1811 - 1812


Researched & written by: Esther M. Ziock Carroll

16 December 2011 marked the 200th anniversary of the violent & devastating earthquakes of southeast Missouri or Upper Louisiana as it was called then. These were the most powerful quakes ever to hit the eastern United States in recorded history.  They occurred along the ancient three to fifteen mile deep, 150 mile long New Madrid Fault Zone.  This fault zone crosses the Mississippi River in three places & threatens seven states:  Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee & Mississippi.

This series of catastrophic quakes & thousands of aftershocks happened over a period of three months.  Three of the quakes, the first 16 December 1811, the second in January, 1812, & the third in February, 1812, were estimated at over eight on the Richter scale & shook the entire United States. Strong aftershocks continued into March.  Lesser after shocks continued into the year 1817. 

The area in which these tremors could be felt covered approximately one million square miles & were felt as far away as Washington, D.C., New York City & Quebec, Canada.  They altered the topography more than any other quake on the North American continent.   New lakes were created, hills were raised, river courses changed, whole forests were reduced to matchsticks.  It was estimated that 150,000 acres of timber were destroyed & 3.5 million acres of land became unfit for farming.  The mighty Mississippi River even ran backwards for awhile.  The shocks were also felt far up the Missouri River however the areas west of the Mississippi were so few & sparsely settled at that time that most of the information & eye witness accounts available are of the Mississippi River area & east. 

The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 were preceded by the appearance of Tecumseh's Comet. Perhaps an omen? Days before the earthquakes began people also noticed strange behavior by animals who became excited & nervous.  Snakes came out of the ground, wild animals became tame & tame animals became wild.  People were bewildered & could not even begin to imagine of what was about to happen............

Early in the morning, about 2:00 a.m. on December 16, 1811 the first of a series of quakes struck, awaking southeast Missouri residents from their cozy, peaceful sleep with violent shaking & a tremendous roar. This was the beginning of a three month long nightmare. Eyewitness accounts state that the ground convulsed rolling in visible waves three to four feet high & cracks opened in the earth's surface large enough to swallow live stock.  Loud explosions & distant thunder could be heard.  Indians were terrified & told of the falling of rocks, trees & lights of fire.  It was reported that seven Indians were shaken into the Mississippi River & other Indians perished when their village was flooded & all inhabitants drowned.  In an attempt to escape many Indians traveled up river frequently having to cut down trees to cross over the chasms in the earth.  Some Indians reported that they had discovered a volcano at the head of the Arkansas.  A large group of Indians gathered together & held a religious ceremony praying to the Great Spirit to have mercy upon them.

Other people related about river banks that caved in sinking hundreds of acres of land & the whole valley of the Mississippi was violently agitated.  The Mississippi River became covered with foam & large waves moving upstream gave the appearance of it flowing backwards for several hours. Sand bars & whole islands disappeared.  The water turned black & the level of the river rose & dropped suddenly.  Boats were swamped, cargoes & crew were destroyed. Fish were left stranded on the banks & the river was covered with wrecks of boats, logs, & trees. Long submerged sawyers rose to the surface.  Spouts of air burst through the waters spewing mud & sticks from the river bed up to at least 30 feet above the surface.  One man on the Mississippi River swears that he saw the river cut in two & river water poured into an enormous chasm.  Other people stated that there were very dangerous falls/rapids in several places in the river. Whirlpools or "sucks" as they were called were sighted near New Madrid in February 1812. Many people went missing, either drowned or swallowed up by the earth.

The atmosphere was saturated with a sulphurous vapor which caused total darkness, log cabins rocked, chimneys toppled & sand blows were common. Large hissing fissures suddenly opened spewing sand, coal & golf ball sized tar balls & carbonized wood up to 15 feet in the air.  The fissures swallowed river & marsh water & as they closed again mud & sand were ejected with the water.  Flashes of electricity could be seen through the clouds.

In the town of St. Louis, which at that time was largely rural & covered an area of only 7.63 square miles, it's 1,200 inhabitants, all mostly in the rock-based Laclede's Landing area, were awakened by violent shocks, the clatter of their homes shaking & a distant rumbling noise which continued to increase.  The initial shock lasted almost two minutes.  Aftershocks lasted for a few seconds to several minutes.  Frequent gleams & flashes of light in all directions were observed.  The sky was obscured by a thick, hazy fog.  There was no wind. It became unusually warm for the season with houses & fences covered with what appeared to be a white frost but was actually vapor. Many houses were severely damaged, a few stone houses were split & some chimneys thrown down.

At Herculaneum a roaring sound was heard & houses began to rock violently for maybe ten to twelve minutes. The Mississippi River bubbled like boiling water & in a few minutes the air was filled with smoke or fog.  Later shocks damaged brick & stone chimneys with some of them being cracked to their bases.

