When The Mississippi Flowed North: The 1811 New Madrid Earthquake
—Hurricane Florence Recalls North America’s Worst Natural Disaster
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
By fleeing inland to the mountains ahead of waves of other refugees last month, my wife LaVon and I narrowly avoided the catastrophe inflicted upon our coast by Hurricane Florence. Among the scenes of dislocation, loss and despair that met our eyes as we precariously wound our way homeward after two weeks as refugees at the home of our daughter Hope was that of boatloads of our fellow citizens being evacuated from their rooftops, their homes inundated by muddy floodwaters. While we found our home much as we had left it, many others were not so fortunate. Two families we know had their homes destroyed by Florence. Others fared even worse. A few did not live to tell their tales.
As LaVon observed, in the past we have seen the consequences of natural disasters on the news, but they always involved people in other states and communities, other parts of the globe. This time, it was our town, our mayor, our governor, our stores, beaches and neighborhoods that were being highlighted by round the clock news reports.
Despite mankind’s sophistication and the presumption that technology will solve every problem, recent disasters like Hurricane Florence, exacerbated by rising sea levels and an ever more erratic climate, serve to remind us that we are as vulnerable as ever to nature’s temper tantrums. The latest tsunami to strike the coast of Indonesia, the seemingly non-stop overflow of Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano, and recent reports of tornadoes, typhoons, earthquakes and epidemics, all serve to remind us that nature always has the last word. Such has always been the case. While natural disasters struck North America long before even the first Proto-Indians traversed Beringia from Siberia to Alaska, nothing in recorded history equals the great New Madrid earthquake of 1811.
As the year 1811 wore on, dire and portentous events occurred, impressing some as fore warnings of an approaching calamity. In January, a small earthquake struck Columbia, South Carolina. With the arrival of summer, a massive flood swept the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, accompanied by the most intense heat wave ever experienced, triggering a drought that destroyed crops throughout the infant United States. With the approach of autumn, an epidemic of bilious fever struck the area. Hurricanes and tornadoes hit the east coast from Georgia to Maine in the fall.
Beginning in September, a great comet blazed across the heavens, and on the 17th there was a nearly complete eclipse of the sun. Most astonishing of all, was a massive migration of squirrels from their northern woodland homes. By tens of thousands, they scurried relentlessly southward in their frenzied race, many drowning as they crossed the Ohio River. It has often been observed that livestock behave nervously and dogs begin to howl before an earthquake strikes. This was a summer of nervous cows and howling dogs.
Most inexplicable was the prophecy of the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh. Tecumseh had met with great success in uniting many of the northern and southern Native American nations into one vast confederacy with which to defend their ever shrinking lands from waves of greedy, unscrupulous white men. Many Potawatami, Kickapoo, Winnebago, Shawnee, Miami, Wyandot, and Piankeshaw had united with a scattering of Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee, Seminole and even a few Sioux and Iroquois to answer Tecumseh’s call to arms.
The most optimistic dreamed of driving the hated white usurpers back into the sea from whence they had emerged. And yet, there were many among the so-called “civilized” tribes of the South who withheld their support, mistakenly assuming that they had so completely adopted the white man’s ways that they would be spared his insatiable appetite for ever more Indian lands.
The council fires burned late one dark night in 1811 at Tuckahabatchee, a prominent center of the Creek Nation of Alabama. Despite reminders that Tecumseh’s name meant Shooting Star—Panther in the Sky—and despite the great leader’s accurate prediction of the appearance of the great comet of 1811, a cosmic spectacle lighting up the sky with its 100 million mile trail visible for 260 nights, many in his audience remained unconvinced.
In exasperation, Tecumseh spoke these words, “You do not believe that the Great Spirit has sent me. You shall know! I will leave Tuckahabatchee directly and shall go straight to Detroit. When I arrive there, I will stamp my foot on the ground and shake down every house in Tuckahabatchee!”
Upon Tecumseh’s return to Detroit on December 16, 1811 there occurred the worst natural disaster to strike North America in recorded history. Dwarfing even the more recent destruction caused by hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, Sandy, Ike, Michael and Florence, or the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, the New Madrid Earthquake, caused an unparalleled wave of devastation throughout the South and the Midwest.
