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Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes
“How is it possible for a natural disaster to remake an entire region, physically and socially—and yet to be erased from history within two generations? In The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes Conevery Bolton Valencius tells a moving and mind-boggling tale of the production and destruction of natural knowledge. She follows the motley cast of amateurs who first tracked down the scientific evidence, as well as the modernizing forces that buried it once again. Her prodigious research reveals exactly how these earthquakes changed the course of history in the Mississippi Valley region. Remarkably, she shows that if we want to understand race relations in this part of the country in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we need to understand geology. This beautifully written book will stand as a model for integrating environmental and social history with the history of science.”—Deborah R. Coen, author of The Earthquake Observers


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The Introduction to
The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes
by Conevery Bolton Valencius

Introduction: Earthquake Cracks


On a cold night early in 1826, Davy Crockett and his hunting dogs chased a bear through the rough terrain of west Tennessee. Crockett was above all a practical frontiersman. As he ran through the woods, his main concern was for his gun—he worried that he might break it as he stumbled on the “earthquake cracks” that ran through the ground beneath him. Eventually, the bear he was chasing wedged itself down inside a larger crack, about four feet deep, where Crockett’s hunting dogs could not surround it. Undeterred, Crockett crawled into the crevasse himself and knifed the bear from the side. The next morning, after Crockett’s hunting partner had caught up with him, the two men butchered the bear and salted and packed its meat. As they did so, his partner examined the crack and “said he wouldn’t have gone into it . . . for all the bears in the woods.” Sure enough, as Crockett recounted in his autobiography, that night “a most terrible earthquake . . . shook the earth so, that we were rocked about like we had been in a cradle.” “We were very much alarmed,” he explained, “for though we were accustomed to feel earthquakes, we were now right in the region which had been torn to pieces by them in 1812, and we thought it might take a notion and swallow us up, like the big fish did Jonah.”

Davy Crockett was not overly frightened to be shoulder-to-shoulder with a bear, but despite his bravado in crawling down into the earthquake crack, he admitted to being “very much alarmed” by the tremors that terrified his partner. At the same time, the earthquakes that periodically shook his favorite hunting grounds were for Crockett a recognizable feature of his environment. He knew them as reverberations of the great Mississippi Valley earthquakes that had rocked and reshaped his region in the winter of 1811–12. Those “great shakes” continued—and continue today—in smaller tremors felt by hunters, bears, dogs, and other inhabitants of the American heartland.

The New Madrid Earthquakes

The earthquakes Crockett remembered as having “torn to pieces” his hunting grounds in 1812 were what we now call the New Madrid earthquakes, a series of powerful tremors that rent the midcontinent and were felt across North America. From December 1811 to February 1812, three large earthquakes—and numerous others—shook an area centered on what is now the small jut of southeast Missouri known as the Missouri “Bootheel” (site of New Madrid, a small Mississippi River trading port named for the Spanish capital but now pronounced, defiantly and definitively, “new MAD-rid”).

Around the epicenters of the 1811–12 quakes, the heart of the central continent where the present-day states of Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois draw near each other, these earthquakes’ effects were terrifyingly intense. The air filled with loud noise, foul stench, and mysterious flashes of light. Large areas were covered with rising warm water that threatened to drown many in what is now southeast Missouri. The surface of the earth rolled in visible ground waves so powerful that sections of forest snapped off midtrunk as the trees recoiled.

Ground shaking caused the deep, soft soil of this vast floodplain region to separate (“like a runny egg casserole if you took it out of the oven and shook it side to side,” as New Madrid researcher Tish Tuttle described it). Seeking an outlet, this liquefied sand shot upward through the clay underlayer and dirt of the surface into fountains of liquefied sand which created immense, round “sand blows,” volcano-like, rounded cones of white sand fed by a central channel or “sand dike” of white sand rising up through red clay or black dirt.

