Wednesday, March 23, 2011

More New Madrid Earthquake Reports - 200 Years Ago

In the papers of the USGS, I found these published reports on the New Madrid Earthquakes. The publication titled "A Detailed Narrative of the Earthquakes which occurred on the 16th day of December, 1811, and agitated the parts of North America that lie between the Atlantic Ocean and Louisiana; and also a particular account of the other quakings of the earth occasionally felt from that time to the 23d and 30th of January, and the 7th and 16th of February, 1812, and subsequently to the 18th of December, 1813, and which shook the country from Detroit and the Lakes to New-Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Compiled chiefly at Washington, in the district of Columbia," was intended as a report to Congress.

"The beautiful comet which travelled through the northern celestial hemisphere during 1811, had offered itself plainly to view until the approach of the following year. Its elements, as calculated by Nathaniel Bowditch, Esq. and his learned associates, have already been placed before the public eye.

The tremendous storm from the northeast, near the end of December, 1811, began to leeward, near Cape Hatteras, and swept the American coast to the banks of Newfoundland, doing great damage to navigation, and exhibiting some curious facts in the history of the atmosphere. The particulars of this furious and memorable tempest have been collected by myself; and are in readiness to be offered to the society at the first convenient time.

My present intention is to read to you the information I have gathered on another occurrence of those portentous days. I mean the phenomena of the earthquakes, which terrified the country about the same period, and which continued a long time afterwards.

On the morning of Monday, the 16th of December, 1811, several shocks of earthquakes were felt at the city of Washington. The first of these happened at three o'clock; and in some houses was considerable enough to shake the doors and windows, and wake persons from their sleep. There were successive tremors. Tassels of curtains were seen to move; and pitchers of washing-stands were heard to rattle upon their basins. The sound was very distinguishable, and was believed by many to pass from southwest to northeast. The alarm was so great in some families, that searches were made from room to room, to discover the robbers who were imagined to have broken into the houses.

A second shock, though lighter, was experienced about six o'clock, and a third about eight.

A gentleman standing in his chamber at his desk and writing, in the third story of a brick house, upon the Capitol Hill, suddenly perceived his body to be in motion, vibrating backward and forward, and producing dizziness. Not suspecting the moment that the uncomfortable sensation was caused by an earthquake, he examined his desk to know whether it stood firm. Finding that it did, he dropped his pen; and turning his eyes upward, discerned that the looking-glass, and other things hanging near him, were in a similar motion.

Another person was near a table placed beneath a mirror. Feeling a giddiness come upon him, he seized the table for support. The general agitation of the chamber and house ceased in about a minute; but the looking-glass, which was suspended in the usual manner, continued to swing for some seconds longer. These observations, made by Messrs. Bigelow and Mosely, may serve as specimens of a multitude of phenomena of those kinds.

The atmosphere seemed to forebode some unusual occurrence. One of my most correct and respectable friends, declared in conversation, and stated to me in writing, that he made an observation of the sky about ten o'clock that night. It was quite calm. There was not a breath of wind stirring. The air was perfectly clear and free from clouds. Nevertheless, it was uncommonly dark, and the stars which appeared in every part through the gloom, were lurid and dim, and afforded little light.

In Richmond the signs of an earthquake were witnessed by many persons. At three o'clock on the same morning, (the 16th of December,) there were said to be three successive shocks; another about six; and a third about eight. Several people were impressed with a belief that thieves had entered their dwellings; and in one of the most elevated mansions, the bells were set a ringing in both the upper and lower rooms. The noise and concussion were supposed by some to proceed from east to west.

It was stated at Norfolk that two very distinct shocks were felt in that town and in Portsmouth; to wit, at three and eight o'clock in the morning of the 16th. Some clocks were reported to have stopped; the doors rattled; and articles hanging from the ceilings of shops and houses, swung to and fro, although a perfect calm prevailed.

At Raleigh (N.C.) several slight earthquakes were felt on the morning of the 16th December. The first happened between two and three o'clock, and was distinctly perceived by all who were awake at the time. Two others were reported to have occurred between that time and seven o'clock, but were not plainly observed, except by some members of the legislature, who were in the state-house, and were considerably alarmed at the shaking of the building.

From Georgetown, (S.C.) it was told, that several shocks had been experienced between the hours of three and eight, on the morning of the 16th. The inhabitants were much alarmed. The shocks were so considerable, that the parade-ground of the fort was said to have settled from one to two inches below its former level. A tub of water, standing upon a table in the barracks, was reported to have been overset by the jarring of the building. Another severe shock was felt two days afterwards, at noon.

At Columbia, (S.C.) the inhabitants were alarmed by repeated shocks. The first took place at half after two in the morning of Monday, which was represented as shaking the houses as if rocked by the waves of the sea. It was followed, after the cessation of a minute, by three slighter ones. At eight o'clock two others took place, and at ten, some slight ones. The South Carolina college appeared to rock from its foundation, and a part of its plaster fell; which so alarmed the students, that they left the chambers without their clothes. It seemed as if all the buildings would be levelled. The dogs barked; fowls made a racket; and many persons ran about with lights, not knowing where to go, so great was their terror. During the first agitation, it was observed, that the air felt as if impregnated with a vapour, which lasted for some time.

On Tuesday, at a quarter after twelve, another smart shock was experienced. At Laurens and Newbury, in the interior districts, it was so violent as to crack and start several chimnies.

