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The History of Southeast Missouri, published in 1888 by the Goodspeed Publishing Company includes the following account of the greatest known earthquake in North America

The New Madrid Earthquake of 1811-1812
 

"In 1811 and 1812 the inhabitants of New Madrid District experienced a series of the most terrific earthquakes that have ever occurred on the American continent. The best account of these fearful convulsions that could be obtained is given in the following letter, written to Rev. Lorenzo Dow:

"NEW MADRID TERRITORY, MISSOURI, March 22, 1816.
Dear Sir: In compliance with your request, I will now give you a history, as full in detail as the limits of a letter will permit, of the awful visitation of Providence in this place and its vicinity.

"On the 16th of December, 1811, about 2 o'clock A.M., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise, resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere with sulphurous vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go or what to do, the cries of the fowls and the beasts of every species, the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi, the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing, as is supposed, to an eruption in its bed, formed a scene truly terrible. From that time until about sunrise a number of lighter shocks occurred, at which time one still more violent than the first took place, with the same accompaniments, and the terror which had been excited in every one, and indeed in all animal nature, was now, if possible, doubled. The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country, supposing (if it can be admitted that their minds were exercised at all) that there was less danger at a distance from than near the river. In one person, a female [Mrs. Lafont], the alarm was so great that she fainted, and could not be revived. There mere severa1 shocks a day, but lighter than those already mentioned, until the 23d of January, 1812, when one occurred, as violent as the severest of the former ones, accompanied by the same phenonema as the former. From this time until the 4th of February the earth was in a continual agitation, visibly waving as a gentle sea. On that day there was another shock, nearly as hard as the preceding ones; next day four such, and on the 7th, about 4 o'clock A. M., a concussion took place, so much more violent than those which had preceded it, that it was denominated the hard shock. The awful darkness of the atmosphere which, as formerly, was saturated with sulphurous vapor, and the violence of the tempestuous thundering noise that accompanied it, together with all the other phenomena mentioned as attending the former ones, formed a scene, the description of which would require the most sublimely fanciful imagination. At first the Mississippi seemed to recede from its banks, and its water gathered up like a mountain, leaving, for a moment, many boats which were here on their way to New Orleans, on the bare sand, in which time the poor sailors made their escape from them. It then rising fifteen or twenty feet perpendicularly, and expanding, as it were, at the same moment, the bank overflowed with a retrograde current rapid as a torrent. The boats, which before had been left on the sand, were now torn from their moorings, and suddenly driven up a little creek, at the mouth of which they laid, to the distance, in some instances of nearly a quarter of a mile. The river, falling immediately as rapidly as it had risen, receded within its banks again with such violence that it took with it whole groves of young cottonwood trees which ledged its borders.

"They were broken off with such regularity in some instances that persons who had not witnessed the fact would with difficulty be persuaded that it had not been the work of art. A great many fish were left on the bank, being unable to keep pace with the water. The river was literally covered with the wrecks of boats, and it is said that one was wrecked in which there was a lady and six children, all of whom were lost.

"In all the hard shocks mentioned the earth was horribly torn to pieces, the surface of hundreds of acres was from time to time covered over of various depths by the sand which issued from the fissures which were made in great numbers all over the country, some of which closed up immediately after they had vomited forth their sand and water, which, it must be remarked, were the substances generally thrown up. In some places, however, there was a substance resembling stone-coal or impure stone-coal thrown up with the sand. It is impossible to say what the depth of these fissures or irregular breaks were. We have reason to believe that some were very deep. The site of this town was evidently settled down at least fifteen feet, and not more than half a mile below the town there does not appear to be any alteration in the bank of the river, but back from the river, a small distance, the numerous large ponds, or lakes, which covered a great part of the country, are nearly dried up. The beds of some of these are elevated above their former banks, several feet, producing an elevation often fifteen or twenty feet from their original state, and lately it has been discovered that a lake (Reelfoot Lake) was found on the opposite side of the Mississippi in the Indian country, upward of 100 miles in length, and from one to six miles in width of the depth of from ten to fifty feet. It has communication with the river at both ends, and it is conjectured that it will not be many years before the principle part, if not the whole of the Mississippi will pass that way. We were constrained, by fear of our houses falling, to live twelve or eighteen months after the first shocks in little light camps made of boards; but we gradually became callous and returned to our homes again. Most of those who fled from the country in the time of the hard shocks have returned home. We have felt since their commencement in 1811, and still continue to feel slight shocks occasionally. It is seldom that we are more than a week without feeling one, and sometimes three or four a day. There were two this winter past, much harder than we have felt for two years before, but since then they appear to be lighter than they have ever been, and we begin to hope that erelong they will entirely cease.

