Newspaper Accounts of the New Madrid Earthquake
Extract from a letter to a gentleman in Lexington, from his friend at New Madrid, (U.L.) dated 16th December, 1811.
"About 2 o'clock this morning we were awakened by a most tremendous noise, while the house danced about and seemed as if it would fall on our heads. I soon conjectured the cause of our troubles, and cried out it was an Earthquake, and for the family to leave the house; which we found very difficult to do, owing to its rolling and jostling about. The shock was soon over, and no injury was sustained, except the loss of the chimney, and the exposure of my family to the cold of the night. At the time of this shock, the heavens were very clear and serene, not a breath of air stirring; but in five minutes it became very dark, and a vapour which seemed to impregnate the atmosphere, had a disagreeable smell, and produced a difficulty of respiration. I knew not how to account for this at the time, but when I saw, in the morning, the situation of my neighbours' houses, all of them more or less injured, I attributed it to the dust and sot (?), &c which arose from the fall. The darkness continued till day-break; during this time we had EIGHT more shocks, none of them so violent as the first.
"At half past 6 o'clock in the morning it cleared up, and believing the danger over I left home, to see what injury my neighbours had sustained. A few minutes after my departure there was another shock, extremely violent - I hurried home as fast as I could, but the agitation of the earth was so great that it was with much difficulty I kept my balance - the motion of the earth was about twelve inches to and fro. I cannot give you an accurate description of this moment; the earth seemed convulsed - the houses shook very much - chimnies falling in every direction. - The loud hoarse roaring which attended the earthquake, together with the cries, screams, and yells of the people, seems still ringing in my ears.
"Fifteen minutes after seven o'clock, we had another shock. This one was the most severe one we have yet had - the darkness returned, and the noise was remarkably loud. The first motions of the earth were similar to the preceding shocks, but before they ceased we rebounded up and down, and it was with difficulty we kept our seats. At this instant I expected a dreadful catastrophe - the uproar among the people strengthened the colouring of the picture - the screams and yells were heard at a great distance.
"One gentleman, from whose learning I expected a more consistent account says that the convulsions are produced by this world and the moon coming in contact, and the frequent repetition of the shock is owing to their rebounding. The appearance of the moon yesterday evening has knocked his system as low as the quake has leveled my chimnies. Another person with a very serious face, told me, that when he was ousted from his bed, he was verily afraid, and thought the Day of Judgment had arrived, until he reflected that the Day of Judgment would not come in the night.
"Tuesday 17th - I never before thought the passion of fear so strong as I find it here among the people. It is really diverting, or would be so, to a disinterested observer, to see the rueful faces of the different persons that present themselves at my tent - some so agitated that they cannot speak - others cannot hold their tongues - some cannot sit still, but must be in constant motion, while others cannot walk. Several men, I am informed, on the night of the first shock deserted their families, and have not been heard of since. Encampments are formed of those that remain in the open fields, of 50 and 100 persons in each.
"Tuesday, Dec. 24th - The shocks still continue - we have had eight since Saturday - some of them very severe, but not sufficiently so to do much additional injury. I have heard of no lives being lost - several persons are wounded. This day I have heard from the Little Prairie, a settlement on the bank of the river Mississippi, about 30 miles below this place. There the scene has been dreadful indeed - the face of the country has been entirely changed. Large lakes have been raised, and become dry land; and many fields have been converted into pools of water. Capt. George Roddell, a worthy and respectable old gentleman, and who has been the father of that neighborhood, made good his retreat to this place, with about 100 souls. He informs me that no material injury was sustained from the first shocks - when the 10th shock occurred, he was standing in his own yard, situated on the bank of the Bayou of the Big Lake; the bank gave way, and sunk down about 30 yards from the water's edge, as far as he could see up and down the stream. It upset his mill, and one end of his dwelling house sunk down considerably; the surface on the opposite side of the Bayou, which before was swamp, became dry land, the side he was on became lower. His family at this time were running away from the house towards the woods; a large crack in the ground prevented their retreat into the open field. They had just assembled together when the eleventh shock came on, after which there was not perhaps a square acre of ground unbroken in the neighborhood, and in about fifteen minutes after the shock, the water rose round them waist deep. The old gentleman in leading his family, endeavoring to find higher land, would sometimes be precipitated headlong into one of those cracks in the earth, which were concealed from the eye by the muddy water through which they were wading. As they proceeded, the earth continued to burst open, and mud, water, sand and stone coal, were thrown up the distance of 30 yards - frequently trees of a large size were split open, fifteen or twenty feet up. After wading eight miles, he came to dry land.
