Around two o’clock on the morning of December 16, 1811, the first of a series of massive earthquakes struck the middle of the country. This initial shake, centered in northeastern Arkansas, was followed by three more principle quakes; one a few hours later, then on
January 23, 1812, and another on February 7, 1812. The February 7th quake’s epicenter was located near New Madrid, Missouri, which eventually gave the offending fault line its name. It is estimated that each of these events would have registered anywhere from 7.6 to as much as 8.8 on the modern Richter Scale. Lesser quakes would shudder the region intermittently for three more months.
Ten times as powerful as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the strongest quakes were felt by President James and Dolly Madison in Washington D.C. and rang church bells a thousand miles away in Boston, Massachusetts. People reported feeling the quakes as far south as the Gulf coast, southeast to the Atlantic coast, and northeast to Quebec, Canada.
Fortunately, much of the effected area was sparsely inhabited at the time. Still, the violent shaking caused property damage, injuries, and even deaths. As the tectonic plates beneath the earth shifted, America’s belly heaved, knocking down forests and cabins nestled within them. According to Norma Hayes Bagnall in her book On Shaky Ground, “Five towns in three states disappeared, islands vanished in the Mississippi River, lakes formed where there had been none before, and the river flowed backward for a brief period.”
Native Americans and white settlers alike were ravaged by the quakes. One Indian village along the Mississippi River was literally swallowed up by the mighty flood caused by one of the quakes. New lakes were formed. Fissures opened, ejecting coal and sand into the air. Such occurrences were called sand blows. Boats unfortunate enough to be on the Mississippi River at the moment of one of these huge quakes were capsized, drowning an unknown number of people.
December 16, 1811, George Heinrich Crist, a resident of north central Kentucky, recorded the following in his journal: “There was a great shaking of the earth this morning. Tables and chairs turned over and knocked around - all of us knocked out of bed. The roar I thought would leave us deaf if we lived. It was not a storm. When you could hear, all you cold hear was screams from people and animals. It was the worst thing that I have ever witnessed. It was still dark and you could not see nothing. I thought the shaking and the loud roaring sound would never stop. You could not hold onto nothing neither man or woman was strong enough - the shaking would knock you lose like knocking hickory nuts out of a tree. I don't know how we lived through it. None of us was killed - we was all banged up and some of us knocked out for awhile and blood was every where. When it got day break you could see the damage done all around. We still had our home it was some damage. Some people that the home was not built to strong did not. We will have to hunt our animals. Every body is scared to death. we still do not know if anybody was killed. I made my mind to one thing. If this earth quake or what ever it was did not happen in the Territory of Indiana then me and my family is moving to Pigeon Roost as soon as I can get things together.” Then, sadly, he had this to report following the even stronger quake a month later. “The earth quake or what ever it is come again today. It was as bad or worse than the one in December. We lost our Amandy Jane in this one - a log fell on her.
We will bury her upon the hill under a
clump of trees where Besys Ma and Pa is buried. A lot of people thinks that the devil has come here.