Dr. Robertson who resided at Ste. Genevieve at the time kept count of the shocks until he passed 500 then stopped as he had grown tired of counting.

Cape Girardeau reported brick houses being split & chimneys damaged.

At the town of New Madrid  the screams of many confused & terrified settlers & the cries of birds flying in every direction & wild animals in panic & the cracking & splitting sounds of thousands of falling trees could be heard.  Houses of brick, stone & log were torn to pieces, frame houses toppled onto their sides & cellar walls were cracked.  The ground seemed to never stop shaking.  Settlers abandoned their homes & camped out in the open while others fled to the mountains or left the area completely. G. H. Crist stated "If we do not get away from here the ground is going to eat us alive....we are all about to go crazy from pain & fright." The town was eventually entirely destroyed when it sank so low that the tree tops could barely be seen above the river water. 

Some areas of southeast Missouri were left with stagnant lakes & ponds where whole farms had sunk several feet & filled with fetid water.  Some springs stopped running while others became muddy.  A dense, black cloud of vapor hung over the earth & partially hid the sun from view in the daytime & made the nights especially dark.  People complained of nausea, vomiting & debility. The weather oscillated from oppressive heat to severe cold.  Many people believed that the end of the world was near.  G.H. Crist stated ".......we was banged up & some of us knocked out for awhile & blood was everywhere."  One man stated that he thought Judgment Day had arrived until he realized that the Day of Judgment wouldn't come in the middle of the night. Henry Schoolcraft wrote: "the rivers boiled like a pot over coals, & mortals fell prostrate, & prayed for their souls."   A cry went up among the terrified people, "sauze qui peut!" ("save who can") as they fled for their lives. One witness described it as, "Merciful God!  What a horrid situation."

Lately, seismic activity has been increasing all over the world.  The New Madrid fault remains active & if another quake or series of quakes of this magnitude should occur today in modern times the damage & loss of life would be astronomical. It would affect millions of people in seven states & would be the worst natural disaster in American history.  Buildings & bridges would collapse, gas lines would break, highways would be unusable & phone lines would go down.   Loss of life could reach the hundreds of thousands & damage could go into the billions.  The probability of a recurrence of "The Big One" increases as each year goes by.  Many scientists believe we are already overdue.................

SOURCES: Wikipedia; Dept. of Geology-Earthquake Information Pages; USGS Missouri Earthquake History; The Virtual Times;  The Early History of St. Louis & Missouri;  A Detailed Narative of the Earthquakes which occurred on the 16th day of December, 1811;  The Enigma Of The New Madrid Earthquakes;  The Messenger;  Nuttli's Papers On The New Mardrid Earthquakes;  Louisiana Gazette; New York Evening Post;  St. Louis University Earthquake Center; The Next New Madrid Earthquake;  The New Madrid Earthquakes Revised Edition; Historic Earthquakes; Is the New Madrid Fault Earthquake Zone Coming to Life?; On Shaky Ground;  Earthquakes & The New Madrid Fault Line; Center For Earthquake Research & Information; The Southeast Missiourian; The Reelfoot Rift;  Shocking Geology Of The New Madrid Seismic Zone Revealed; Origins Of The New Madrid Fault; City Of New Madrid, Missouri; Gideon Seniors 1959 Shake, Rattle & Roll; History of Southeast Missouri by Douglas; History of Southeast Missouri by Goodspeed.




There are many old fault lines in Missouri. One of the New Madrid fault lines passes through St. Francois County, Missouri near Farmington.  I have been told that there are some in Washington County, Missouri as well.  Since log cabins were thrown down & chimneys toppled in St. Louis, & Washington & St. Francois counties are between New Madrid & St. Louis I think it is safe to assume that these counties were significantly  affected by these historic quakes.

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I have been through several earthquakes - one in Acapulco, Mexico back in the late 1950's or early 1960's (slept through that one!) It was not severe but was enough to panic a few people & send them fleeing into the streets. Thank goodness it was a mild one as Acapulco has had numerous severe quakes where people were killed & parts of the area fell into the ocean including the road near the motel where we stayed.  We were staying on the 3rd floor of a motel that was on a bluff overlooking the ocean at the time of this quake which was in the middle of the night.

I have also been through two quakes in St. Louis County Missouri in the 1960's.  The first one rattled the lamps in the house. The second one in about 1968 I was taking a nap & the bed shaking woke me up.  When I jumped out of bed the floor was shaking too!  I ran to the window to look outside & saw the trees shaking & could hear a low distant rumble.  A few seconds later it was over. It put some small cracks in our drive-way & some cracks in the seam where the walls meet the ceiling in our home.  Other than that there was no damage. 



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