Sandra Gorin's Tips & Tricks to Locating Ancestors


So many times, when we try to determine why our ancestors just seemed to disappear from the face of the earth, we are forced to look at natural disasters, epidemics or wars to see if they might have been among the casualties. This tip will deal with the grandfather of all earthquakes as seen totally through the eyes of those who were there or who have written about it. The New Madrid Fault line lies halfway between St. Louis, Missouri and Memphis, Tennessee. In 1811 and 1812, a series of earthquakes shook this area. It was centered in Madrid, Illinois where the Missouri and Ohio Rivers meet the Mississippi. It shook the eastern half of the continent of the United States. The quakes lasted four months.

The Legend of Tecumseh: Tecumseh is portrayed as a great and powerful warrior who was also a diplomat, a peacemaker and a prophet. Tecumseh "prophesied" this greatest earthquake ever to hit the continent. The prophecy was given many months in advance of the quake, and was accurate down to the very day it occurred. This prophecy was known as the "Panther Across the Skies."

This account of the New Madrid Earthquake was recorded by George Heinrich Crist, residing at the time in the north-central Kentucky county of Nelson, near the present location of Louisville. It was submitted by Floyd Creasey - 4th tier great-grandchild to author, now a Texas resident. Words spelled as shown.

16 December 1811 [spelling as shown]
"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 could hear was screams from people and animals. It was the worst thing that I have ever wittnesed. 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 hicror 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 awile 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.

23 January 1812
"What are we gonna do? You cannot fight it cause you do not know how. It is not something that you can see. In a storm you can see the sky and it shows dark clouds and you know that you might get strong winds but this you can not see anything but a house that just lays in a pile on the ground - not scattered around and trees that just falls over with the roots still on it. 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. Some thinks that this is the beginning of the world coming to a end.

8 Febuary 1812
"If we do not get away from here the ground is going to eat us alive. We had another one of them earth quakes yesterdy and today the ground still shakes at times. We are all about to go crazy - from pain and fright. We can not do anything until we can find our animals or get some more. We have not found enough to pull he wagons.

20 March 1812
"I do not know if our minds have got bad or what. But everybody says it. I swear you can still feel the ground move and shake some. We still have not found enough animals to pull the wagons and you can not find any to buy or trade.

14 April 1813
"We lived to make it to Pigeon Roost. We did not lose any lives but we had aplenty troubles. As much as I love my place in Kentucky - I never want to go back. From December to April no man - woman or animal if they could talk would dare to believe what we lived through. From what people say it was not that bad here - They felt the ground move and shake but it did not destroy cabins and trees like it did in Kentucky. I guess that things was as bad here but at least they could see the enemy. on 3 September 1812 the Shawnees that William thought was friendly went crazy and them savages killed twenty four people...."

The Terrific Earthquake of New Madrid, Missouri in 1811-1812. Taken from Goodspeed's History of Southeast Missouri. Pages 304-306: "In 1811 and 1812 the inhabitants of New Madrid District experienced a series of the most terrific earthquakes that have ever occurred on the American continent. The best account of these fearful convulsions that could be obtained is given in the following letter, written to Rev. Lorenzo Dow, from Eliza Bryan.

New Madrid Territory, Missouri. March 22, 1816 Dear Sir: In compliance with your request, I will now give you a history, as full in detail as the limits of a letter will permit, of the awful visitation of Providence in this place and its vicinity.

On the 16th of December, 1811, about 2 o'clock, A.M., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise, resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurious vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go or what to do, the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species, the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi, the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing, as is supposed, to an erruption in its bed, formed a scene truly terrible.

From that time until about sunrise a number of lighter shocks occurred, at which time one still more violent than the first took place, with the same accompaniments, and the terror which had been excited in every one, and indeed in all animal nature, was now, if possible, doubled. The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country, supposing (if it can be admitted that their minds can be exercised at all) that there was less danger at a distance from than near the river. In one person, a female, (Mrs. Lafont), the alarm was so great that she fainted, and could not be revived.

