A series of giant earthquakes within the continental interior is strange in itself, but other notable phenomena associated with the New Madrid, Missouri quakes of 1811-2 made the events preternaturally awful. In this piece, I explore the scary and weird features that were said to accompany the New Madrid earthquakes.
The Great Comet was discovered in March of 1811 and, as the year went on, it figured prominently in peoples’ thoughts as it became more visible. While a few considered it favorable, more people thought it a bad omen of things to come. In December, in New Madrid, Missouri, the comet was mentioned as visible when the first of a series of great earthquakes hit. The blazing feature in the sky was far from the only awe-inspiring aspect of nature that would be on display that winter in this frontier town.
Early in the morning (2 AM) of December 16, 1811, the residents of the small Mississippi river town were awakened by the rumbling earth. They ran out of their houses and attempted to keep warm until the cold day dawned. The daylight brought another shock as people observed the ground rolling like ocean waves. On the river, the waves were huge, overtopping fishing boats and casting vessels upon the shore. Those boats that dared to traverse the roiling current of the river were in constant peril from the floating trees, debris, subsided sand bars, and collapsing cliffs.
The shocks continued regularly but eventually diminished. Another large quake like the first happened on January 23, 1812. Another two weeks after that the worst came. On February 7, several shocks, including the largest, hit. For days after, shuddering aftershocks were nearly constant. A year later, the small events continued, but by this time, people had either moved away or had grown used to them. Thousands of aftershocks occurred in total.
The area was sparsely inhabited so, surprisingly, few people died. Brick structures, which were uncommon except for chimneys, faired worse than wood buildings. Though the exact number can never be known, some people died from house collapses, one man died by falling into soft ground, and at least six from the caving banks. Many more drowned or were never found, including countless (and uncounted) indigenous people. We don’t dare imagine what the consequences would be today of such a calamity. The US has not experienced a geologic cataclysm of such size and widespread impact since then.
There were many spooky characteristics associated with the New Madrid quakes of 1811-2. Stories about them have grown to mythic proportions. Here I attempt a summary of some of the notable features of these quakes and try to clarify the probable truth of the tales.
To preface these claims, it’s crucial to understand that communication in the early 1800s was primitive. Even though the eastern states knew something odd had happened in the west, they had no information that a series of earthquakes were the cause. The lack of good records makes it very difficult to tell which accounts were true and which were misinterpreted, embellished, or manufactured. With the exception of a few personal journals, the stories were recorded years later. The first professional study by the USGS was not until 1912, one hundred years later. In short order, the original claims grew tall in the telling. We really have no way to discern the accuracy of most of the descriptions provided by obviously panicked witnesses who had never experienced such a thing before and where there was little physical evidence of the phenomena left behind, though some geological remnants of the upheaval still exist.
In recent times, geologists have discovered that large quakes had previously occurred in this seismically active zone before 1811. But the new settlers to the land had no idea about earthquakes or what was about to break upon them. There was only one suggestion of a precursor. William Leigh Pierce, who was traveling down the Mississippi, described that on the 30th of November 1811 “two electrical columns shot up from the eastern horizon”. Then the air for the next two weeks was hazy. Pierce’s account (in the notes appendix for The Year: A Poem, in Three Cantoes) does not mention where this observation took place. He would have had to be to the west of New Madrid even though he was traveling from Pittsburgh (from north and east). He notes a corroborating observation from William Duval in “Charleston” on the Ohio. This report is certainly intriguing, but it is confusing. Even though Pierce suggests such atmospheric precursors were common, they aren’t. His report is flimsy evidence to support the reality of a highly strange observation.
From earth’s abyss electric flashes pour’dThe Year, Canto 1, Part IV
Enough chaos and weirdness would soon manifest for all to experience.
The quakes had the most devastating effects in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois. The area near the intersection of these states would later be labeled as the New Madrid Seismic Zone. There were no scientific seismographs at this time in history, however. Judging by the damage accounts, the quakes were estimated to be of magnitudes between 7 and 8. But because they were in the continental crust, the energy transmitted great distances. The quakes were felt as far north as Montreal, Canada and to South Carolina.
The land in the town of New Madrid was mostly underlain by unconsolidated river deposits. Eyewitnesses claimed the land surface rose and fell, undulating in terrifying waves, throwing people to the ground. At the wave peaks, the earth would “burst” out soil, sand, water, and pieces of shaly coal. Trees toppled and sank into the ground. Swaths of forest land subsided; drowned trees left a conspicuous reminder of the quake damage for decades. Land slides moved down the valleys. The mass movement of large swaths of land reportedly moved a man’s well 20 yards from his house. The river bluffs collapsed into the water rendering boats moored near shore prone to being crushed. River islands and sand bars flowed away as the saturated sand “liquified” during the extended shaking.
In the epicenter zones, rivers and streams changed courses, moving into newly sunken valleys or meandering around uplifts. There was widespread flooding.
Hundreds of kilometers away, people in other states felt the swaying and some even became ill from the sensation. Doors swung open and closed. Windows rattled.
