“… I Will Stamp On The Ground With My Foot And Shake Down Every House …”

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At Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis there were varying reports of stone and brick houses cracked, chimneys, gables, and parapets toppled, and at Cape Girardeau, south of St. Louis, collapsed houses. Jared Brooks at Louisville and Dr. Daniel Drake at Cincinnati kept the only known systematic observations over the whole period of the disturbances. Between December 16, 1811, and March 15, 1812, Brooks counted 1,874 shocks, eight of which he classed as violent, ten as very severe, thirty-five as moderate, and the rest as ranging between generally and barely perceptible. Yet there were no fatalities on land in the vicinity of St. Louis or along the Ohio and few injuries. Nausea and dizziness, however, were common. The constant trembling of the ground for weeks at a time (“like the flesh of a beef just killed”) seemed to affect balance and perception of reality. Brooks reported in early March that

sound … seems … to have lost its rotundity, and matter its sonorous properties… the peal of the bell, the beat of the drum, the crowing of the cock, the human call, although near at hand seem to be at a distance, and the different reports seem to steal, in a manner silently, separately, and distinctly upon the ear, not breaking upon or being lost or confused in each other. …

 

The area most affected was relatively small—some thirty to fifty thousand square miles—but nevertheless included land now in five states: Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. The zone followed the line of the river from Cairo to Memphis and in width extended from a high point west of the river, called Crowley Ridge, to the Chickasaw Bluffs on the east side. Within this area the effects were truly spectacular and wrought permanent changes in the landscape. Some parts were uplifted, while others sank, and the ground yawned in frightening fissures. Ponds and swamps appeared, and lakes, including eighteen-mile-long Lake Reelfoot in Tennessee, were created. During the hard shocks the sudden darkness caused by thick sulfurous vapor, the smell of brimstone, deafening explosions, and water, sand, and organic matter vomited to great heights lasted for several minutes at a time. Eyewitness accounts graphically captured the abject terror to which human beings and animals were reduced. One surveyor wrote:

It rushed out in all quarters, bringing with it … carbonized wood, reduced … to dust, which was ejected to the height of from ten to fifteen feet, and fell in a black shower, mixed with the sand which its rapid motion had forced along; at the same time, the roaring and whistling produced by the impetuosity of the air escaping from its confinement, seemed to increase the horrible disorder of the trees which everywhere encountered each other, being blown up, cracking and splitting, and falling by thousands at a time. In the meantime, the surface was sinking, and a black liquid was rising up to the belly of my horse, who stood motionless, struck with a panic of terror.

 

Nothing was so unsettling as the sight of those trees suddenly reduced to matchsticks. Eliza Bryan at New Madrid told of seeing “whole groves of young cotton-wood trees … broken off with such regularity … that persons who had not witnessed the fact, would with difficulty be persuaded that it has not been the work of art.” A boatman on the river thirteen miles below New Madrid on February 7 saw “whole forests on each bank fall prostrate … like soldiers grounding their arms at the word of command.”

Among the settlers only two deaths were reported on land throughout the entire period of disturbance. Both were women at New Madrid. One was said to have died of fright during the first shock, the other of injuries. According to one report the French population of New Madrid “were engaged in dancing and frolicking, when the first shock came on,” whereupon they fled outdoors. From Pittsburgh to Natchez all accounts agree that the instinctive first response was to rush outside, usually without too much concern about clothing. This no doubt saved many lives, especially in New Madrid and the neighboring settlement of Little Prairie, where houses collapsed. The characteristic wooden dwellings eliminated the hazard of falling masonry, which killed ten thousand in an earthquake no more severe at Caracas in March, 1812. Towns such as Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Natchez, where brick and stone houses were more common, were outside the area of severest impact. Also, all three of the major shocks were followed by periods of constant trembling when nothing could prevail upon the people to return to their dwellings; this minimized the chance of injury, since secondary shocks a few hours later caused the greatest damage to weakened structures.