ponds and lakes had nearly dried up with the beds of some elevated ten to fifteen feet above their former banks.
Far beyond the borders of Missouri the quake was felt. In Charleston, South Carolina it was reported that six distinct shocks occurred with vibrations causing clocks to stop, as well as church bells to ring there and in Washington D.C.