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The Terrific Earthquake of New Madrid, Missouri in 1811-1812

Taken from Goodspeed's History of Southeast Missouri

Pages 304-306

In 1811 and 1812 the inhabitants of New Madrid District experienced a series of the most terrific earthquakes that have ever occurred on the American continent. The best account of these fearful convulsions that could be obtained is given in the following letter, written to Rev. Lorenzo Dow, from Eliza Bryan.

New Madrid Territory, Missouri. March 22, 1816

Dear Sir: In compliance with your request, I will now give you a history, as full in detail as the limits of a letter will permit, of the awful visitation of Providence in this place and its vicinity.

On the 16th of December, 1811, about 2 o'clock, A.M., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise, resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurious vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go or what to do, the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species, the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi, the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing, as is supposed, to an erruption in its bed, formed a scene truly terrible.

From that time until about sunrise a number of lighter shocks occurred, at which time one still more violent than the first took place, with the same accompaniments, and the terror which had been excited in every one, and indeed in all animal nature, was now, if possible, doubled. The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country, supposing (if it can be admitted that their minds can be exercised at all) that there was less danger at a distance from than near the river. In one person, a female, (Mrs. Lafont), the alarm was so great that she fainted, and could not be revived.

There were several shocks a day, but lighter than those already mentioned, until the 23d of January, 1812, when one occurred, as violent as the severest of the former ones, accompanied by the same phenomena as the former.

From this time until the 4th of February the earth was in a continual agitation, visibly waving as a gentle sea. On that day there was another shock, nearly as hard as the proceeding ones; next day four such, and on the 7th, about 4 o'clock A.M., a concussion took place so much more violent than those which had preceeded it, that it was denominated the hard shock. The awful darkness of the atmosphere which, as formerly, was saturated with sulphurous vapor, and the violence of the tempestuous thundering noise that accompanied it, together with all of the other phenomena mentioned as attending the former ones, formed a scene, the description of which would require the most sublimely fanciful imagination.

At first the Mississippi seemed to recede from its banks, and its water gathered up like a mountain, leaving, for a moment, many boats which were here on their way to New Orleans, on the bare sand, in which time the poor sailors made their escape from them. It then rising fifteen or twenty feet perpendicularly, and expanding, as it were, at the same moment, the bank overflowed with a retrograde current rapid as a torrent. The boats, which before had been left on the sand, were now torn from their moorings, and suddenly driven up a little creek, at the mouth of which they laid, to the distance, in some instances, of nearly a quarter of a mile. The river, falling immediately as rapidly as it had risen, receded within its banks again with such violence that it took with it whole groves of young cottonwood trees which ledged its borders.

They were broken off which such regularity in some instances that persons who had not witnessed the fact would with difficulty be persuaded that it had not been the work of art. A great many fish were left on the bank, being unable to keep pace with the water. The river was literally covered with the wrecks of boats, and it is said that one was wrecked in which there was a lady and six children, all of whom were lost.

In all the hard shocks mentioned the earth was horribly torn to pieces; the surface of hundreds of acres was from time to time covered over of various depths by the sand which issued from the fissures which were made in great numbers all over the country, some of which closed up immediately after they had vomited forth their sand and water, which, it must be remarked, were the substances generally thrown up. In some places, however, there was a substance resembling stone-coal or impure stone-coal thrown up with the sand. It is impossible to say what the depth of these fissures or irregular breaks were. We have reason to believe that some were very deep. The site of this town was evidently settled down at least fifteen feet, and not more than a half a mile below the town there does not appear to be any alteration in the bank of the river, but back from the river, a small distance, the numerous large ponds, or lakes, which covered a great part of the country, are nearly dried up. The beds of some of them are elevated above their former banks, several feet, producing an elevation fifteen or twenty feet from their original state, and lately it has been discovered that a lake (Reelfoot Lake) was found on the opposite side of the Mississippi in the Indian country, upward of 100 miles in length, and from one to six miles in width of the depth of from ten to fifty feet. It has communication with the river at both ends, and it is conjectured that it will not be many years before the principal part, if not the whole of the Mississippi will pass that way.

We were constrained, by fear of our houses falling, to live twelve or eighteen months after the first shocks in little light camps made of boards; but we gradually became callous and returned to our homes again. Most of those who fled from the country in the time of the hard shocks have returned home. We have felt since their commencement in 1811, and still continue to feel slight shocks occasionally. It is seldom that we are more than a week without feeling one, and sometimes three or four a day. There were two this winter past, much harder than we have felt for two years before, but since then they appear to be lighter than they have ever been, and we begin to hope that erelong they will entirely cease.

I have now, Sir, finished my promised description of the earthquake, imperfect it is true, but just as it occurred to my memory, many of, and most of the truly awful scenes having occurred three or four years ago. They of course are not related with that precision which would entitle it to the character of a full and accurate picture, but such as it is, it is given with pleasure, in the full confidence that it is given to a friend. And now, Sir, wishing you all good, I must bid you adieu.

Your humble servant,

Eliza Bryan

There is one circumstance which I think worthy of remark. This country was formerly subject to very hard thunder; but for more than twelve months before the commencement of the earthquake there was none at all, and but very little since, a great part of which resembles subterraneous thunder. The shocks still continue, but are growing more light, and less frequent. -E.B.


Charlotte Curlee Ramsey
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