Because of the seismic commotion, a portion of western Kentucky lurched upward, raising itself up into an enormous dome. This uplift is still visible today. It does not seem very dramatic at first, and in fact most people who live in the area or travel through pass by this uplift without a second thought—much as we can travel right on by the evidence of sand blows, fault scarps, and topographic change. Only in the context of the flat, broad expanse of the Mississippi floodplain does this seemingly gentle bulge in the terrain seem peculiar—and to the eyes of a seismologist, ominous indeed. The sudden uplift also turned the continent’s central river back on itself: the mighty Mississippi ran briefly but dramatically backward before the current wore down the new-made falls.

Even far from the epicenters, the New Madrid earthquakes were powerful. People felt them in southern New Hampshire. They terrified settlers in the Ohio Valley, woke sleepers on the lower Eastern Seaboard, and crashed furniture in the nation’s capital. In southwestern Kentucky, the tremors revealed a brutal murder by two slaveholders: nephews of Thomas Jefferson had in a drunken rage killed and dismembered a young slave and thrown his body parts into a fire. Only tremors that knocked over the chimney revealed their grisly crime. Further east in Kentucky, those same tremors badly frightened John James Audubon’s horse. In South Carolina, wells went dry afterward. For North Americans of the 1820s—Illinois settlers and Cherokee farmers, slaveholders and those living in slavery, East Coast city folks and backwoods hunters such as Davy Crockett and his partner—these disruptions were an obvious and well-remembered part of local history, a set of disturbances whose environmental traces were all too apparent and all too frightening.


A key question about all this disruption, for people of Davy Crockett’s time—and for many people today—is, what happened? And why did it happen? What explains such sudden tremors in the earth, much less the widespread reports of flashing lights, bad smells, ominous noises, and spouts of liquefied sand?

To a very large extent, we still do not know.

We know that there was a series of large earthquakes in 1811–12. Estimates of their magnitude have ranged from 7.0 to 8.7, though most current estimates are closer to 7 than 8.

But we still in some essential sense do not know why these ongoing quakes occur. We know—at least in the big picture—a fair amount about how earthquakes work. The framework of plate tectonics explains that our present-day continents are parts of what was once one enormous supercontinent, ripped apart as pieces of earth’s crust move apart from each other on flows of immensely slow-moving beds of mantle. This is why, as most schoolchildren with access to globes have noticed at one point or another, all the continents have a rather jigsaw-y look to them—a jigsaw puzzle long played with, the pieces worn and rounded into hazy approximation.

Most of the earthquakes we are familiar with occur when one huge piece of earth’s crust grinds up against another on its travels (think of Los Angeles’s slow, jerky, and inexorable movement northward toward San Francisco on the San Andreas fault), or when one piece of crust dives down like a sounding whale, being subsumed in the process by another massive plate (such subduction can produce massive waves—as happened, tragically, in the December 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake and tsunami that killed over a quarter-million people and caused devastation throughout southern and eastern Asia). If you hold your two hands flat in front of you, with their edges touching, and move them up and down next to each other, or move one under the other, you have a rough but workable model of why most earthquakes happen. For people worried about earthquakes in California—or Japan, or Indonesia, or anywhere else on a plate boundary—this basic model of crashing, scraping, and subducting plates works very well.

But this model does not explain why or how earthquakes occur in the middle of tectonic plates. New Madrid, Missouri, is roughly 1,500 miles from the San Andreas fault. So-called intraplate quakes are not well explained by plate tectonics, nor by any model in seismology. Earthquakes can occur for many reasons besides crunching tectonic plates: small local tremors are frequently produced by deep drilling, for instance, and significant seismicity may be attributable to the “glacial rebound” of continents relaxing back upward after being relieved of their heavy load of glacial ice after the last ice age—in fact, glacial rebound may be one main reason for the New Madrid earthquakes. Yet none of the current forms of explanation alone would seem to account for the scale of events that occurred in the Mississippi Valley in 1811–12. Something big enough to make the Mississippi River run backward has to have an awful lot of motive force behind it. Just where did all that power come from?

More than nineteenth-century history is at stake in the answer to that question. Recent research on New Madrid area seismicity has demonstrated that the 1811–12 earthquakes were not simply an anomaly, but part of a continuing series of earthquakes that goes back several thousand years. What is more, they seem to have occurred relatively frequently and regularly—possibly every two to six hundred years. Intraplate quakes can clearly pack a wallop. Two of the most lethal earthquakes in recorded history were intra-plate quakes, both in China: the 1556 earthquake in Shaanxi Province, which buried at least 830,000 people, and the July 1976 magnitude 7.7 earthquake which leveled the northeast China city of Tangshan, with an estimated death toll as high as 650,000. Figuring out more about the mechanisms and likelihood of future similar shocks in the New Madrid area is a clear public imperative.