"I have now, Sir, finished my promised description of the earthquake, imperfect, it is true, but just as it occurred to my memory, many of the most of the truly awful scenes having occurred three or four years ago. They, of course, are not related with that precision which would entitle it to the character of a full confidence that it is given to a friend. And now, Sir, wishing you all good, I must bid you adieu.
Your humble servant, ELIZA BRYAN.

"The center of disturbance seems to have been in the vicinity of Little Prairie, as it was there the greatest damage was done. Mr. Godfrey Lesieur, then a boy living at that place, wrote a description of the phenomena, from which the following is condensed: The earthquakes spent their greatest force in Pemiscot County. The first shock occurred at 2 o'clock A. M., on December 16, 1811, and was very hard, shaking down log houses, chimneys, etc. It was followed at short intervals by comparatively slight shocks until about 7 o'clock in the morning, when a rumbling noise was heard in the west resembling distant thunder, and in an instant the earth began to shake and totter to such a degree that no one was able to stand or walk. This lasted about one minute, At this juncture the earth was observed to be rolling in waves of a few feet in height, with a visible depression between. Soon the swells were seen to burst, throwing upward large volumes of water, sand, and a species of charcoal, some of which were covered with a substance having a sulphurous odor. When these swells burst, large fissures were formed, running north and south, parallel with each other for miles. The rumbling noise and the waves seemed to come from the west and travel eastward, Slight shocks were felt at intervals until January 23, 1812, when the country was visited by another earthquake, equally as violent as the first, and characterized by the same frightful results. Then it was that the cry arose among the people, “sauze qui peut!" ("save who can"), and all but two families left the country.

"After the terrible shock of the 7th of January slight ones were from time to time experienced, until the 7th of February, when another very severe one, having the same effects as the other occurred, and caused great injury to land, in forming more extensive fissures, sinking high lands, and forming it into lakes, and making deep lakes high land.

It is a remarkable fact that so few casualties occurred during these terrible convulsions. Among the citizens there were but two deaths. Mrs. Lafont died from fright, and Mrs. Jarvis received an injury from the fall of a cabin log, from which she died a few days later. Several stories have been handed down of the curious freaks of the earthquake. One of the most remarkable incidents occurred ten miles below Little Prairie on Pemiscot River. An old man named Culbertson with his family lived on a short bend in the river. About an acre of ground lay between his house and the river, and in this space was situated the well and smokehouse. On the morning of the 16th of December, after the second hard shock had subsided, Mrs. Culbertson started to the well for water and to the smokehouse for breakfast meat, when, to her great astonishment, no well or smokehouse was to be seen. Upon further search, they were both found on the opposite side of the river, and a canoe was necessary to reach them. The swelling of the earth had formed a fissure across the bend wide enough to permit the whole volume of the water to pass through, and the great pressure upon the point thus isolated forced it to the opposite bank, when the next land wave appeared.

"These earthquakes were felt all over the Mississippi Valley, but no serious damage was done beyond a radius of about one hundred miles from Little Prairie. The following letter, written from Cape Girardeau to the Louisiana Gazette, indicates the extent of the damage at that place.

"CAPE GIRARDEAU, February 15, 1812.
The concussions of the earthquake still continue. The shock on the 23d ult. was more severe and longer than that of December 16, and the shock of the 7th inst. was still more violent than any preceding, and lasted longer, perhaps, than any on record (from ten to fifteen minutes-the earth was not at rest for an hour). The ravages of this terrible convulsion have nearly depopulated the district of New Madrid; but few remain to tell the sad tale. The inhabitants have fled in every direction. It has done considerable damage in this place by demolishing chimneys and cracking cellar walls. Some have been driven from their houses, and a number are yet in tents. No doubt volcanoes in the mountains of the west, which have been extinguished for ages, are now reopened.

"The destruction of large areas of previously good land left many persons homeless and landless, who had obtained grants from the Spanish Government or had made entries under the United States. For the relief of such persons Congress, on February 17, 1815, passed a law, providing for the relocation of their claims. Persons who had lost lands to the amount of 160 acres or less were permitted to locate any amount not exceeding one quarter section upon any lands then open for settlement, but relocations of more than one section were not allowed to those who had lost a greater amount. This beneficent act in a great measure failed of its object. The manner of procuring a title under it was tedious and expensive, and the claims in most cases were purchased by speculators and land-sharks, in whose hands they became instruments of fraud."

 

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