The 400 inhabitants of New Madrid, Missouri were awakened on that December morning by a violent shaking of the earth. Stretching out from its epicenter, a series of eight magnitude eight earthquakes, accompanied by thousands of aftershocks, caused damage as far away as Columbia, South Carolina and Washington, DC. Church bells were set to ringing in Boston, and adobe structures crumbled in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In many parts of the country, survivors described cracks opening in the earth’s surface. In Mississippi, entire islands sank. In some areas, the ground itself seemed to roll in great ocean-like waves.
Sinks and landslides covered an estimated 78,000 square miles, while monster waves on the Mississippi sank many boats and lifted others high up onto surrounding banks. During the first quake, chimneys and houses collapsed even in Cincinnati, Ohio. The two severe aftershocks that followed six hours later created even more havoc. Most shocking of all, huge waves caused by the quake’s opening and closing fissures on the bottom of the river created the impression that the Father of Waters had actually reversed itself and was flowing north.
Among the consequences of the quakes was the unearthing of a grisly crime, the murder of a helpless slave at the hands of Lilburne and Isham Lewis, two shady nephews of Thomas Jefferson, who, experiencing failure after failure had relocated to a plantation in western Kentucky. Drunk and, in all probability psychotic, Lilburne beheaded a terrified, helpless slave named George with an ax while in a rage over a broken pitcher. In an attempt to conceal his crime, he and his brother ordered their surviving slaves, horror-stricken witnesses to the crime, to help dismember the corpse and burn the parts in the fireplace. Amidst this macabre scene, the earthquake hit, causing the fireplace to crumble, preserving George’s remains.
Arrested and charged with murder, the brothers opted for a suicide pact, aiming their flintlock rifles at one another. Fearing a misfire and attempting to demonstrate how to pull off the deed by himself, Lilburne accidentally blew his own head off. Isham, arrested and charged as an accessory, escaped from jail and was never seen again. The incident serves as yet another stark reminder of the rampant sadism of the American frontier.
On January 23, 1812, a second gigantic quake struck the area, centered in Arkansas, and on February 2, still another hit, every bit as severe, if not worse, than its predecessors. One section of land near the Kentucky-Tennessee border simply sank, and water flowed into it creating Reelfoot Lake. The air was so filled with smoke and dust following each quake that the sun appeared in a reddish haze. Thousands of acres of forest and farmland were destroyed, creating a vast wasteland. Finally, as Tecumseh had warned, the hapless village of Tuckahabatchee collapsed upon itself.
Across America, many persons recoiled in superstitious horror, concluding that the destruction was God’s punishment for mankind’s sins, and zealous preachers converted many souls. Congress passed the first disaster relief act in US history in1812, the New Madrid Relief Act.
Tecumseh’s role in the incident continues to baffle. To attribute his threat to mere coincidence taxes the imagination. Perhaps, living close to nature and being aware of its nuances enabled him to sense the impending calamity. We can be certain only that upon returning from his southern sojourns, Tecumseh found Prophetstown, the main Native American settlement along the Tippicanoe River in Indiana Territory, demolished by William Henry Harrison’s troops.
Having no options, Tecumseh convinced his followers to align themselves with Great Britain as the War of 1812 approached, having been promised a vast Indian homeland in the Old Northwest should the British win the war. Tecumseh was given the rank of brigadier general, commander of all His Majesty’s Native American troops, and his men fought bravely and successfully, winning major battles at Michilimackinac, Detroit, the River Raisin and elsewhere.
The war in the old Northwest went sideways, however, after the British and their Indian allies failed to dislodge the defenders of Fort Meigs, near present day Toledo, Ohio, during two fierce sieges and again at Fort Stephanson, now Fremont, Ohio. Afterward, the British had no recourse but to fire their stronghold at Fort Malden, Ontario and begin a wearisome retreat eastward along Canada’s Thames River. Their supply lines from the east were severed by Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory in the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813.
A doomed attempt to make a stand at the Delaware Indian settlement of Moraviantown, Ontario on October 5 resulted in the death of Tecumseh and the scattering of his forces. In the end, the United States and Great Britain considered the war a draw, and signed the Treaty of Paris in January, 1815.
The question lingers as to whether another earthquake of the magnitude of 1811 could strike central North America again. According to seismologists, it could, and, given the current population density of the area, its consequences would be far worse than those in 1811.
One thing is painfully obvious; whether by earthquake, tornado, volcano or hurricane, Mother Nature always has the last laugh.