A Lost History

For much of the last two hundred years, Americans and residents of the middle Mississippi Valley have forgotten the earthquake history that presented such obvious pragmatic challenges for Davy Crockett. Accounts like Crockett’s are part of the reason why this story has been lost. Stories of earthquakes powerful enough to remake the topography of the midcontinent became just another part of the tradition of American frontier tall tales told by larger-than-life figures like Davy Crockett. Down-home narratives like this hunting tale might strike most of us as quaint Americana, not as evidence for serious and sober analysis. Narratives like Crockett's cast doubt upon the very events they chronicle.

In the years, decades, and two centuries since, human enterprise and the effects of nature itself worked to wipe away the traces of earth and memory linked to the New Madrid quakes. The 1811–12 quakes damaged the local landscape in dramatic and visible ways, rending the surface of the earth, spewing forth material from underground, and scarring the landscape. Yet such changes to soft-soiled floodplain were subject to rapid erosion. Only the deepest of earthquake cracks are now recognizable as earthquake evidence. Sand blows easily visible even in the early twentieth century as “barren spots upon which little will grow” became harder to identify by the early twenty-first century. Generations of plowing and grading blurred earthquake traces in the soft soil of the middle Mississippi Valley. In some of the open fields, when the cotton or soybeans are just starting to grow in early spring, sand blows become visible after spring rains: the surrounding soil darkens with water that drains swiftly through the white sand of the blows. Yet such ghostly white circles might strike most casual observers as an agricultural problem, not seismic testimony. Unlike fault lines that tear rocky outcrops, the New Madrid earthquakes left comparatively few unambiguous environmental traces.

Over the twentieth century, earth scientists and casual observers alike have become fascinated by the more frequent and more easily explained kind of earthquakes, at the borders of the planet’s massive tectonic plates. Contemporary towns and cities of the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys—Memphis, St. Louis, Louisville—do not figure in contemporary culture as earthquake zones in the way that Tokyo or San Francisco do. We walk along the deceptively smooth surfaces of the New Madrid seismic zone in ignorance and unconcern.

Every once in a while, though, someone stumbles into cracks left by these quakes. People living in the small, sleepy towns of eastern Arkansas will awaken in the middle of the night to hear a roaring, rushing noise, feel their beds shaking, and see pictures rattling against the walls. Paddlers or hunters out on the region’s many streams and sloughs will notice white arms of sand branching upward through the dark color of a sharply cut stream bank, remnants of “sand dikes” that once spewed hot liquefied sand and organic matter high into the air. Historians in North Carolina, in Ohio, in Georgia, gently unfolding stiff sheets of correspondence from the early nineteenth century, will come across startled news of “the late awful visitation of Providence.”

Like Davy Crockett, The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes crawls down into the cracks left by these dramatic New Madrid quakes. In dim crevices, we can find the traces of environmental and social upheaval. We can reconstruct broken shards of long-neglected history and bring into the light this story, once well known and now virtually forgotten.

This book answers many of the mysteries surrounding these dramatic early nineteenth-century earthquakes. First, how did these frightening events matter at the time? Careful investigation reveals that they were key events in the social, political, religious, and territorial upheavals of the moment. They were well known not only to those whose lives and livelihoods were transformed by them, but by people across the country, who gave voice to a uniquely American vernacular science as they debated the import of the quakes. Second, how could earthquakes that mattered so much, to so many, be almost completely forgotten in the decades and centuries following, especially when they carried the threat of a repeat performance? No one factor could erase these earthquakes: rather, a combination of changes—social, environmental, and scientific—combined to submerge knowledge of the New Madrid earthquakes for much of the modernizing twentieth century. It took the American Civil War and its aftermath, new racial and social tensions of the twentieth century, environmental transformations wrought by swamp drainage, timbering, and farming, and a radical shift in the way seismology was done to erase the signs and memories of such a dramatic set of events. Third, how did scientists come to rediscover these earthquakes after centuries of neglect? Even as seismology became a science of instruments and careful measurement, old narratives of long-past quakes turn out to have surprising salience for contemporary investigation. And finally, what should we make of the threat of future earthquakes in the New Madrid seismic zone, given this history? What might seem a set of questions about the past become challenges still unresolved about priorities for the future.