"I have heard of no white person being lost as yet - Seven Indians were swallowed up; one of them escaped; he says he was taken into the ground the depth of 100 trees in length; that the water came under him and threw him out again - he had to wade and swim four miles before he reached dry land. The Indian says the Shawnee prophet has caused the earthquake to destroy the whites."
Washington, Feb. 29
More of the Earthquakes - The following interesting extract of a letter, on these phenomena, is from a gentleman in Tennessee to his friend in this city, dated
"This morning we were again alarmed by a most tremendous concussion of nature's elements, equal, if not more terrifying than those of the 15th of last month. Its continuation was from 20 to 30 minutes - it shook off the top of one chimney in this town, and unroofed some small buildings in the neighbourhood. It was succeeded by three or four small shocks in the course of an hour. About 4 o'clock, P.M. another was sensibly felt, but in a much lighter degree. The cause of all these phenomena appears to originate a little south of a due west course; which will render the information just received still more probable.
"A gentleman who was near the Arkansas river, at the time of the first shock in Dec. last, states, that certain Indians had arrived near the mouth of the river, who had seen a large lake or sea, where many of their brorhers had resided, and had perished in the general wreck; that to escape a similar fate, they had travelled three days up the river, but finding the dangers increase, as they progressed, frequently having to cut down large trees, to cross the chasms in the earth, they returned to the mouth of the river, and from them this information is derived.
Monday evening - Since Thursday last we have felt 3, 4 and 5 shocks of a day and night, but not very severe."
Russelville, (Ken.) Feb. 26
Arrived in this place on Friday morning last. Mr. John Vettner and crew, from New Madrid, from whom we learn, that they were on shore five miles below the place on Friday morning the 7th instant, at the time of the hard shock, and that the water filled their barge and sunk it, with the whole of its contents, losing every thing but the clothes they had on. They offered, at New Madrid, half their loading for a boat to save it, but no price was sufficient for the hire of a boat. Mrs. Walker offered a likely negro fellow for the use of a boat a few hours, but could not get it. - The town of New Madrid has sunk 12 feet below its former standing, but is not covered with water; the houses are all thrown down, and the inhabitants moved off, except the French, who live in camps close to the river side, and have their boats tied near them, in order to sail off, in case the earth should sink. It is said that a fall equal to that of the Ohio is near above New Madrid, and that several whirls are in the Mississippi river, some so strong as to sink every boat that comes within its suck; one boat was sunk with a family in it. The country from New Madrid to the Grand Prairie is very much torn to pieces, and the Little Prairie almost entirely deluged. It was reported when our informants left it, that some Indians who had been out in search of some other Indians that were lost had returned, and stated that they had discovered a volcano at the head of the Arkansas, by the light of which they travelled three days and nights. A vast nomber of sawyers (?) have risen in the Mississippi river.
No pencil can paint the distress of the many movers! Men, women and children, barefooted and naked! without money and without food.
From the Bairdstown Repository
Sir - The effects produced on the Mississippi, by the Earthquake on the 7th of February, are so great as to render it highly interesting to the community in general, and more particularly so at this crisis, when so many of our fellow citizens are about to adventure their property down that river. Under this impression I have procured the enclosed written statement of Matthias M. Speed, just returned from New Madrid, with a view of giving it publication thru' the medium of your paper. The account I am told is substantially corroborated by another man, who passed through Bairdstown a few days ago. I am, very respectfully, your humble servant,
In descending the Mississippi, on the night of the 6th February, we tied our boat to a willow bar on the west bank of the river, opposite the head of the 9th Island, counting from the mouth of the Ohio we were lashed to another boat. About 3 o'clock, on the morning of the 7th, we were waked by the violent agitation of the boat, attended with a noise more tremendous and terrific than I can describe or any one can conceive, who was not present or near to such a scene. The constant discharge of heavy cannon might give some idea of the noise for loudness, but this was infinitely more terrible, an account of its appearing to be subterraneous.
As soon as we waked we discovered that the bar to which we were tied was sinking, we cut loose and moved our boats for the middle of the river. After getting out so far as to be out of danger from the trees which were falling in from the bank - the swells in the river was so great as to threaten the sinking of the boat every moment. We stopped the outholes with blankets to keep out the water - after remaining in this situation for some time, we perceived a light in the shore which we had left - (we having a lighted candle in a lanthorn on our boat,) were hailed and advised to land, which we attempted to do, but could not effect it, finding the banks and trees still falling in.