There were several shocks a day, but lighter than those already mentioned, until the 23d of January, 1812, when one occurred, as violent as the severest of the former ones, accompanied by the same phenomena as the former.

From this time until the 4th of February the earth was in a continual agitation, visibly waving as a gentle sea. On that day there was another shock, nearly as hard as the proceeding ones; next day four such, and on the 7th, about 4 o'clock A.M., a concussion took place so much more violent than those which had preceeded it, that it was denominated the hard shock. The awful darkness of the atmosphere which, as formerly, was saturated with sulphurous vapor, and the violence of the tempestuous thundering noise that accompanied it, together with all of the other phenomena mentioned as attending the former ones, formed a scene, the description of which would require the most sublimely fanciful imagination.

At first the Mississippi seemed to recede from its banks, and its water gathered up like a mountain, leaving, for a moment, many boats which were here on their way to New Orleans, on the bare sand, in which time the poor sailors made their escape from them. It then rising fifteen or twenty feet perpendicularly, and expanding, as it were, at the same moment, the bank overflowed with a retrograde current rapid as a torrent. The boats, which before had been left on the sand, were now torn from their moorings, and suddenly driven up a little creek, at the mouth of which they laid, to the distance, in some instances, of nearly a quarter of a mile. The river, falling immediately as rapidly as it had risen, receded within its banks again with such violence that it took with it whole groves of young cottonwood trees which ledged its borders.

They were broken off which such regularity in some instances that persons who had not witnessed the fact would with difficulty be persuaded that it had not been the work of art. A great many fish were left on the bank, being unable to keep pace with the water. The river was literally covered with the wrecks of boats, and it is said that one was wrecked in which there was a lady and six children, all of whom were lost.

In all the hard shocks mentioned the earth was horribly torn to pieces; the surface of hundreds of acres was from time to time covered over of various depths by the sand which issued from the fissures which were made in great numbers all over the country, some of which closed up immediately after they had vomited forth their sand and water, which, it must be remarked, were the substances generally thrown up. In some places, however, there was a substance resembling stone-coal or impure stone-coal thrown up with the sand. It is impossible to say what the depth of these fissures or irregular breaks were. We have reason to believe that some were very deep. The site of this town was evidently settled down at least fifteen feet, and not more than a half a mile below the town there does not appear to be any alteration in the bank of the river, but back from the river, a small distance, the numerous large ponds, or lakes, which covered a great part of the country, are nearly dried up. The beds of some of them are elevated above their former banks, several feet, producing an elevation fifteen or twenty feet from their original state, and lately it has been discovered that a lake (Reelfoot Lake) was found on the opposite side of the Mississippi in the Indian country, upward of 100 miles in length, and from one to six miles in width of the depth of from ten to fifty feet. It has communication with the river at both ends, and it is conjectured that it will not be many years before the principal part, if not the whole of the Mississippi will pass that way.

We were constrained, by fear of our houses falling, to live twelve or eighteen months after the first shocks in little light camps made of boards; but we gradually became callous and returned to our homes again. Most of those who fled from the country in the time of the hard shocks have returned home. We have felt since their commencement in 1811, and still continue to feel slight shocks occasionally. It is seldom that we are more than a week without feeling one, and sometimes three or four a day. There were two this winter past, much harder than we have felt for two years before, but since then they appear to be lighter than they have ever been, and we begin to hope that erelong they will entirely cease.