To explore how people first made sense of the New Madrid earthquakes, we begin with an account by a literate Mississippi River traveler named William Leigh Pierce. His account serves both to introduce the exciting events of the earthquakes and to show us how people of his era investigated and came to understand puzzling natural phenomena: through sometimes chatty first-person narratives that included evaluation of trading routes, measurements of sand blows, and commentary on religion as equal ingredients. Making knowledge about the natural world was not separate from other kinds of reporting and conversation. Rather, early Americans folded the creation of knowledge into storytelling and the work of building commercial networks. Reading carefully such documents of the past, we learn how people of earlier times thought and put together their picture of the world—about earthquakes and about all manner of phenomena.

One reason the New Madrid earthquakes have been so effectively forgotten is that they do not seem to have mattered much—at least not in the histories written by those who gained social and economic power after the quakes. Nothing much was happening in that obscure part of the world before the quakes, goes the conventional story, and nothing much of importance happened there afterward. These may have been physically dramatic events, but they did not have much impact on human history.

Reading carefully the records of the New Madrid quakes shows how very wrong that conventional story has been. The area right around the earthquakes’ epicenters was in fact a hotbed of cultural change and settlement in the tumultuous period of the beginning of the nineteenth century, especially settlement by Indian groups from east of the Mississippi. The earthquakes transformed the terrain by creating swampy “sunk lands” and effectively erased Indian settlement in what was once a thriving New Madrid hinterland.

The New Madrid earthquakes also mattered a great deal to Indian communities across eastern North America. For Cherokees in the midst of cultural upheaval, the earthquakes gave fire to a movement of apocalyptic prophecy. For Creeks resisting American takeover, the earthquakes became part of a war of resistance. For Indian people throughout eastern North America, the spiritual symbolism of the quakes served as a call to ally with the Shawnee leaders and prophets Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa in a movement of cultural and military resistance.

The New Madrid earthquakes similarly became an element of American spiritual movement, as they underscored the physically demonstrative spirituality of the Great Revival. People felt the quakes in their bodies, feeling odd, ill, and off-balance. Just so, they worked through the spiritual meaning of the earthquakes as physical manifestations of Christian faith. The New Madrid earthquakes jolted early Americans into belief—and also, in surprising ways, into scientific questioning. The shocks of earthquake felt like the shocks of the Holy Spirit, and also like the shocks of the fascinating new science of electricity. Musing about the jolts of earthquakes, Americans thought through profound questions of spirit and of causation.

Historians have dismissed early American science as derivative and inconsequential, struggling unsuccessfully to catch up to the breakthroughs and insights of European courts and laboratories. Looking at the New Madrid earthquakes—obscure events of an obscure cultural frontier—reveals how mistaken this view is. Across North America, people rushed to exchange information, questions, theories, and arguments about the causes of these earthquakes. Scientific inquiry, scientific conversation, and scientific thinking existed throughout early American society. The surprise is that this everyday science of early America was not just performed in labs or associated with those we might recognize as scientists: it was connected with almost all forms of society.

Listening to early Americans discuss and debate these earthquakes shows us what science really was in the early United States: a set of questions and debates in which many people, from a wide range of geographic and social places, regarded themselves as engaged participants. We have let these conversations lie invisible because they do not in any way resemble our usual histories of science. To recognize how American vernacular science was constructed through the New Madrid earthquakes is to recognize how fundamentally scientific thinking and scientific questions have shaped many aspects of early American civic and intellectual life.

