The Great Earthquake

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Shortly before dawn the five-inch pine spindle of the Faneuil Hall wind vane snapped, dislodging the thirty-pound gilded cricket that spun ten feet above Boston’s marketplace roof. Early risers first heard the baying of dogs, then the roar. Beneath the autumn moon, fifteen hundred chimneys swiveled and spewed bricks; the gable ends of brick houses that had survived the fire of 1747 collapsed onto cobblestone. As the contents of their homes toppled or migrated, families fled into the streets with shrieks attributed by one observer less to their embarrassment at “seeing their neighbors, as it were naked” than to their fears of confronting Judgment Day at last, and in nightclothes.

His Majesty’s regiments, camped at Lake George, a day’s march west of Vermont’s Green Mountains, felt the violence; so, presumably, did the one hundred and fifty French regulars gathered within scouting distance of the demoralized British troops. Newly arrived Samuel Chandler of Gloucester, Massachusetts, later recorded the time as four o’clock on the clear morning of November 18, adding, “2 soldiers died” in skirmishes that same day.

Settlers in Prince George County, Virginia, took note of it, while the captain of a westbound ship seventy leagues off the New England coast felt such a report beneath his vessel that he assumed he had struck a wreck or a sandbar. But when he lowered a lead, the measure sank to fifty fathoms—three hundred feet—in waters that soon began beaching dead fish miles away on the Massachusetts coastal tip of Cape Ann. Unaware, the captain and his crew had passed over the sea-covered epicenter of the first major earthquake in the recorded geological history of North America, and still one of the most powerful within historic memory.

The Cape Ann earthquake of 1755 shook the sleeping New World from Nova Scotia to South Carolina, evoking the greatest awe, damage, and contrition in the heavily populated northern colonies. “It was a terrible night,” wrote the Reverend Mather Byles of Boston, “the most so, perhaps, that ever NEW ENGLAND saw.” The tremors, followed by several more in ensuing days, signaled Divine displeasure to many. But they suggested Divine restraint once the colonies learned—about four weeks later—of the devastation of Lisbon by earthquake on November 1. At least thirty thousand died in the busy European port, many of them while worshiping in the churches on All Saints Day morning. The rest were swept away in the tidal wave that followed the violent shaking, which was felt as far north as Amsterdam.

From the rubble of Lisbon came the political ascent of the ruthless Marquês de Pombal, heightened religious recrimination, and Voltaire’s Candide, a biting satire of the prevailing optimistic creeds of such philosophers as Leibnitz. Out of the earthquake in the English colonies grew an earnest (if temporary) examination of contemporary morality. And, although a formal science of geology lay a generation in the future, the Cape Ann tremors left the inchoate discipline its first empirical accounting of a North American earthquake and provoked an energetic debate over the natural causes of such phenomena.

“The subject is curious, and at present engages the attention of many persons,” said John Winthrop IV, Harvard professor and occupant of only the second scientific chair in the colonies (the first was established in 1711 at William and Mary College). Eight days after the earthquake, which, in his words, had “spread terror and threatened desolation throughout New-England,” he attempted to reassure a nervous crowd in the college chapel, acknowledging that never had “so much damage [been] done to our buildings as by the last great shock.”

It was not the first earthquake in the continent’s known history. That record goes back to 1558 by way of the oral tradition of the native Pequot and Narraganset tribes in Rhode Island. Their members recounted their earthquake chronology to Roger Williams, the renegade province’s governor, after the first earthquake of the colonial era in 1638. “The younger natives are ignorant of the like,” Williams wrote to John Winthrop, founder of Boston and greatgrandfather of the Harvard professor, “but the ellder informe me that this is the 5t within these 4 score yeare in the land.” A Naunaumemoauke, as the natives called such a tremor, was inevitably the precursor to “either plague or pox or some other epidemicall disease,” Williams noted.

The “great and fearfull” earthquake of 1638, America’s first documented tremor, occurred on a sunny June afternoon throughout the English plantations. Recognized as coming from “the uninhabited parts of this Wilderness,” it is, in fact, now believed to have originated in the St. Lawrence valley.