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The Great Earthquake
When The Great Earthquake struck New England, learned men blamed everything from God’s wrath to an overabundance of lightning rods in Boston. Two hundred and twenty-five years later, geologists are at last discovering the true causes.
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
Although the colonies proceeded to rock several times in the mid-1600’s, most notably in 1663, the crudest earthquakes of the epoch were occurring abroad. In 1692 Jamaica’s Port Royal was alternately shaken and inundated by an earthquake that opened huge chasms into which townspeople fell. “Some who were swallowed quite down, rose again in other Streets,” wrote the Reverend Thomas Prince, one of the chroniclers of later American earthquakes, “being cast up with great quantities of Water.” Americans read of other tremors that killed some ten thousand Neapolitans in 1688 or swallowed sixteen hills whole, supposedly, in Batavia, on the Island of Java, in 1699.
Sensitive to such a fate, American colonists responded to their next severe earthquake with something less than equanimity. The 1727 earthquake, now believed also to have been centered at sea off Cape Ann, was a brief but noisy event, beginning with “a pounce like great guns,” as a Newbury record notes.
But by the time the last aftershocks subsided, the worst reminders of a violent evening were broken stone walls and chimneys in New England and a pervading smell of sulfur, known better in those times as brimstone and widely believed to provoke earthquakes. “There’s certainly a trail of sulfur under the earth from Lima to Lisbon,” Voltaire’s demoralized Candide learned as the optimist Pangloss assessed the benefits of the Lisbon horror. The Reverend John Burt of Bristol, Rhode Island, adopted the Panglossian perspective about the American tremors. “What a happy Effect had the Earthquake in 1727,” he told his congregation, “to awaken the Secure, to reform the Vicious and to make all solicitous about their spiritual and everlasting Concerns.”
The effect must have worn off, because for about four minutes in 1755, the earth’s violent activity bound disparate American colonies of more than one million people in fear. It was the year in which General Edward Braddock had led British-American troops to an embarrassing July defeat at Fort Duquesne, nine months before the formal declaration of the French and Indian War. Preoccupied by the advances of their allied opponents, the colonists reflected somberly on the meaning of the November earthquake and catalogued its causes and effects, both physical and metaphysical.
The earthquake of 1755 announced itself at the waning edge of a calm, windless night. In Boston, cattle began to low and dogs to howl. Birds flew randomly in the moonlight. The vibrations approached with a sound “like the noise of many cartloads of paving stones thrown together.” A correspondent for the Boston Gazette recorded the time as 4:21 A.M., acknowledging that his own watch read 4:31, but that “most watches in Boston tend to be set at least 10 minutes too fast.”
Buildings shook as far north as Port Annapolis, Nova Scotia. The Reverend Joseph Smith of Portland, Maine, gauged the shock at two minutes, long enough to “seem as if it would shake the house to pieces, and then [it] threw down near one hundred bricks to our chimney, and did the same to many other chimneys in town.” The residents of Newington, in New Hampshire province, claimed that a “frightful chasm” two feet wide and sixty rods long—nearly one thousand feet—had opened near the town meetinghouse.
In Connecticut, Canterbury preacher James Cogswell identified a “dismal sound” before the onset of the “terrible ague,” adding, “Had the Shock been a few Degrees more heavy, or (perhaps), continued much longer in the same Degree, we might have been buried in the Darkness.” Benjamin Trumbull, future chronicler of Connecticut’s history, was a freshman at thirty-seven-year-old Yale College when he reflected “de terribeli teramotu” in his diary. “The earth seemed to wave like the waves of the sea,” he wrote, and, as buildings rocked, he saw students and villagers “rush from their couches with trembling and fear.”
The ground undulated visibly. In the Massachusetts coastal town of Scituate, where ten “cart loads” of white, floury earth spewed from chasms, citizens saw the earth “wave like the swelling of the sea,” while the sea itself engaged in a “commotion and roaring … no less terrible.” The sea’s response was not confined to the northern Atlantic, although mainland colonists would not know it until the January return of ships from the West Indies. Voyagers reported that at two in the afternoon of November 18, the sea withdrew from St. Martin’s harbor, leaving vessels aground in water normally twenty-four feet deep.
At the same time in Barbados, northeast of the Venezuelan coast, a violent tide began to ebb and flow from the island every six or seven minutes, not diminishing in energy until early evening. No one could recall the placid Barbados current “ever to set so strong as 2 miles in an hour,” reported Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. (The West Indies commotions may have had a different source, an earthquake that occurred on November 18 in Morocco, killing three thousand. Tradition has credited Cape Ann, however.)