- Historic Sites
“… I Will Stamp On The Ground With My Foot And Shake Down Every House …”
THUS SPAKE THE GREAT INDIAN CHIEF TECUMSEH, PREDICTING— SOME BELIEVED—THE SERIES OF VIOLENT EARTHQUAKES THAT STRUCK THE MIDWEST IN THE WINTER OF 1811–12
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
The upheavals transformed the peaceful setting of New Madrid into a hell. One inhabitant, writing of the secondary daylight shocks on December 16, was at a loss for an “accurate description … the houses shook very much—chimnies falling in every direction—the loud, hoarse roaring which attended the earthquake, together with the cries, screams, and yells of the people, seems still ringing in my ears.” About the panic that prevailed there is little question. The “uproar among the people … the screams and yells were heard at a great distance.” Commenting the following day on those who passed his tent, the inhabitant wrote that some were “so agitated that they cannot speak—others cannot hold their tongues—some cannot sit still, but must be in constant motion, while others cannot walk. Several men … on the night of the first shock deserted their families, and have not been heard of since.” At first camps of fifty to one hundred persons each were set up in the open fields.
Although nothing could bring the people to return to them, the dwellings and other structures withstood the shocks of December. Most seem to have lasted through January. But weakened structures could not stand up to such punishment indefinitely, and the hard shocks of February 7 brought most of them down. Travellers who passed the site after that date agreed that very little remained standing, while the site itself had sunk from twelve to fifteen feet. It continued to sink until most of the original town became a part of the riverbed. The New York Evening Post reported on March 11 that the citizens had “fled to the mountains. … It is said that they are near one-thousand in number! Merciful God.” This was close to the truth. A visitor in late February found “the inhabitants moved off,” except a few of “the French, who live in camps close to the river side, and have their boats tied near them, in order to sail off, in case the earth should sink.”
Boats were precious. They provided a means of escape from the dissolution of the land. In desperation one woman at New Madrid offered, unsuccessfully, to trade “a likely negro fellow for the use of a boat a few hours.” Nevertheless the destruction of human life was far greater on the river than on land. The number will never be determined but probably ran to scores of people. In the early morning hours of December 16 large numbers of flatboats, many in small fleets, were tied up at islands or along the shores. Those that made the mistake of mooring under high banks were in great danger from cave-ins and landslides, either of being crushed directly or swamped by waves from the enormous splash. Many perished in this way.
The hard shocks of the evening and early morning hours always caught the boats at their mooring. Those during the daylight hours, when the boats were adrift, were no less frightening. At different times there were reports of the water rising many feet before suddenly dropping, of accelerated currents sweeping along trees, boats, men, and debris, of islands— some of them many acres in extent— splitting asunder or disappearing, and even of the river’s current running backward.
In the midst of the frightful scenes a steamboat, the New Orleans , appeared. Built by Nicholas Roosevelt of New Jersey, it was the first paddle-wheeler to navigate western waters. Roosevelt had started down the Ohio on the maiden cruise in October, accompanied by his pregnant wife, Lydia, an engineer, a pilot, and six hands.
They were detained in Louisville three weeks waiting for the river to rise enough to navigate the falls below the town and, as it turned out, for Lydia to be delivered of her child. It was after leaving Louisville, while weighing anchor below the falls, that the New Orleans felt the first jolt of the earthquake. “The effect was as though the vessel had been in motion and had suddenly grounded.” For three days they passed through the most alarming commotion. Large trees blocked the way. Sections of the shore collapsed into the water. The pilot found the channel suddenly unfamiliar. Then the river began to rise. The apprehensions of the times made them doubly jittery. One night they were awakened by shouts and the trampling of feet, and Roosevelt rushed on deck with his sword to repel Indian boarders. But it turned out to be a fire on board he had to fight. Most of the time they moved through vast solitude. As they picked their way gingerly along they stood about on deck watching trees along the shoreline nod and sway, despite the total absence of a breeze. “One of the peculiar characteristics of the voyage,” according to J. H. B. Latrobe, a brother of Lydia Roosevelt, “was the silence that prevailed on board. No one seemed disposed to talk; and … conversation … was carried on in whispers.” Their dog prowled about moaning and growling, and they came to expect “a commotion of more than usual violence” when it sought the lap of Lydia.
Eventually the steamboat appeared off New Madrid, where “terror stricken people … begged to be taken on board,
while others dreading the steamboat, even more than the earthquake, hid themselves as she approached. To receive the former was impossible. The would be refugees had no homes to go to; and ample as was the supply of provisions … it would have been altogether insufficient for any large increase of passengers. … Painful as it was, there was no choice but to turn a deaf ear to the cries of the terrified inhabitants of the doomed town.
When the little crew materialized at Natchez, their arrival was greeted as providential. They had been given up as lost.