December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
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
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  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.
At Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis there were varying reports of stone and brick houses cracked, chimneys, gables, and parapets toppled, and at Cape Girardeau, south of St. Louis, collapsed houses. Jared Brooks at Louisville and Dr. Daniel Drake at Cincinnati kept the only known systematic observations over the whole period of the disturbances. Between December 16, 1811, and March 15, 1812, Brooks counted 1,874 shocks, eight of which he classed as violent, ten as very severe, thirty-five as moderate, and the rest as ranging between generally and barely perceptible. Yet there were no fatalities on land in the vicinity of St. Louis or along the Ohio and few injuries. Nausea and dizziness, however, were common. The constant trembling of the ground for weeks at a time (“like the flesh of a beef just killed”) seemed to affect balance and perception of reality. Brooks reported in early March that
sound … seems … to have lost its rotundity, and matter its sonorous properties… the peal of the bell, the beat of the drum, the crowing of the cock, the human call, although near at hand seem to be at a distance, and the different reports seem to steal, in a manner silently, separately, and distinctly upon the ear, not breaking upon or being lost or confused in each other. …
The area most affected was relatively small—some thirty to fifty thousand square miles—but nevertheless included land now in five states: Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. The zone followed the line of the river from Cairo to Memphis and in width extended from a high point west of the river, called Crowley Ridge, to the Chickasaw Bluffs on the east side. Within this area the effects were truly spectacular and wrought permanent changes in the landscape. Some parts were uplifted, while others sank, and the ground yawned in frightening fissures. Ponds and swamps appeared, and lakes, including eighteen-mile-long Lake Reelfoot in Tennessee, were created. During the hard shocks the sudden darkness caused by thick sulfurous vapor, the smell of brimstone, deafening explosions, and water, sand, and organic matter vomited to great heights lasted for several minutes at a time. Eyewitness accounts graphically captured the abject terror to which human beings and animals were reduced. One surveyor wrote:
It rushed out in all quarters, bringing with it … carbonized wood, reduced … to dust, which was ejected to the height of from ten to fifteen feet, and fell in a black shower, mixed with the sand which its rapid motion had forced along; at the same time, the roaring and whistling produced by the impetuosity of the air escaping from its confinement, seemed to increase the horrible disorder of the trees which everywhere encountered each other, being blown up, cracking and splitting, and falling by thousands at a time. In the meantime, the surface was sinking, and a black liquid was rising up to the belly of my horse, who stood motionless, struck with a panic of terror.
Nothing was so unsettling as the sight of those trees suddenly reduced to matchsticks. Eliza Bryan at New Madrid told of seeing “whole groves of young cotton-wood trees … broken off with such regularity … that persons who had not witnessed the fact, would with difficulty be persuaded that it has not been the work of art.” A boatman on the river thirteen miles below New Madrid on February 7 saw “whole forests on each bank fall prostrate … like soldiers grounding their arms at the word of command.”
Among the settlers only two deaths were reported on land throughout the entire period of disturbance. Both were women at New Madrid. One was said to have died of fright during the first shock, the other of injuries. According to one report the French population of New Madrid “were engaged in dancing and frolicking, when the first shock came on,” whereupon they fled outdoors. From Pittsburgh to Natchez all accounts agree that the instinctive first response was to rush outside, usually without too much concern about clothing. This no doubt saved many lives, especially in New Madrid and the neighboring settlement of Little Prairie, where houses collapsed. The characteristic wooden dwellings eliminated the hazard of falling masonry, which killed ten thousand in an earthquake no more severe at Caracas in March, 1812. Towns such as Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Natchez, where brick and stone houses were more common, were outside the area of severest impact. Also, all three of the major shocks were followed by periods of constant trembling when nothing could prevail upon the people to return to their dwellings; this minimized the chance of injury, since secondary shocks a few hours later caused the greatest damage to weakened structures.
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.
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.
