From December 1811 through March 1812, three powerful earthquakes and more than two thousand aftershocks rocked New Madrid, Missouri, and the surrounding area. The quakes were felt as far south as New Orleans and as far north as Canada. The United States Geological Survey estimates the power of the earthquakes ranged between magnitude 7 and 8, making them the strongest events recorded in North America east of the Rocky Mountains. Deep fissures opened, church bells rang as far away as Boston, and chimneys fell in Ohio. The Mississippi River reportedly ran backward, and geysers erupted from the earth. The loss of life was minimal due to the area’s sparse population. We’ve combed our archives to bring you some of the news reports of this disaster, originally published more than 200 years ago.
The first quake struck on December 16, 1811. The Alexandria Gazette reported that 20 acres of land suddenly sunk during intense shaking, and the “tops of the trees were on a level with the surrounding earth.”
The sinking trees were the result of an earthquake-induced phenomenon called liquefaction. The strong shaking caused the sediment to lose strength, and the solid material suddenly behaved like a liquid. The quake dramatically altered the landscape near New Madrid. Sections of land lifted so high that the Mississippi River temporarily flowed backward. Fissures in the ground opened, venting sediments, mud, sticks, and water high into the air.
The second large quake happened on January 23, 1812, with an estimated strength of 7.5. People living in Annapolis, Maryland, reported that the steeple on the Maryland State House swayed back and forth for about 10 minutes. President James Madison felt shaking at the White House, and a crack developed in the Capitol building.
The third large quake occurred on February 7, 1812, and it was accompanied by violent wind and lightning. With everyone’s nerves on edge, rumors spread that a volcano had erupted between North Carolina and Tennessee and that a lava flow had dammed the French Broad River. The stories proved false, and gradually, the tremors stopped.
Seismologists predict that in the next 50 years, there’s a 10 percent chance of a similar magnitude earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone to those of 1811-1812 and a 25 to 40 percent chance of a magnitude 6 or greater over that same time. A major New Madrid earthquake would wreak havoc in parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee. Roads would likely be impassable, bridges and levees would collapse, and the Mississippi River would become unnavigable.
Do you have ancestors who experienced the New Madrid earthquakes? To learn more about the New Madrid Seismic Zone and to read more historical accounts of the earthquakes, search Newspapers.com™ today!