I have now, Sir, finished my promised description of the earthquake, imperfect it is true, but just as it occurred to my memory, many of, and most of the truly awful scenes having occurred three or four years ago. They of course are not related with that precision which would entitle it to the character of a full and accurate picture, but such as it is, it is given with pleasure, in the full confidence that it is given to a friend. And now, Sir, wishing you all good, I must bid you adieu. Your humble servant, Eliza Bryan"

Times of Long Ago, Barren County, Kentucky, published as newspaper articles in the 1870's by the Honorable Franklin Gorin of Glasgow, KY: "It was in 1811 the earthquakes were felt and the comet beheld. The first shock of the earthquake was terrible. It occurred in the night. The houses rocked, the furniture and chairs it seemed were tossed around the house, and men, women and children were almost frightened out of their senses. The second was felt at breakfast time, and was similar to the first. All was confusion and dismay. Few, if any, of our citizens had ever felt an earthquake before, and though the oldest people understood what it was, their consternation was so great they knew not what was to come next. There were many after shocks, all light. They were not minded, as repetition familiarizes us to most things. The comet, accompanied by its long tail, appeared in the northwest before or after the earthquakes. Its appearance, together with the battle of Tippecanoe, produced a state of mind more easily imagined than described. Some firmly believed the world was soon to be in a flame of fire, and the day for which all other days were made would soon make its advent. Others said we were to have war, and the women and children were generally affrightened. The day of Judgment did not come, but war, cruel war, barbarous war, for many men, women and children were killed, tomahawked and scalped." [Note, Franklin Gorin was 13 years old at these happenings.]

"The four major earthquakes of the sequence, two in the early-morning hours of December 16, 1811, one on the morning of January 23, 1812, and the largest one at 3:00 on February 7, 1812 - were felt as far away as Hartford, Connecticut, to the northeast; Charleston, South Carolina, to the east; and New Orleans, to the south. Closer to the epicenters of the events, in an area extending from Cairo, Illinois, to the north and Memphis, Tennessee, to the south, the land was severally disrupted by subsidence, uplifting, sand blows, landslides, and fissuring. Large tracts of forest were submerged as a result of the subsidence. The quake destroyed the settlements of New Madrid, Missouri; Little Prairie (now Caruthersville), Missouri; and Big Prairie, near the mouth of the St. Francis River, in what is now Arkansas." "In Kentucky, the earthquake caused severe damage to homes and other structures in Henderson and Morton's Gap, and minor damage to structures in the central Kentucky communities of Louisville, Lexington, Frankfort, and Maysville." (James Penick, Jr, The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-19812, Columbia, Mo, 1976).

The shocks were so severe that:
Citizens in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk, Virginia felt the shock.

Devastation was great in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. The southeast part of Missouri, the northeast part of Arkansas, the southwest part of Kentucky, and the northwest part of Tennessee felt the effects.

Reelfoot Lake, in the northwest corner of Tennessee, stands today as evidence of the might of these great earthquakes. Stumps of trees killed by the sudden submergence of the ground can still be seen in Reelfoot Lake.

The St Francis River area saw the formation of a like which had its water replaced by sand. Numerous dead fish were found in the former lake bottom. Large fissures, so wide that they could not be crossed on horseback, were formed in the soft alluvial ground.

The earthquake made rich prairie lands unuseable for farming because of fissures, and land which became swamps.

Entire islands disappeared, banks caved into the rivers, and fissures opened and closed in the river beds. Water spouting from these fissures produced large waves in the river. New sections of river channel were formed and old channels cut off.

Boats were capsized and an unknown number of people were drowned.

Although the total number of deaths resulting from the earthquakes is unknown, the toll probably was not large because the area was sparsely populated and because the log cabin type construction that was prevalent at that time withstood the shaking very well. Masonry and stone structures did not fare so well, however, and damage to them was reported at distances of 250 kilometers and more.

In 1815, the Congress passed the first disaster relief act providing the landowners of ravaged ground with an equal amount of land in unaffected regions.

Other Sources:
New Madrid Earthquakes: The Virtual Times: (source) Center for Earthquake Research and Information, University of Memphis website: [Earthquake Information Bulletin, Volume 6, Number 2, March - April 1974, by Otto W. Nuttli. ]

(c) Copyright 4 Oct 2001, Sandra K. Gorin,   All Rights Reserved.

Col. Sandi Gorin, 205 Clements, Glasgow, KY 42141 (270) 651-9114
Member: Glasgow-Barren Co Chamber of Commerce.
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