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

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The town of New Madrid in southeastern Missouri looks out over a treacherous stretch of the Mississippi River, studded with bars and laced with stumpy shores—a graveyard of rivercraft, and haunted. Some of the ghosts are dead dreams.

George Morgan, the town’s founder, planted his colony there in 1789 with the permission of the Spanish authorities. He picked a site of surpassing natural beauty, on high ground commanding a view of the river six miles above and ten miles below stream, in the crook of a horseshoe bend twenty-five miles in length and seventy miles below the point where the Mississippi joined the Ohio River. A land speculator, Revolutionary War veteran, and dabbler in scientific agriculture, Morgan must also have been a visionary. His plan for the “city” was not to be exceeded in size and in manner by many cities in the world. It was to extend 4 miles S. and 2 west from the river, so as to include lake St. Annis in its limits, on whose banks were to be wide streets and roads, planted with trees for the health of the citizens. A street 120 ft. wide on the bank of the river was also to be planted with trees. Twelve acres in the middle of the city was to be likewise ornamented and preserved for public walks: 40 half-acre lots for other public uses, and one lot of 12 acres for the king’s use.

Morgan fell out with the Spanish authorities and soon returned to New Jersey to resume his interrupted investigations of the Hessian fly. Many of the original Virginia and Carolina colonists sickened and died. Nevertheless a town grew up around the streets and marketplace they laid out. The Spanish built a fort and levied duties on river traffic, to the vast disgust of American boatmen. In 1804, when the town passed into American hands, it became the administrative center of one of the five districts into which the upper territory was organized, and the seat of a territorial court. Travellers, a nineteenth-century historian wrote, found it a “cheerful looking little town”:

It stood on a high bank, in a broad bend of the river. Many of the houses were painted white, with wide verandas or piazzas; and coming as they did from a wilderness region, where no town had greeted their eyes since leaving the falls [of the Ohio], the first view of this smiling village was animating and delightful. The inhabitants were a mixed people of French, Spanish, and American. … The site was considered to be a very judicious one for a town, and at the time of this voyage [1805] contained a population of three or four hundred inhabitants, amongst which were a number of genteel families noted for their hospitality.

If New Madrid was hardly the metropolis of Morgan’s vision, it required no extravagant act of the imagination to predict a brilliant future for the town. Mighty cities had begun less auspiciously. But it was not to be. A dozen years after Louisiana passed into American hands, the peripatetic botanist Thomas Nuttall found only “an insignificant French hamlet” on the once-cheerful site, “containing little more than about 20 log houses and stores miserably supplied. …” When the English geologist Sir Charles Lyell stopped over with his wife in 1846, New Madrid was a squalid settlement with no inn; he was obliged to spend the night with a baker who took in lodgers. Gone was the commanding height with its long view of the river. The site of the town had sunk to a flat plain, and Morgan’s streets and marketplace had long since been claimed by the river.

“On Monday morning last [December 16, 1811], about a quarter past two,” the St. Louis Louisiana Gazette reported, “St. Louis and the surrounding country, was visited by one of the most violent shocks of earthquake that has been recorded since the discovery of our country.” This was not sensational journalism. Two more major shocks occurred, on January 23 and February 7, 1812. Each of the three, modern seismologists believe, was the equal of any that have since occurred in the nation, including the San Francisco and Anchorage quakes. They were followed by secondary shocks only slightly less violent and usually more devastating. In between, and for months thereafter, the earth trembled like a bowl of gelatin, and for years periodic tremors were felt throughout a vast area of the central Mississippi Valley. The center was slightly west and just to the south of New Madrid.

The large shocks were felt at great distances, from Canada in the north to New Orleans, and all along the eastern seaboard, sometimes with alarming effect. The first shock of December 16 hit South Carolina at some time around three in the morning. In Charleston the church bells rang maniacally, as if to give the fire alarm, clocks stopped, and “houses were so much moved,” an observer noted with commendable gravity, “that many persons were induced to rise from their beds.” Seven shocks were reported in Charleston during the month of December and as many as eight during the same period in Detroit, far to the north.