At day light we perceived the head of the tenth island. During all this time we had made only about four miles down the river - from which circumstance, and from that of an immense quantity of water rushing into the river from the woods - it is evident that the earth at this place, or below, had been raised so high as to stop the progress of the river, and caused it to overflow its banks - We took the right hand channel of the river of this island, and having reached within about half a mile of the lower end of the town, we were affrightened with the appearance of a dreadful rapid of falls in the river just below us; we were so far in the sock (?) that it was impossible now to land - all hopes of surviving was now lost and certain destruction appeared to await us! We having passed the rapids without injury, keeping our bow foremost, both boats being still lashed together.
As we passed the point on the left hand below the island, the bank and trees were rapidly falling in. From the state of alarm I was in at this time, I cannot pretend to be correct as to the length or height of the falls; but my impression is, that they were about equal to the rapids of the Ohio. As we passed the lower point of the island, looking back, up the left channel, we thought the falls extended higher up the river on that side than on the other.
The water of the river, after it was fairly light, appeared to be almost black, with something like the dust of stone coal - We landed at New Madrid about breakfast time without having experienced any injury- The appearance of the town, and the situation of the inhabitants, were such as to afford but little relief to our minds. The former elevation of the bank on which the town stood was estimated by the inhabitants at about 25 feet above common water; when we reached it the elevation was only about 12 or 13 feet - There was scarcely a house left entire - some wholly prostrated, others unroofed and not a chimey standing - the people all having deserted their habitations, were in camps and tents back of the town, and their little watercafts (mispelled), such as skiffs, boats and canoes, handed out of the water to their camps, that they might be ready in case the country should sink.
I remained at New Madrid from the 7th till the 12th, during which time I think shocks of earthquakes were experienced every 15 or 20 minutes- those shocks were all attended with a rumbling noise, resembling distant thunder from the southwest, varying in report according to the force of the shock. When I left the place, the surface of the earth was very little, if any, above the tops of the boats in the river.
There was one boat coming down on the same morning I landed; when they came in sight of the falls, the crew were so frightened at the prospect, that they abandoned their boat and made for the island in their canoe- two were left on the island, and two made for the west bank in the canoe - about the time of their landing, they saw that the island was violently convulsed - one of the men on the island threw himself into the river to save himself by swimming - one of the men from the shore met him with the canoe and saved him. - This man gave such an account of the convulsion of the island, that neither of the three dared to venture back for the remaining man. The three men reached New Madrid by land.
The man remained on the Island from Friday morning until Sunday evening, when he was taken off by a canoe sent from a boat coming down. I was several days in company with this man - he stated that during his stay in the island, there were frequent eruptions, in which sand and stone, coal and water were thrown up. - The violent agitation of the ground was such at one time as induced him to hold to a tree to support himself; the earth gave way at the place, and he with the tree sunk down, and he got wounded in the fall. - The fissure was so deep as to put it out of his power to get out at that place - he made his way along the fissure until a sloping slide offered him an opportunity of crawling out. He states that frequent lights appeared - that in one instance, after one of the explosions near where he stood, he approached the hole from which the coal and land had been thrown up, which was now filled with water, and on putting his hand into it he found it was warm.
During my stay at new Madrid there were upwards of twenty boats landed, all of whom spoke of the rapids above, and conceived of it as I had done.
Several persons, who came up the river in a small barge, represented that there were other falls in the Mississippi, about 7 miles below New Madrid, principally on the eastern side - more dangerous than those above - and that some boats had certainly been lost in attempting to pass them - but they thought it was practicable to pass by keeping close to the western shore.
From what I had seen and heard I was deterred from proceeding further, and nearly gave away what property I had. On my return by land up the right side of the river, I found the surface of the earth for 10 or 12 miles cracked in numberless places, running in different directions - some of which were bridged and some filled with logs to make them passable - others were so wide that they were obliged to be surrounded. In some of these cracks the earth sank on one side from the level to the distance of five feet, and from one to three feet there was water in most of them. Above this the cracks were not so numerous nor so great - but the inhabitants have generally left their dwellings and gone to the higher grounds.
Nothing appeared to have issued from the cracks but where there was sand and stone coal, they seem to have been thrown up from holes; in most of those, which varied in size, there was water standing. In the town of New Madrid there were four, but neither of them had vented stone or sand - the size of them, in diameter, varied from 12 to 50 feet, and in depth from, 5 to 10 feet from the surface to the water. In travelling out from New Madrid those were very frequent, and were to be seen in different places, as high as fort ,Massac, in the Ohio.
Earthquake of March 25, 1812 killed about 10,000 inhabitants of Caracas.