But this story of how people came to grapple with the New Madrid earthquakes does not stop with William Leigh Pierce, Davy Crockett, and their early American contemporaries. Once well known, the New Madrid earthquakes were gradually and inexorably forgotten, the memory of them dormant for over a century. Huge dredging machines remade earthquake terrain into farmland; photos of African American sharecroppers protesting deep social injustice displaced older images of early nineteenth-century Native settlers; and the river around New Madrid became known as the site of an exciting battle rather than alarming seismic upheaval. In the extended process of forgetting, narratives of the New Madrid earthquakes, from folksy stories like Crockett’s to early scientific reports and Native American oral histories, were all rendered virtually invisible—just as the Cherokees and other Indians settling the middle Mississippi Valley, who reacted so clearly and forcefully to the earthquakes, were themselves rendered invisible, their own history of resettlement in the region buried and denied.

To early twentieth-century boosters of the area trying to encourage new settlement, to hardscrabble tenant farmers just trying to get by, to scientists enthralled by the new techniques of instrumental seismology, stories of wide-eyed river men and awestruck Indians seemed quaint, irrelevant, even ridiculous. Until recently, historians also forgot these narratives, conventionally regarding the history of American seismology as beginning when experts invented modern devices to measure the earth. Because the New Madrid quakes occurred in the preinstrumental era of the earth sciences, before the invention of seismometers, there are no instrumental records of their movements. Unrecorded, unregistered, the New Madrid earthquakes submerged into a haze of inexact hearsay—the subject of a few novels, but little mentioned in our history textbooks. For the better part of a century and a half, the New Madrid earthquakes became the subject of derision and doubt.

Then, because of late twentieth-century changes within seismology, accounts like Davy Crockett’s moved once again into the center of discussion. Eyewitness accounts, so long doubted and derided, have become once again a crucial source of evidence. Present-day seismologists compile, quote, and argue about personal letters from 1812; they debate settlement patterns of the Ohio Valley; they pore over census data from the young United States. They act, in other words, like historians.

Modern researchers engage with other forms of early nineteenth-century knowledge as well. The local perspective of people working the land has begun, in small but consequential ways, to figure in scientific reassessments of the New Madrid earthquakes. Bodily knowledge, once a common form of information about earthquakes and then utterly rejected as unscientific, is once again a form of information about the severity and extent of seismic shocks. Such reassessments suggest further ways that once-valued and subsequently rejected information about the earthquakes, especially earthquake reports from Indian communities, information about the response of animals, or testimony about the lights and weather associated with tremors, might usefully inform some of the questions asked in our modern sciences of the earth.

As the New Madrid earthquakes have come back to light, the science and the history of the quakes have become the subject of contentious public policy debate. Different scientific theories have practical implications for infrastructure regulations. Is the New Madrid seismic zone “cooling down” in ways that present decreasing risk for the future? Or are the 1811–12 events fair warning of similar seismic tumult likely to recur beneath cities and farms of the American heartland? The financial burden of earthquake preparation and seismic building codes would be felt heavily in the affected areas, so scientific theories and risk assessments matter a great deal in practical terms. The facts and forecasts of the New Madrid earthquakes are presently debated in city council meetings, insurance industry websites, and the pages of local newspapers, as communities try to create appropriate responses to earthquake threats about which prominent scientists still struggle to come to consensus.

How do we know what we know—or what we think we know—about the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–12, and possibly of the future? The smelly barking dogs of a famous American backwoods bear hunter might seem a strange setting for the search for thinking about natural events in the United States. Yet in just such places, and through just such records, was knowledge about natural processes created in early American life. Later scientists would come back to reports like Crockett’s to try to figure out what had actually happened. Accounts of the New Madrid earthquakes are not just a colorful curiosity, but a fundamental ingredient of modern scientific analysis of the puzzling midcontinent.

For North Americans of the early nineteenth century, it was clear that these disruptions—events only slowly even named as earthquakes—had created important material changes. The New Madrid earthquakes marked the land and the people on it. Digging into a past landscape, a landscape of physical terrain and imaginative questioning, brings to the surface evidence of earthquakes with possible implications for the American future.


Conevery Bolton Valencius
© 2013, 472 pages , 26 halftones
Paper $32.00 ISBN: 9780226273754 Cloth $99.00 ISBN: 9780226053899 E-book $10.00 to $31.99 ISBN: 9780226053929

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