Have you ever been in an earthquake? It is a frightening experience to feel the ground roll uncontrollably beneath you. What is believed to be the greatest earthquakes recorded in the central United States (although Missouri was a territory then, not a state) happened on this day, February 7, 1812 and it was terrifying. Estimated at 8.5 on the Richter scale, it killed as few people as it did only because Missouri was lightly settled at the time.
People screamed as the ground rumbled, vibrated and bucked with a deafening roar. Sinners fell to the ground and prayed their souls might be spared. To the evangelical, it seemed that the end of the age, prophesied in the Bible, was near. Christian slaves warned masters and mistresses that they were going to "catch it" now that the Lord was at hand. It certainly seemed that these black servants might be right.
This was the fourth or fifth major quake to strike the area in less than three months. Everyone agreed it was the worst. A dark cloud of dust filled the air. The stink of sulfur was strong. The Mississippi River flowed upstream. The town of New Madrid, Missouri collapsed fifteen feet and was completely destroyed. An area 150 miles long and forty miles wide sank three to nine feet. Geysers of sand and rock spewed up through fissures and drifted across the land, leaving a soft layer so deep, horses could not walk through it. Trees, houses and people disappeared into other fissures. Hundreds of acres of forest toppled. Stranded fish died when waters changed course.
In a Kentucky city, 400 miles away, chimneys slithered to the ground. Plaster cracked and church bells rang a thousand miles away in Montreal, Boston and New York. Boats foundered in South Carolina's Charleston River. Masonry cracked in Connecticut. Virginians reported they could scarcely stand up. Altogether, 2,000,000 square miles or more were shaken by the quake. The Bible predicts a mighty earthquake at the end of the world. The first New Madrid quake was also predicted--by the Indian chief Tecumseh. He said it would be a sign for the Indian tribes to reunite and drive the white men into the sea. When his words came true, thousands of braves joined him outside Detroit to give battle, but the predicted victory did not materialize.
Ironically, after the February quake, which was the last big one, some settlers pulled up and left Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. As George Henry Crist wrote on February 8th, "If we do not get away from here the ground is going to eat us alive. We had another one of them earth quakes yesterday and today the ground still shakes at times. We are all about to go crazy -- from pain and fright...A lot of people thinks that the devil has come here. Some thinks that this is the beginning of the world coming to a end."
- Erickson, Jon. Quakes, Eruptions, and Other Geologic Cataclysms. New York : Facts on File, c1994.
- "Great New Madrid Earthquake." The Virtual Times. (http://hsv.com/genlintr/newmadrd/).
- Page, Jake. The Big One : the earthquake that rocked early America and helped create a science. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
- Ritchie, David. Superquake! : why earthquakes occur and when the big one will hit southern California. New York : Crown, 1988.
- Numerous internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.