Lexington, (Ken) April 4 - We are informed from a respectable source, that the old road to the port of Arkansas, by Spring river, is entirely destroyed by the last violent shocks of earthquakes - chasms of great depth and considerable length cross the country in various directions; - some swamps have become dry, others deep lakes, and in some places hills have disappeared.
Richmond, (Vir.) April 24
A few minutes before 4 o'clock, on Wednesday morning, an earthquake was distinctly felt and heard by several persons in and near this city. The sound was like the rumbling of distant thunder. Pendulous bodies swung, beds were shaken, and several roused from their slumbers. How fortunate are we, that we are so far removed from the scene of convulsion - and saved from the frightful disaster - which has laid the wretched Carracas in ruins.
Louisville, (Ken.) May 1
Earthquake - At forty-five minutes after three o'clock A.M. on Friday last, a shock of an earthquake was very sensibly felt, and at forty minutes after ten o'clock P.M. another slight shock was distinctly perceived; the vibration appeared to be from North to South, or rather West of North and East of South; - duration of first shock, about minute, of second shock, about half a minute.
Richmond, Dec. 17
Our city has been sensibly shocked at intervals, for the last two days, by an earthquake. It was first felt on Monday morning at three o'clock. In the most elevated parts of the city, the citizens were alarmed by the violent concussion, and the house bells in some places set a ringing. On yesterday, at eleven o'clock another violent shock was felt.
It was felt at Norfolk at 3 and 8 o'clock on Monday morning, at which the Hearald says, "The clocks were all stopt, and doors, and things suspended from the ceilings of the shops and stores, oscillated violently, though a dead calm prevailed. Its course was from West to East." It is remarkable that although the higher parts of this city were much agitated, and a gentleman who was then shaving himself was obliged to discontinue the operation, those who live below the hill never felt it at all.
Charleston, Dec. 17
Earthquake - Yesterday morning, about three o'clock, a severe shock of an Earthquake was felt in this city. It was preceded by a blowing noise, resembling that made by smith's bellows. The agitation of the earth was such that the bells in the church steeples rung to a degree that some supposed there was fire. The houses shook so sensibly as to induce many persons to rise from their beds. The clocks generally stopped. Another slight shock was felt about fifteen minutes after, and again at eight o'clock, which last shook to such a degree as to make a very considerable rattling among glass, china and other furniture. A looking glass, about three feet in length, hanging against a West wall, was observed to vibrate two or three inches from North to South.
Georgetown, December 18
Earthquake - Several shocks of an Earthquake were experienced in this town between the hours of three and eight o'clock on Monday morning. Great indeed was the consternation of the inhabitants, on the awful occasion. So severe were the shocks that the parade ground of the fort settled from one to two inches below its former level. A tub of water sitting on a table in the barracks was upset by the jarring of the building.
Another severe shock was felt yesterday at 12 o'clock,.
Raleigh, (N.C.) Dec. 13. (18?)
Several slight shocks of an earthquake were felt in this place on Monday morning.
Charleston, Dec. 18
Earthquake - A slight shock was felt on Monday evening, and another yesterday at 20 minutes after 12. They continued but a few seconds. We have now had six of these awful visitations in two days.
Savannah, Dec. 17
Four shocks of an Earthquake have been sustained by our town, and its neighborhood, within the last two days. The first commenced yesterday morning between two and three, preceded by a meteoric flash of light and accompanied with a rattling noise, resembling that of a carriage passing over a paved pathway, and lasted almost minute. A second succeeded, almost immediately after, but its continuance was of much shorter duration. A third shock was experienced about eight o'clock in the morning, and another today about one.
Persons from White Bluff, (about eight miles from town, southwardly) felt it very sensibly; and several who were up at the time, state that the movement of the earth made then tether as though they were on ship board in a heavy swell of the sea. Those who were up at the time conceive its direction to have been from southwest to northeast.
On Monday morning, the 16th inst. about three o'clock, the citizens of the town of Pittsburgh, (Penn.) were greatly alarmed by the shock of an Earthquake; a number of persons from the shaking of their houses, were so much alarmed as to run out of bed. About 7 o'clock, the same morning, there was another shock, though not so violent as the first. - Philad. pap.
