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

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The historical record of earthquakes abounds in portents, many of them clearly apocryphal. In this instance, one such tale recounts the movement in the fall of “a countless multitude of squirrels” who “were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and sober phalanx to the South,” only to perish “in the broad Ohio, which lay in their path.” For those who found this story hard to accept, reality provided enough material to satisfy any lingering appetite to flavor history with prophecy. By any test 1811 was a miserable year for the inhabitants along the Ohio and lower Mississippi. A disastrous flood ushered in the summer, and autumn brought “the bilious remitting and intermitting fever.” A spectacular comet—considered a sign of foreboding—lit up the sky from September through January, and a looming war with the tribes and the British had left nerves frayed and exposed throughout the West. “May not the same enquiry be made of us that was made by the hypocrites of old,” asked one editor in the spring of 1812: “‘Can ye not discern the signs of the times.’”

Tradition has it that the steamboat’s arrival off Louisville at night, hissing and showering sparks, convinced many the comet had fallen into the river. The comet, which appeared over the Midwest on September 5 and disappeared in mid-January, was the same as that viewed by Pierre in War and Peace and considered a herald of the French invasion of Russia. Comets have often been looked upon as harbingers of disaster. This one was stunningly beautiful and bright. Observers spoke of the “twilight” it shed over the forests. In the East, John Farrar, who published scientific observations of its path, described it as casting “the light of an aurora borealis.” “The tail of the comet was bifurcated,” according to the navigator and mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch, “and near the middle part of the space between the two forked points the colour was as dark as the unilluminated part of the heavens.” John Bradbury, the Scottish naturalist, was on a flatboat below New Madrid during the shocks of December 16. At the Lower Chickasaw Bluffs he found terrified squatters gathered around a local savant who explained that the earth had rolled over one of the “two horns” of the comet and was trapped between them; the shocks were caused by the efforts of the earth to extricate itself. “If this should be accomplished, all would be well, if otherwise, inevitable destruction to the world would follow.”

Comets have always speeded up the manufacture of doomsday theories; with the appearance of the earthquake their stock went up even more dramatically. The shocks “contributed greatly to increase the interest on the subject of religion” was how the evangelist James Finley modestly put it. Kentucky had been the scene of astonishing outbursts of religious enthusiasm for ten years, but on the whole the Devil had held up his end. According to one accusation, perhaps unjust, Louisville as of 1811 had paid homage to Thespis by constructing a theatre, but had yet to build its first house of God. With the earthquakes the churches began to gather a rich harvest. The Western Conference of the Methodist Church encompassed Kentucky and Tennessee and contiguous portions of Mississippi, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and western Virginia—all within the area most affected by the earthquakes. This same territory, which became the Ohio and Tennessee Conferences in 1812, jumped in membership by 50 per cent during that year, although the other conferences for the rest of the nation reported a more modest increase of less than one per cent. There was some backsliding when it became clear the world had made it over the other horn, and the term “earthquake Christian” acquired some currency among embittered preachers as a designation for folk who were more noticeable in their devotions during the quakes than before or after. Nevertheless the preachers, at least, had found some cause for satisfaction with the cataclysm. “For the great day of His wrath is come,” Finley declared, “and who shall be able to stand?”

Many Indians of the region also welcomed the “dread visitor.” The sun had almost set for the native peoples of the Northwest Territory. They had struggled valiantly, but their bravest warriors were slain, once-mighty chiefs were no longer militant, and the future offered a bleak choice between extermination and removal beyond the Mississippi. A brooding misery settled upon the tribes in the years before the earthquakes, and many among them found new hope in the cause of Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwautawa, the Prophet. Tenskwautawa preached a jeremiad of religious regeneration and attracted a growing number of followers. They were also recruits for Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief the equal in nobility and native endowment of the greatest statesmen of the age, who ranged over astonishing distances across the Northwest, preaching a message with all the force and eloquence at his command: only national and cultural unity among the tribes could prevent further white encroachments. In the fall of 1811, with the support of the British in Canada and with the approach of war between the United States and Great Britain, Tecumseh carried his message to the South, among the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and Cherokees.

He had indifferent success, although a faction of the Creeks, called by the name of the “Red Sticks” Tecumseh had distributed among them, did eventually take the warpath. One legend has it that a half-breed Creek chief named Weatherford was finally convinced when Tecumseh accurately forecast the New Madrid earthquakes.