The first quake rousted from bed most people within 50 miles of New Madrid and ended the French community’s Sunday dance. While residents of the diverse Mississippi river port fled from their shaking or collapsing houses, people as far away as Quebec, Washington, D.C., and Savannah felt the earthquake’s reach.
December 16, 1811, marked the beginning of a series of three powerful quakes, more than a dozen major aftershocks, and, by the Ides of March 1812, almost 1,900 tremors. With the epicenter near southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas, the quakes terrified residents in these and bordering states.
In New Madrid, brick homes and chimneys crumbled. Log homes fared better, but many caught fire. Giant trees split up the middle. Sand boils erupted. Ravines appeared. Lakes formed and drained. Furrows resembling giant waves disturbed the fields. A stench rose from the eruption of rotted vegetation and gases.
The river became deadly. It ran backwards, carrying flatboats upstream or capsizing them. Oceanic waves swamped canoes. Falls formed. Giant trees from the banks and dead ones dislodged from the river floor clogged the water. The water rose like a tide at night, forcing boaters to cut their moorings to avoid being dragged under.
The striking facts of this frontier tragedy led me to write a novel, Thunder Beneath My Feet, about how six young people worked together to survive.
Few Americans will note the quakes’ anniversary—or realize they will come again.