From the Annapolis Maryland Republican
An Earthquake- A severe shock of an earthquake was experienced by a number of persons in this city yesterday morning, the 22nd inst. about sixteen minutes before ten o'clock. Its duration is supposed to have been about two or three minutes from beginning to end, and its direction apparently from E. to S.W. This phenomenon was dissimilar in its nature and effects from any of the kind that we have heretofore heard of, as it was not accompanied or preceded by the usual rumbling noise, nor any sudden concussion of the earth, but a continued roll similar to that of a vessel in a heavy sea. One circumstance which renders its effects more singular is, that it was very sensibly felt by some, while others, although in the same room, and perhaps within a few feet of them, were not in the least affected by its oscillation, and those who were in the street or ____ air, were insensible as to any extraordinary motion of the earth. The first intimation to those who experienced its effects, was from the motion of every thing around them, and a sudden sickness accompanied with a giddines in the head. We judge of the severity of the shock from the motion given to substances suspended from the ceilings of houses. The fairest opportunity that was presented (to our knowledge) of judging of its force and direction, was from an ostrich egg which was suspended by a string of about a foot in length from a first floor ceiling, which was caused to oscillate at least four inches from point to point - - - We are informed that the State House, which is supposed to be 250 feet in height vibrated at least 6 or 8 feet at the top, and the motion was perceptible for 8 or 10 minutes. A number of clocks were stopped and the ice in the bay and river cracked considerably. Some persons, who were skaiting, were very much terrified, and immediately made for the shore. In the lower part of the city it appears to have been most forcible, some people being in the act of abandoning their houses, for the purpose of seeking safety in the open air. It is said that a noise like distant thunder was heard about 3 o'clock in the morning, and a slight motion of the earth observed about 8, but neither were very sensibly heard or felt.
There was nothing extraordinary in the atmosphere, except that it was remarkably calm, and rather inclined to be warm, although there was a deep snow on the ground and for several days past it had been extremely cold.
Charleston, Jan. 24
Earthquake - Yesterday morning, at fifteen minutes after nine o'clock, another shock was felt in this city. The vibrating motion was more severe than any we experienced last month, and continued for one minute. The pavements in several of the streets are cracked, by the loosening of the cement; and a three Story Brick House in King-Street, belonging to Mr. Brownlee, has received very considerable injury. The walls are cracked from the top to the bottom, and the wooken work and the plastering in the inside, are split and broken. Many persons in different parts of the city were sensible of a shock at eight o'clock in the morning- Several families left their beds. Both these concussions were unaccompanied with any noise.
A report prevailed in town yesterday, that a part of the town of Natchez had been sunk by an Earthquake, and that four thousand persons perished.- We trust that this report will prove to be unfounded; but if such a deplorable circumstance has taken place, it could not have been on the morning of the 16th December, as a letter dated on that date at Natchez, and published some time since at the city of Washington says "A considerable shock of an Earthquake was felt here last night", without adding anything further; which most undoubtedly would have been done, had any fatality attended it.
Natchez, Jan. 2
Important Arrival - Arrived here on Monday last, the steam-boat from Pittsburgh, which had on account of low water been some time detained at the falls of the Ohio; and is destined to run between this place and New Orleans as a regular trader. She was only 221 hours under way from Pittsburgh to this place a distance of near two thousand miles.
No very satisfactory accounts of the shocks of Earthquake, and their effects, which have lately happened, could be expected; that received from the gentlemen on board, is rather more so than we anticipated.
The shake or jar, produced by the powerful operation of the engine, rendered the shocks imperceptible, while the boat was under way. While at anchor five or six shocks were felt, two or three more severe than the rest. On enquiry at New Madrid, a small town about 70 miles below the mouth of Ohio, they found that the chimnies of almost all the houses were thrown down, and the inhabitants considerably alarmed. At the Little Prairie, 30 miles lower down, they were bro't to by the cries of some of the people, who thought the earth was gradually sinking; but declined to take refuge on board without their friends, whom they wished to collect. Some distance below the Little Prairie, the bank of the river has caved in to a considerable extent, and two islands had almost disappeared.
We also understand that letters have been received from Louisville, Falls of Ohio, which state, that the houses have suffered considerable damage in that place.
From the Richmond Enquirer, Jan. 25.
Another Earthquake was most distinctly felt in this city on Thursday morning last [Jan. 23] , about nine o'clock. Some persons were rocked in their chairs. Some staggered as they stood. Hanging keys oscillated. Doors and windows flapped. Bedsteads and tall articles of furniture were moved to and fro. Those who were at breakfast saw a violent ripple on the surface of tea and coffee. A few ran out of their houses in great alarm. The convulsion was more sensibly felt on the hill than below it; in high than low houses. We distinctly felt two of these convulsions, within the lapse of 15 or 20 minutes between them.
The following very interesting communication is from an intelligent friend at N. Orleans. - It is, we presume, the most particular and satisfactory account of the earthquakes on the Mississippi, which has, as yet, been published: And Mr. Pierce being an ear and eye witness to the scenes he describes, the authenticity of his narrative cannot be doubted.