Tectonic events such as a 5.8 earthquake in California and a volcanic eruption in Washington, caught our attention. But they couldn’t match the New Madrid earthquakes from December 1811 to February. 1812 that caused the mighty Mississippi River to briefly flow backward.

Consider the statement from Firmin La Roche, a French fur trader from St. Louis.

France had sold the border west of the Mississippi to the United States only eight years before the earthquake. Missouri was a territory, not yet a state.

LaRoche’s account, preserved in the archives of the Missouri Historical Review, was written in New Orleans on February 2. December 20, 1812, when the aftermath was still frequent. He had just completed a disastrous journey that started with three flat boats:

Sounds like thunder

“I was present at the recent earthquake above and below the mouth of the Ohio River, along both banks of the Mississippi River.

“I was taking three boats to New Orleans with some furs bought in St. Louis. On the night of December 15, we moored eight miles north of New Madrid near the home of my cousin, John LeClerq.

“With me was Fr. Joseph from the Mission to the Osages, who was returning to France, also Jacques Menier, Dominic Berges, Leon Sarpy, Henry Lamel, five other men and the black slave, Ben, who was murdered in New Madrid.

“After dinner, we went to sleep. I was awakened by a crash like thunder. The boat turned over on its side and Lamel, who was sleeping next to me, fell on top of me. We fell against the side. It was very dark.

“We got away from shore in about half an hour, and I looked at my watch. It was 3 o’clock. I could see trees on the shore falling. Large masses of land fell into the river.

“Lamel cut the rope that tied us to a log. At one point, a wave so big came up the river that I had never seen one like it at sea. It took us back north, upriver, for over a mile. The water spread along the banks, covering three or four miles inland.

“It was a receding current. Then this wave stopped and slowly the river turned to the right again.

“Everywhere there was noise like thunder. The ground shook the trees. The air was thick with something like smoke. There was a lot of lightning.

“We believed that we must surely die. Father Joseph gave absolution. We did not see any of the other two ships. One of them we never saw again, nor do I know if the men who were in them drowned. Terror, awaiting death.

“The trees were felled. People said that the big cracks in the ground, some very deep, extended for 10 or 15 miles.” We were told that there is a new lake in Tennessee (Reelfoot) and that the waterways there have changed. The Yazoo River has a new mouth.

“I was in great pain with a broken arm. Of those who were with me, there is only Father Joseph. My personal loss is $ 600 (about $ 12,000 in today’s currency).”

The memory of a priest

In an appendix to La Rouche’s account, Father Joseph stated:

“I think there were two big collisions with a difference of half an hour and many small ones between and after. The water rose so that a tree on the bank, whose crown must have been 30 feet above the level of the river, was completely covered .

“We saw two burning houses on the left bank. When we got to New Madrid, there were burning houses there too.

“We moored ashore at dawn, and a walnut tree fell on the boat, killing the black man, Ben, and breaking skipper LaRouche’s left arm.

“We made no effort to find out how many people had died, although many said yes. We saw corpses of several. Then we saw drowned people floating in the river.

“The loads of skins were thrown into the river by the people who crowded into the boat with us until we couldn’t take any more.”

Another account

Another eyewitness account (edited here for brevity) was deposed by New Madrid resident Eliza Bryan four years after the event.

“On December 16, 1811, around 2 am, we were visited by a violent impact of an earthquake. It was accompanied by a very frightening noise like loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrant.

“This was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere with sulfurous vapor, causing total darkness.

“Truly horrible were the screams of the frightened inhabitants who ran from one place to another, not knowing where to go, what to do – the cries of birds and beasts of all species – the cracking of the falling trees – and the roar of the Mississippi that was retrograde for a few minutes.

“The inhabitants fled in all directions, assuming there was less danger at a distance than near the river.

“There were several milder shocks every day until January 23, 1812. Then, one as violent as the strongest of the previous ones occurred.

“From that time until February 4, the earth was in continual turmoil, visibly waving like a gentle sea.

“On February 7, around 4 am, there was a much more violent concussion than those that had preceded it, which was called ‘the hard blow’.

“The ghastly darkness of the sulphurous vapor-saturated atmosphere and the violence of the thunderous thunder clap formed a scene beyond imagination.

“At first, the Mississippi seemed to recede from its banks, its waters accumulated like a mountain. For a moment, many ships heading to New Orleans were left on bare sand. The poor sailors escaped from them.

“The river then rose 15 to 20 feet perpendicularly and expanded. The banks overflowed with the retrograde current. The boats that had been left in the sand were now ripped from their moorings.

“The river, which fell as fast as it had risen, took with it entire groves of poplars. Many fish were left on the banks.

“In all the hard blows, the earth was horribly shattered. Hundreds of acres were covered by sand that gushed out of the fissures. In some places, there was a substance similar to coal.

“Lately a lake (Reelfoot) has been discovered to have formed on the opposite side of the Mississippi in the Indian country (West Tennessee). It is more than 100 miles long, one to six miles wide and depths of 10 to 50 feet.

“For eighteen months, we were limited by the fear that our houses would collapse due to the continuous crashes and so we lived in small, light camps. Some people fled, never to return, but most fell back.”

Giant Earth Rift

The United States Geological Survey rates the three major earthquakes in the central Mississippi valley in the winter of 1811-12 as “the most powerful in American history.”

Then there were no seismographs. However, the extent of the earth changes indicates three closely related earthquakes: magnitudes of 8 or more on the ten-point Richter seismograph scale.

The most powerful earthquake on record is Richter 8.4 for the 1964 Alaska earthquake.

USGS says: “Earthquakes in the central United States affect areas much larger than earthquakes of similar magnitude in the western United States.

“The 1906 San Francisco, California earthquake (magnitude 7.8) was felt 350 miles away. The first New Madrid earthquake rang church bells in Boston, Massachusetts, thousands of miles away.”

New Madrid in 1811 consisted of 400 log cabins. St. Louis and Memphis were small towns. “If a Category 8 earthquake were to occur there today, those cities would be mostly destroyed and thousands of people would die,” says USGS.

Last year, 470 measurable earthquakes were recorded in the central Mississippi valley.

USGS Warning: “The probability of a magnitude 6-7 earthquake occurring in the New Madrid seismic zone within the next 50 years is greater than 90 percent.”


What’s worse: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, mudslides, volcanoes, or earthquakes?

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