Fissuring of the surface was common and widespread. The dramatic claims about soil cracks included that they emitted steam, hissing, and swallowed people and livestock. The soil cracked as the surface waves moved past. Or the land surface down-faulted in narrow strips leaving scarps or troughs. Dramatic reports described the rolling land swells burst with water and sand (“bursting of the swells”), leaving fissures as the motion passed. This could be true or could be conflated with sand blows (see below).
Contrary to claims and fears, the fissures were not bottomless and did not swallow people. There was no instance documented of a person falling into a crevasse and lost. Mostly they were only a few inches wide and shallow. The soil rifts filled up quickly with loose material and water, but the disruptions of the surface made travel by wagon far more difficult in the coming months. Many of the fissures were preserved by infilling of sand and later studied. The depth of the open fissures was typically a foot to several feet but no greater than 20 ft.
Sand blows and extrusions
A surprising and violent behavior attributed to the quakes were sand blows – eruptions of loose sand and organic matter pushed to the surface forming round craters. The widespread sand blows occurred in low alluvial lands where the loose saturated sand from the subsurface was ejected upwards by the pressure of the shaking.
Extrusions of the subsurface material were accompanied by loud explosions and whistling. The material was reported to be ejected up to 15 ft high. Along with the loose sediment came rotting vegetation, bits of coal, and occasional large fragments including part of the skull of an extinct musk ox.
While some of the extrusions were propelled by gases or pressure, some soft sediments were squeezed out as the pressures readjusted. In places, the extrusions were more gentle as water suddenly flowed from the ground where there previously wasn’t a spring. Releases of water and gas continued as the subsurface pressures readjusted for a while after the quake.
The upwelling and movement of the soft saturated sediment almost certainly produced a “quicksand” situation in places where trees sunk into the ground.
The sand blows remain noticeable today in New Madrid as a remnant of the great quakes. The sandy areas resist vegetation. Geologists excavate trenches looking for the feeder veins for sand blows that resemble small sand volcanoes. Sand dikes and sills buried below the surface can indicate past quake activity and can be dated to help understand the periodicity of quakes in an area. These data suggest the New Madrid seismic zone generates magnitude 7 to 8 earthquakes about every 500 years during the past 1,200 years.
The ground movement, fissuring, and sand blows emitted water vapor. Since the winter air was cold, the water coming up from the ground was comparatively warm creating a fog. The vapor that hung in the air after the quakes gave off a terrible smell, like sulfur. The bad air caused difficulty in breathing for some people. The smell was also apparent in the groundwater. Organic material buried in the sediment was churned up and released via the ground movement which accounted for the smell. The “sulfur springs” that continued to flow had high concentrations of oxidized sulfur-bearing minerals, such as pyrite.
The town of New Madrid in 1811 was located at a bend in the Mississippi River. The New Madrid seismic zone, a structurally weak, failed rift, is a naturally low area where the river meanders through.
There was heavy traffic on the Mississippi that December. The effects of the shaking were most dramatic along the river and in the soft sediments along the banks. Shaking caused the banks to collapse, taking entire trees into the churning current. The landslides into the water cause huge waves, some of which overtook the boats and their crews. Fish were thrown onto the banks. The current apparently quickened, probably because of the heaving river beds and huge waves. Sand extrusions from the river bottom itself propelled mud and debris upwards and created a “boiling” appearance to the water. The churned-up river bottom mud turned the water murky and red. Sunken trees and other debris rose to the surface. Parts of the river channel were uplifted revealing tree stumps and shallow areas. Islands in the river disappeared as the saturated sediment turned into liquid sand that was washed away by the waves.
The upward thrusts within the river bed not only created some temporary waterfalls (which were eroded soon after) but also may have led to what is the most enduring dramatic story about the New Madrid event – that the Mississippi River flowed backward.
Did the river reverse direction?
This is a difficult question to answer, mostly because it’s a matter of definition and degrees. Clearly, the disruptions coming from below the surface and land slips into the water created chaos in the normal pattern of flow. The thrusts, fissures, and blows in the channel may have created a temporary “retrograde” or backward current where the water appeared to flow temporarily in the upstream direction. But this did not happen for more than a short period of time and only in short reaches. The claim that the river reversed direction has been heavily exaggerated. The river was also not sucked down into open chasms. The river bottom was heaved up in places with the uplifted water thrown around. The scene on the river was most certainly one of terrifying chaos.
A tremendous noise preceded large shocks by a second or two. The sounds of the quakes were described as roaring, rumbling, hissing, whistling, thunder, cannon sounds, or blowing. Local strong exploding noise came from the force of the sand and water extrusions.
Boats moored on the river heard rumbling described as if the boat bottom was hitting gravel while residents in their homes heard the groaning and creaking of their houses and rattling furniture.
Cities distant from New Madrid also heard rumbling like thunder with the approach of the seismic wave that increased as the shock passed through.