At Charleston (S.C.) the sensation was of considerable strength. One account stated; that on the morning of the 16th, at a few minutes before three o'clock, a severe shock of an earthquake was felt. Its duration conjectured to ahve been between two and three minutes. For an hour previous, though the air was perfectly calm, and several stars visible, there was, at intervals of about five minutes, a rumbling noise like that of distant thunder; which increased in violence of sound just before the shock was felt. The vibrations of St. Philip's steeple caused the clock bell to ring about ten seconds. Two other shocks were felt afterwards, one a little before eight, and the other about a quarter of an hour after. Both these were slighter and shorter than the first. Many of the family clocks were stopped by the concussions. In many wells the water was considerably agitated. From another source it was related that Charleston was shaken by an earthquake severely, at the time before specified. This was preceded by a noise resembling the blowing of a smith's bellows. The agitation of the earth was such that the bells in the church steeples rang to a degree indicative of an alarm for fire. The houses were so much moved that many persons were induced to rise from their beds. The clocks generally stopped. Another slight shock was experienced about fifteen minutes after; and yet another at eight o'clock. This last one produced a considerable rattling among glass, china, and other furniture. A looking-glass hanging against a west wall was observed to vibrate two or three inches from north to south.

The ingenious writer of the meteorological observations for Charleston during December, 1811, has noticed these occurrences in a manner too interesting to be omitted. According to his remarks, there were seven shocks during the month, having a vibratory motion from east to west. In many persons the motion produced nausea. All the shocks, except the last, were preceded by noises resembling the rattling of a carrage over a pavement. There had been less thunder during the preceding season than usual. THe days of thunder amount annually to about sixty; but this year there were no more than thirty-eight. The beautiful comet was visible in the northwest during the whole month.

The inhabitants of Savannah were sensible of four earthquakes. The first was on the morning of the 16th December, between two and three o'clock. It was preceded by a flash of light, and a rattling noise, resembling that of a carriage passing over a paved road. It lasted about a minute. A second soon succeeded, but its duration was shorter. A third happened about eight o'clock; and a fourth about noon on the 17th. Persons who experienced the hardest shock, were made to totter, as if on shipboard. Its course was believed to be from southwest to northeast.

It was observed, by Dr. Macbride of Pineville, (S.C.) that the earthquake terrified the inhabitants exceedingly. It was accompanied by several appearances that countenances the theory of this phenomenon, which brings in the agency of the electric fluid. 1. The unfrequency or absence of thunder storms; that is, they were much less frequent this year than usual, especially in the autumn. 2. Immediately before the earthquake, a red appearance of the clouds, which had much darkened the water for twenty-four hours immediately before the shock; and 3. The loudness of the thunder, and the number of the peals within twenty-four hours after the first shock, and but a few hours before the last, which was felt before he wrote. Such thunder was very unusual at that season.

At Natchez, the occurrences, as related by a careful observer, were as follow: Four shocks were felt on the morning of the 16th. The principal one was at tem minutes after two, A.M. There was no noise, except in a few situations. Several clocks were stopped. Articles, in some instances, fell from shelves. Plastered walls were sometimes cracked. The Mississippi was agitated as if the banks were falling in. The trees in the forests waved their tops. Many houses were shaken considerably. And things suspended on nails or pins swung backwards and forwards.

Information was forwarded from Tennessee, that the earth quaked so violently, as to throw down chimnies, in some places. Eighteen or twenty acres of land, adjacent to Piney river, suddenly fell down, and sunk so low, that the tops of the trees were on a level with the surrounding earth. Four other shocks were experienced on the 17th, and one or more continued daily until the 30th.

At Knoxville, the quaking of the earth on the 16th was represented to have lasted more than three minutes. The rattling of the windows and furniture of the houses were such as to awaken almost every family. This was about two in the morning. It was followed, in half an hour, by another, which continued half a minute. Between sunrise and breakfast, three others were felt, of only a few seconds in duration. At the end of the first and longest shock, there were, in a direction due north, two flashes of light, at the interval of about a minute, very much like distant lightning.

At Columbia, in Tennessee, between two and three o'clock on the morning of the 16th December, the inhabitants were suddenly alarmed by a voilent agitation in the earth. It was accompanied by a peculiar sound, proceeding from southwest to northeast. Immediately after the shock had ceased, a very large volume of something like smoke was discovered to rise in the quarter whence the sound appeared to come; and pursuing nearly the same course, finally settled in the north, exhibiting the appearance of a black cloud. The shock was computed to have continued from ten to fifteen minutes.

At Louisville, (Ken.) near the falls of the Ohio, on Monday morning about three o'clock, a violent shock of an earthquake was felt. It was judged to have continued about three minutes. This was followed by three or four others of less violence. A number of houses suffered considerable damage; the chimnies having been so much cracked as to require repairs by the mason. On the evening previous to the shock, there was a gentle rain, such as we have in April; and the night was rather close and dark; but at the termination of the first shock, it was light enough to enable a pin to be seen..."

More reports to come.


  1. It's interesting to see the reports of how the quakes felt in different places. I had ancestors near several of these locations so they probably experienced something similar.

  2. Thank you for sharing this information. While reading this it occurred to me that we had ancestors in both Knoxville annd Louisville at this time.