Tectonic events like a 5.8 earthquake in California and a volcano eruption in Washington caught our attention. But they failed to match the New Madrid earthquakes of December 1811 to February 2011. 1812 that caused the mighty Mississippi River to briefly recede.
Consider the eyewitness statement of Firmin La Roche, a French fur trader from St. Louis.
The border west of the Mississippi had been sold by France to the United States only eight years before the earthquake. Missouri was a territory, not yet a state.
LaRoche’s account, on file with the Missouri Historical Review, was written in New Orleans on February 2. October 20, 1812, when aftershocks were still frequent. He had just completed a disastrous voyage that began with three flat boats:
sounds like thunder
“I was present for the earthquake that recently occurred above and below the mouth of the Ohio River, along both banks of the Mississippi River.
“I was taking three boats to New Orleans with some furs bought in St. Louis. On the night of December 15, we landed eight miles north of New Madrid near the home of my cousin, John LeClerq.
“With me was Fr. Joseph from the Osages Mission, returning to France — also Jaques Menier, Dominic Berges, Leon Sarpy, Henry Lamel, five other men, and the black slave, Ben, who was murdered in New Madrid.
“After dinner, we went to sleep. I was woken up by a crash like thunder. The boat turned on its side and Lamel, who was sleeping next to it, fell on me. We fell against the side. It was very dark.
“We left the bank in about half an hour, and I looked at my watch. It was 3 o’clock. I could see trees on the bank falling. Large masses of land fell into the river.”
“Lamel cut the rope that tied us to a log. At one point, a wave so big came up the river that I never saw one like it in the sea. It carried us back north, up the river, for more than a mile. The water spread over the banks, covering three or four miles inland.
“It was a receding current. Then this wave stopped and slowly the river turned back to the right.”
“Everywhere there was a noise like thunder. The ground shook the trees. The air was thick with something like smoke. There was a lot of lightning.
“We thought we would surely die. Father Joseph gave absolution. We did not see either of the other two boats. One of them we never saw again, nor do I know if the men in them drowned. We were all in great terror, waiting to die.” .
“Trees were blown down. People said there were big cracks in the ground, some very deep, stretching 10 or 15 miles. “They told us there’s a new lake in Tennessee (Reelfoot) and the waterways have changed. . The Yazoo River has a new mouth.
“I was in great pain with a broken arm. Of those with me, there is none but Father Joseph. My personal loss is $600 (about $12,000 in today’s currency).”
memory of a priest
In an appendix to La Rouche’s account, Father Joseph stated:
“I think there were two big shakes about half an hour apart and a lot of little ones in between and after. The water rose so high that a tree on the bank, the top of which must have been 30 feet above the level of the river, was left behind.” completely covered.
“We saw two houses on fire on the left bank. When we arrived in New Madrid, there were also burning houses there.
“We got to shore at sunrise, and a hickory tree fell on the boat, killing the black guy, Ben, and breaking Chief LaRouche’s left arm.
“We made no effort to find out how many people had died, although we were told there were many. We saw dead bodies of several. Later we saw drowned people floating in the river.
“The loads of skins were dumped into the river by the people who crowded the boat with us until we couldn’t take any more.”
Another eyewitness account (redacted here for brevity) was deposited by New Madrid resident Eliza Bryan four years after the event.
“On December 16, 1811, about 2 a.m., we were visited by a violent shaking of an earthquake. It was accompanied by a very frightful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but hoarser and more vibrating.
“This was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere with sulphurous vapour, causing total darkness.
“Truly horrible were the cries of the frightened inhabitants who ran to and fro, not knowing where to go, what to do, the cries of birds and beasts of all species, the crash of falling trees, and the roar of the Mississippi, which was retrograde for a few minutes.
“The inhabitants fled in all directions, supposing that there was less danger in the distance than near the river.
“There were several daily clashes, lighter, until January 23, 1812. Then, one as violent as the most severe of the previous ones took place.
“From that time until February 4, the earth was in continual turmoil, visibly rippling like a calm sea.
“On February 7, around 4 am, there was a concussion so much more violent than those that had preceded it, that it was called ‘the hard shock.’
“The terrible darkness of the atmosphere saturated with sulphurous vapour, and the violence of the thunderous stormy noise, formed a scene beyond imagination.
“At first, the Mississippi seemed to recede from its banks, its waters gathered like a mountain. For a moment, many ships heading for New Orleans were left on the bare sand. The poor sailors escaped from them.
“The river then rose 15 to 20 feet perpendicularly and expanded. The banks overflowed with the retrograde current. Ships that had been left in the sand were now torn from their moorings.
“The river, falling as rapidly as it had risen, took with it entire groves of aspens. Many fish remained on the banks.
“In all the hard hits, the land was horribly torn apart. Hundreds of acres were covered by the sand that came out of the fissures. In some places, there was a carbon-like substance.
“Lately it has been discovered that a (Reelfoot) lake formed on the opposite side of the Mississippi in Indian Territory (west Tennessee). It is over 100 miles long, one to six miles wide, and depths from 10 to 50 feet .
“For 18 months, we were limited by the fear that our houses would collapse from the continuous impacts, so we lived in small, light camps. Some people fled never to return, but most returned.”
giant earth fault
The US Geological Survey classifies the three major earthquakes in the central Mississippi Valley in the winter of 1811-12 as “the most powerful in US history.”
There were no seismographs then. However, the extent of the ground changes indicate three closely related earthquakes: magnitudes of 8 or greater on the ten-fold point Richter seismograph scale.
The most powerful earthquake on record is the Richter 8.4 for the 1964 Alaska earthquake.
USGS says: “Earthquakes in the central United States affect much larger areas than earthquakes of similar magnitude in the western US.
“The 1906 San Francisco, California earthquake (magnitude 7.8) was felt 350 miles away. The first New Madrid earthquake rang church bells in Boston, Massachusetts, a thousand miles away.”
New Madrid in 1811 consisted of 400 log cabins. St. Louis and Memphis were small towns. “If a Category 8 earthquake were to occur today, those cities would be mostly destroyed and thousands of people would die,” the USGS says.
Last year, 470 measurable earthquakes were recorded in the central Mississippi Valley.
USGS Warning: “The probability of a magnitude 6 to 7 earthquake occurring in the New Madrid seismic zone within the next 50 years is greater than 90 percent.”
Which is worse: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, mudslides, volcanoes, or earthquakes?