Landslide scarps in Chickasaw Bluffs, east of Reelfoot Lake, created by the New Madrid earthquake are still visible in 1904 (Fuller). (Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)
J. Mark Lowe
The residents of Kentucky, Tennessee and beyond were shaken by the events beginning early on the morning of the 15th of December, 1811. Their inability to watch an instant newscast of the action or even know what happened for days fueled much misinformation. The earthquakes of 1811-12 that destroyed New Madrid, Missouri and made Reelfoot Lake did considerable damage along the Mississippi river. These earthquakes shook the whole country. One of the worst occurred Dec. 15, 1811, at night, the shocks being felt about every 15 minutes. The navigable rivers were thrown into convulsions, and a number of boats were lost. Muddy logs from the bottom of the stream were thrown to the surface and became so thick that they impeded the passage of boats. Great sections of earth along the Mississippi river sunk, and islands were rent asunder and disappeared. Trees were twisted and lashed together. The earthquake was accompanied by a tremendous distant noise, resembling thunder. These disturbances occurred at intervals for some time and were very alarming to the people. This account by an unknown resident of Springfield [Tennessee] to his brother was found in a newspaper.
City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, Washington DC, 11 January 1812.
(Extract of a letter from a gentleman in Springfield (Tennessee) to his brother in Washington City [DC] dated December 16, 1811.
“We have since yesterday morning about two o’clock experienced one of the most sublime, grand and awful scenes perhaps on record: The night of the 15th, being remarkably dark and cloudy, accompanied by a stillness of the air equal to the silence of the tombs; a little past two o’clock, Mrs. (--), and myself, being awake, there appeared to be a rustling of something similar to wind at a distance; we were however, soon undeceived by a rattling of things in the house, and then a sensible rocking of the same, to a very great degree --- I made up a light as soon as possible and opened the door, more effectually to discover the cause; when to my utter amazement, there was a perfect calm, and nothing but an agitated rolling of the earth from southwest to northeast; this continued, I think from seven to ten minutes; after which the convulsions of nature, appeared to cease for about forty or fifty minutes, when a second shock, tho’ much lighter than the former, alarmed us if possible, more than the first – An interval then took place till about sunrise, when another shock equal I believe to the first gave us fresh alarm. I walked out into the yard, with difficulty could stand steady; saw the earth under my feet, oscillate, as plainly as I ever saw the pendulum of a clock, for some minutes; it then stopped, and was followed by three or four more in succession, for the space of thirty or forty minutes, since then we have had six light shocks – It is now one o’clock at night; we are in dread of other returns before morning. The consternation we are all in has prevented any speculative conjecture – I a now by myself, and will hazard to you my opinion – I think, from the short time I have had to reflect on the course of this phenomena of nature, that it must be owing to one of two causes, viz., either Orleans or New Mexico, or some large tract of land, surrounding the Gulf, has sunk, a similar circumstance, in all human probability, having formed the Gulf, previous to any historical account of this continent – or the other, which I think more improbable, that the Comet, in its ellipsis, forming so near a parallel with the sun and earth and adding its attractive force to that of the Sun, has had this wonderful effect – This in my mind is mere hypothesis. One thing I know, we have felt the effects, in some degree, and I wish some able philosopher to ascertain the cause, if possible.
The following excerpt was written by Judge John Haywood :
The day before the first earthquake, was darkened from morning to night by thick fog; and divers persons perceived a sulphurous scent. The wind ceased, and there was a dead calm, without the least breath of air, on the day of the earthquake. The like calm preceded all the shocks. A dull and heavy obscuration of the atmosphere also usually preceded them. The effluvia, which caused the dimness of the day, seemed to be neither cloud nor smoke, yet resembling both. It was too light for clouds, and too thin for common smoke, and of a lighter cast. It seldom terminated in condensation, a Tennessee vapors usually do
In the time of the earthquakes, lights were seen in the night, sometimes westwardly, like the light of the sun before it is closed by the darkness of the night; but shooting much farther toward the east, and continuing much longer than the light of the sun after setting. And sometimes in the night, the heavens would seem to be tinged with a reddish color, supposed to be the effect of invisible effluvia issuing through the pores of the earth, and collecting above us like smoke in the spring, a which rises from log-heaps and brush-heaps, and shows itself like light at a distance.
In the time of the earthquake, a murmuring noise, like that of fire disturbed by the blowing of a bellows, issued from the pores of the earth. A distant rumbling was heard, almost without intermission, and sometimes seemed to be in the air. Explosions, like the discharge of a cannon at a few miles distance, were heard; and at night flashes of lightning seemed sometimes to break from the earth.
In some places west of the Mississippi, a troublesome warmth of the earth was perceptible to the naked feet.
The frightened horses ran snorting in the fields, the hogs squealed; the dogs barked; and the fowls descended from their roosts. In the time of the shocks, many persons experienced a nauseating sickness at the stomach, and a trembling of the knees.
Sources: City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, 11 January 1812; Earthquakes in Missouri, 1913; History of Tennessee, Haywood.