James Mooney, in his book The Ghost-Dance Religion, recounts the story of Tecumseh’s prediction, made in a speech to the Creeks at the town of Tukabachi, on the Tallapoosa River, near the present site of Montgomery, Alabama:
“Your blood is white. You have taken my talk, and the sticks, and the wampum, and the hatchet, but you do not mean to light. I know the reason. You do not believe the Great Spirit has sent me. You shall know. I leave Tuckhabatchee directly, and shall go straight to Detroit. When I arrive there, I will stamp on the ground with my foot and shake down every house in Tuckhabatchee.” So saying, he turned and left the Big Warrior in utter amazement at both his manner and his threat, and pursued his journey. The Indians were struck no less with his conduct than was the Big Warrior, and began to dread the arrival of the day when the threatened calamity would befall them. They met often and talked over this matter, and counted the days carefully to know the day when Tecumthé would reach Detroit. The morning they had lixed upon as the day of his arrival at last came. A mighty rumbling was heard—the Indians all ran out of their houses—the earth began to shake; when at last, sure enough, every house in Tuckhabatchee was shaken down. The exclamation was in every mouth, “Tecumthé has got to Detroit!” The effect was electric. The message he had delivered to the Big Warrior was believed, and many of the Indians took their rifles and prepared for the war. … It was the famous earthquake of New Madrid on the Mississippi.
While Tecumseh was away William Henry Harrison marched with an army against the chief’s principal base at Prophet’s Town. The battle of Tippecanoe in November was a stand-off, with enormous losses on both sides, but the slain Indian warriors were irreplaceable. Tecumseh continued his travels, unaware that his military power was already broken. Harrison claimed the victory, but ignorance of the whereabouts of Tecumseh and the battle’s inconclusive character left the border jittery. These events mingled strangely with the earthquakes.
After the shocks of December the inhabitants of New Madrid were told by an Indian in the vicinity that the Prophet had “caused the earthquake to destroy the whites.” Even without such reminders, for some whites the onslaught of the first shock brought immediate thought of the Indian menace and the fear of retribution. According to one witness on a flatboat forty miles below New Madrid, who gave one of several such descriptions:
The first shock took plnce in the night, while the boat was lying at the shore in company with several others. At this period there was danger apprehended from the southern Indians, it being soon after the battle of Tippecanoe. and for safety several boats kept in company. … In the middle of the night there was a terrible shock and jarring of the boats, so that the crews were ail awakened and hurried on deck with their weapons … thinking the Indians were rushing on board. …
Tecumseh clearly recognized the potential usefulness of the earthquakes for his purposes. The white captive John Dunn Hunter recalled his speech as he moved among the Osages on his return trip from the South early in 1812, still ignorant of Tippecanoe:
Brothers …The Great Spirit is angry with our enemies; he speaks in thunder, and the earth swallows up villages, and drinks up the Mississippi. The great waters will cover their lowlands; their corn cannot grow; and the Great Spirit will sweep those who escape to the hills from the earth with his terrible breath.
These words also reached forward in time, expressing an “eschatological vision,” in the words of Hunter’s able editor, Richard Drinnon, that “was a direct anticipation of the Ghost Dance religion decades later.” James Mooney demonstrated long ago that the Ghost Dance doctrine of Wovoka and Sitting Bull was “only the latest of a series of Indian religious revivals” reaching back more than a century and rooted in a dream of redemption “common to all humanity” vhen “crushed and groaning beneath an alien yoke.” The Day of Judgment, made so immediate for many whites by the earthquakes, had its counterpart among Indians who shared in the great religious revival of their time. For Tecumseh, a genuine Arthurian figure in this catastrophic tradition, the earthquakes were a signal that the Great Spirit had finally taken a decisive hand in the affairs of his people. The Indian-White Armageddon was at hand.
George Morgan’s town never became a great metropolis, the rival of any city in the world; instead its fate was to give its name to the catastrophe that destroyed its hopes. Perhaps because they were so soon forgotten in the rush of events, the earthquakes inspired few pieces of creative literature, one of them an epic poem by Henry Schoolcraft, later a leading expert on Indians. The poem, entitled Transallegania, or the Groans of Missouri (1820), is interesting, nonetheless, because it too seized on the theme of retribution for the usurper. In this fanciful account the vast tide of immigration to the West aroused the ire of the King of the Metals, who called all his subjects, the ores and minerals of the earth, to a council in a subterranean chamber to consult on a course of action. The debate became noisy and heated:
The poem sank, like New Madrid, into quiet obscurity.