The stronger shocks were followed by black clouds or darkness from the “smoke”, “fog”, or “vapor” that took hours to clear. The darkness was likely dust from the land slides and collapsed structures. Water vapor released from the ground condensed in the cold winter atmosphere creating an “earthquake fog”.
One of the most mysterious and disputed claims related to the New Madrid quakes was from several reputable witnesses who saw lightning-like flashes and glows in the sky that directly accompanied the quakes. One person in New Madrid reported sparks emitted from the earth. (For more on earthquake lights, see this post.) William Pierce, who wrote letters to the New York Evening Post reporting back from his journey along the Mississippi said that “an electric flash ran along the surface tearing the earth to pieces in its progress”.
Flashes and a glowing sky were also seen from those in distant cities. The atmosphere was said to be luminous across the entire sky at night even though there was no moon. Red clouds were seen in South Carolina immediately before the Dec 16 quake. In North Carolina, people reported long-lasting sky glow that they thought was the result of large fires. Loud thunder accompanied the glow. A report from ships in the tropics noted aurora-like glows in the sky one night. Later, they correlated that observation to the time of a quake. Scientists historically dismissed these reports of lights by assuming they were related to the dust and water vapor emitted along the fault, thunderstorms, or regular atmospheric magnetic disturbances. But the curious possibility remains that earthquake lights may have manifested from the ground or in the atmosphere resulting from the fault movements.
The boat crewmen reported watching as the trees on the shore swayed. The birds, they said, made a hasty retreat. In the animals’ confusion and panic, many landed on the boats, or even on people. In the countryside, those riding horses when a shock was imminent were forewarned as the horses would stop and plant their feet seconds before the surface waves arrived. Wild animals reportedly came out of the woods into the farmyards, panting and terrified. Their fear of people was overwhelmed by the need to seek safety. Different kinds of animals were said to be huddling together in the open, disoriented and stressed. A few other accounts from distant towns noted that dogs could also perceive a coming quake. This is not strange because animals are typically more sensitive than people to the sounds and early indications that a seismic pulse is moving towards them. One incident that became connected to the quake but is almost certainly unrelated is that of a mass migration of squirrels noted months prior to the quakes. Such mass migrations had been noted before. There is no evidence to suggest that any animals moved out of the quake zone prior to the first movements.
The residents of New Madrid suffered greatly from the quake damage even though few died. The churches experienced a temporary influx of people labeled “earthquake Christians” as they sought a higher power to help them get through the constant shaking that rattled their foundations and their nerves. Rumors ran rampant. One was that the natives said the great quakes were due to the white settlers disturbing the land. There was a rumor that Tecumseh, the Shawnee warrior chief who resisted the new settlers issued a prophecy that the earth would shake. The accuracy of that prophecy is dubious.
An early popular idea was that the quakes were from volcanic activity. Volcanoes were better understood by the general population than faulting and earth movements. Unconfirmed accounts circulated that volcanoes existed nearby. The violent “eruption” of so much material from the ground during the quake added to the thought that the event was volcanic.
A crime revealed by earthquake
In March, after the series of quakes, a dog pulled a skull out from the rubble of a house in Western Kentucky. The remains revealed the story of a slave named George who had been murdered by the Lewis brothers after he broke a water pitcher. The brothers attempted to burn George’s dismembered body but the first quake occurred that night causing the chimney to collapse. The subsequent quakes prevented the body from being burned, eventually leading to the discovery of the crime by neighbors who noticed George was missing.
New Madrid today
After revisiting New Madrid’s historic catastrophe, the most frightening realization we make is that millions of people live in or are traveling through the New Madrid Seismic Zone every day. There is a 7-10% chance that a magnitude 7.0 or greater event will occur in the next 50 years. The population is unprepared. They don’t know much of the actual history and are generally unaware this is an active seismic zone. The small magnitude quakes occur regularly but do not shake people up enough for them to worry about what might happen again. The tremendous effects reported over 200 years ago would be catastrophic in terms of lost lives and damage incurred today. Scientists continue to debate if the threat of future quakes is fading or if it will continue along the approximately 500-1000 yr cycle of activity. Meanwhile, the New Madrid town website repeats some of the extraordinary claims I mentioned, some of which are exaggerated.
Psychics and pseudoscientific prognosticators have plagued the town, most notably in 1990 when Iben Browning, a non-scientist, created a media frenzy by predicting a quake would occur in response to “tidal forces” on a given date – December 2 and 3. Nothing happened. Last month, a psychic “time traveler” predicted that “the Great Split” quake would occur here. It didn’t. Nonsense predictions circulating on social media sometimes gain traction. Most likely there will be no noticeable warning prior to the next big shake-up of towns along the New Madrid Seismic Zone.
Bagnall, Norma H. 1996. On Shaky Ground: the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812.
Fuller, Myron L. 1912. The New Madrid Earthquake, US Geological Survey, Bulletin 494.
Penick, James L.Jr. 1981. The New Madrid Earthquakes, Revised Edition.
Valencius, Conevery Bolton. 2013. The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes.
20 Cool Facts about the New Madrid Seismic Zone. US Geological Survey, General Information Product 134.