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Chapter 1: The Message
Suggestions for Students
– Questions to Consider
– Topics to Explore
Discussion Topics for Book Groups
If you want to know more …
Blog: People, Place, Period, Potpourri
Thunder Beneath My Feet
By Carolyn Mulford
Rocking Horse Publishing, February 2016, 190 pp.
Trade book: $12.95
Kindle: $4.99; Kindle Unlimited: free to members
Shy, sensible Betsy, 15, takes charge of the family farm and her brother Johnnie, 10, when their mother rides south to bring her sick husband home to New Madrid, Missouri Territory. Four days later, December 16, 1811, powerful earthquakes destroy homes and trees, flood and poison the land, and turn the Mississippi into a river of death. Their neighbors flee the never-ending quakes. Betsy stays to wait for her parents, care for the animals, and find the family’s stolen money. She and Johnnie share a lean-to with four strangers—a 16-year-old French-Shawnee boy, a mute slave woman, a poor French tutor, and his elegant Spanish wife. Their secrets hold them there as the quakes and the cold endanger their lives.
A series of the country’s most powerful earthquakes and aftershocks began December 16, 1811, near New Madrid, Upper Louisiana/Missouri Territory. The quakes terrified residents living where Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee now come together. Many feared the world was ending. Almost everyone living east of the Mississippi River felt the major quakes. The first one woke President James Madison in the White House and rang church bells in cities along the Atlantic coast.
In the next few months, quakes killed an estimated 1,500 people on the sparsely populated frontier, destroyed or severely damaged most homes within 100 miles of the epicenter, toppled chimneys more than 200 miles away, drained and formed lakes, and briefly reversed the Mississippi River’s flow.
The majority of the approximately 1,200 people living in and near the town of New Madrid fled and resettled elsewhere. One of the few families that stayed “lived under boards” for eighteen months before rebuilding a house.
Used for temporary camps by French hunters, settled under the Spanish, and purchased by the United States in 1803, the Mississippi River port served as a center for traders, farmers, and travelers. In the streets, people spoke English, French, Spanish, and a smattering of other European and Native American languages. Before the earthquakes, the residents hoped New Madrid would become an important commercial center like St. Louis, some 200 miles to the north.
Some Americans had settled in New Madrid before the Louisiana Purchase, and more and more were coming down the Ohio River to settle in the new territory. Religious, cultural, and political differences separated the various national groups. Travelers reported that the Americans considered the French too fond of pleasures and the French considered the Americans overly sober and ambitious.
The quakes in the winter of 1811-1812 and spring floods destroyed the carefully laid-out town. The Mississippi River changed its course, placing the original site in the river or even in Kentucky. The small remaining population rebuilt New Madrid, but the dream of a bustling river port died.
Tremors persist today, as do threats of catastrophic earthquakes. Some scientists say such major earthquakes occur about once every 500 years in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Some say the cycle may be closer to 200 years.
Missouri and surrounding states conduct disaster drills that include practice in responding to earthquakes.
What geologists say: For a summary of the current thinking (it keeps changing) on the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 and on future seismic activity, visit http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/states/events/1811-1812.php
Today earthquakes as powerful as those in 1811-1812 (approximately 7.5 to 8.5 on the Richter scale) would affect millions of people. Major cities likely to suffer serious damage include Memphis, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky; and St. Louis, Missouri. In recent years nine states have held annual earthquake disaster drills.
The Missouri government offers an opportunity to experience a virtual earthquake at http://sema.dps.mo.gov/earthquake_preparedness/EQ_MM/
and gives instructions on preparing for an earthquake at http://sema.dps.mo.gov/earthquake_preparedness/earthquake_preparedness.php.
The instructions include: “Buy a large garbage can to store bottled drinking water, canned and dried non-perishable food that does not need to be cooked (tuna and crackers, for example), a can opener, flashlights, first aid supplies, battery powered radio, seasonal clothing and blankets. It may also become your “go kit’ if you need to leave your home.”
During an earthquake: “If indoors–take cover under sturdy furniture or against an inside wall. ‘Drop, Cover and Hold On’ until the shaking stops. This means DROP down to the floor, take COVER and protect your head and neck with your arms, and HOLD ON to the sturdy piece of furniture you are under until the shaking stops.”
Immediately after an earthquake, “Do not flush toilets until you know sewage lines are intact. Open cabinets cautiously because objects may fall off shelves.”
Check websites in your area for similar instructions.
In the blog, I’ll post true stories about people and events mentioned in the book and about the effects of the earthquakes in other places. I’ll also add specific resources, including books and websites.
Even though the earthquakes happened more than 200 years ago, scientists are still unearthing new information. To read eyewitness reports and scientists’ latest findings, go to the United States Geological Survey’s website: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/states/events/1811-1812.php. The New Madrid Seismic Zone still offers a “significant risk for damaging earthquakes.”
If you hunger for more details about the 1811-1812 earthquakes, explore such books as The New Madrid Earthquakes, by James L. Penick, Jr. (University of Missouri Press, 1981), and The Earthquake America Forgot: 2,000 Temblors in Five Months—And It Will Happen Again, by David Stewart and Ray Knox (Gutenberg-Richter, 1995).
The most difficult but enjoyable parts of my research concerned daily life for the people from the American, Spanish, French, and Native American cultures living side by side in New Madrid. I wondered what songs they sang and stories they told. You can listen to songs Betsy and her friends knew at http://www.pdmusic.org/1800s.html. Among the books I particularly liked were Catfish, Fiddles, Mules, and More: Missouri’s State Symbols, by John C. Fisher (University of Missouri Press, 2003), It’s Good to Tell You: French Folktales from Missouri, by Rosemary Hyde Thomas (University of Missouri Press, 1981), and Country Folk Medicine: Tales of Skunk Oil, Sassafras Tea, and Other Old-Time Remedies, by Elizabeth Janos (Globe Pequot, 1990).
For me, the most entertaining way to find out about life on the frontier is to visit historic sites and museums, especially living history farms and communities. New Madrid today doesn’t resemble Betsy’s village (and isn’t on the same spot), but the New Madrid Historical Museum outlines the town’s history. In Ste. Genevieve, Isabella and Alexandre’s home, you can see a 1792 French house built with the logs standing upright and other remnants of French culture. Interested in the lakes that the earthquakes created? Visit Reelfoot Lake State Park in northwest Tennessee.
If you’re curious about how Americans farmed in the years before and after the earthquakes, visit such places as the Virginia plantations of George Washington (Mount Vernon) and Thomas Jefferson (Monticello) and the much more modest Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in southern Indiana.
New Madrid began as a stopover for hunters and traders like Rabbit’s father and uncles. Museums and exhibits along the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition display keel boats, canoes, weapons, and tools they and frontier families like Betsy’s owned.
You can discover the answers to most of your questions on your own. Local libraries contain many books and movies, both fiction and nonfiction, that portray life on the frontier. Explore the shelves to get an overview. If you want to know isolated facts, you may find them on such search engines as Google.