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Disasters in Tennessee
Panorama of East Nashville after the Great Fire, 1916, Library Photograph Collection
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New Madrid Earthquake


Isoseismal Map for the Arkansas Earthquake of December 16, 1811

  Isoseismal Map for the Arkansas Earthquake  
of December 16, 1811

USGS Seismicity of the United States,
Professional Paper 1527

by Carl W. Stover & Jerry L Coffman

New Madrid Earthquake, December 1811 - April 1812
The worst earthquake in American history shook the country on December 16, 1811, beginning a series of three major earthquakes in the Mississippi River Valley with epicenters focused in northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri. Spanning a period of four months, it was the most frightening sequence of earthquakes ever to occur in the United States.

The New Madrid, Missouri, earthquake was felt over a two-million-square-mile area with tremors reported as far away as London. Shockwaves were recorded from Canada to the Gulf Coast, and there were accounts of chimneys that came crashing down in Maine.

The quake caused huge cracks in the earth's surface. Fissures, large and small, ejected coal and sand into the air; new lakes formed, and the Mississippi River briefly reversed its course after rising and falling, causing giant waves to engulf and capsize boats. Some of the most dramatic effects occurred along rivers and streams as banks collapsed, covering rivers with floating trees. The powerful turbulence in the land and water reportedly enveloped an entire Indian village and, while no official casualty numbers exist, untold scores of people were never accounted for. The most lasting geographic effect was the creation of Reelfoot Lake, a body of water in a fissure formed by the earthquake.

Cypress trees in Reelfoot Lake, 1938

Cypress trees in Reelfoot Lake, April 10, 1938

  RG 82, Department of Conservation Photograph Collection  

Other earthquake phenomena were also reported, such as sand blows (also called sand boils or sand volcanoes), seismic tar balls (small balls of solidified petrolium found in sand blows and fissures), earthquake lights (caused by the immense pressure on quartz crystals in the ground), earthquake smog, loud thunder-like explosions, and strange animal behavior prior to the quakes.

As the rumblings ceased, residents returned to New Madrid to repair homes and buildings. People continued to settle in the region despite numerous minor tremors that continued off and on for years following the major quakes in 1811 and 1812.

The fault has been largely dormant since those major quakes, but communities in the New Madrid fault zone continue to remain on guard in case another big tremor should strike the region.



The Mississippi River as seen at sunset near the Shelby Forest State Park, 1948

The Mississippi River as seen at sunset
near the Shelby Forest State Park,
Memphis, Tennessee, January 3, 1948

  RG 82, Department of Conservation Photograph Collection  

Tecumseh's Prophecy
Tecumseh (1768-1813) was a well-known diplomat, orator, peacemaker, and prophet. He was born in a Shawnee village in Old Piqua (now Ohio) and named "Panther Passing Across." He was raised as a warrior and eventually became one of the most trusted and admired Shawnee leaders. Tecumseh traveled all over the Northwest, South, and Eastern Mississippi Valley to exhort other Indian tribes to stem the tide of white settlers into the region in the early 1800s.

Tecumseh prophesied there would be a major earthquake at New Madrid many months before it occurred. He was accurate down to the very day, and his prophecy was interpreted as a signal for all Native Americans to unite in defense of their lands against invasion by European settlers.





Mouths of the Mississipps, ca. 1800

  Mouths of the Mississippi, ca. 1800  

Detail of a print by Benjamin H. Latrobe

Nell Savage Mahoney Papers

Accounts of the New Madrid Earthquake

John James Audubon:
...Never had I witnessed anything like this before, though I had heard of earthquakes. I found myself rocking on my horse and I moved to and fro with him like a child in a cradle, expecting the ground to open at any moment and reveal an abyss to engulf me and all around me. The fearful convulsion lasted only minutes, however.

Almost every day or night for weeks shock succeeded shock, but gradually diminished into more vibrations of the earth…The quake ceased, but not until after it had caused serious consequences in other neighboring places, rending the earth and sinking islands…





Cypress trees and a view of Reelfoot Lake near Blue Bank, 1938

Cypress trees and a view of Reelfoot Lake
near Blue Bank, April 10, 1938

  RG 82, Department of Conservation Photograph Collection  

Eliza Bryan:
...On the 16th December, 1811, about two 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 sulphurous 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, it is supposed, to an irruption in its bed - formed a scene truly horrible...



Mississippi River at the Shelby Forest State Park, 1953

Mississippi River at the Shelby Forest State Park,
Memphis, Tennessee, September 9, 1953

  RG 82, Department of Conservation Photograph Collection  

Mary Morriss Smith:
...In 1811 and 12 the people were greatly excited and alarmed. They were just on the eve of a war with England. then the earthquakes. They knew not the cause of those heavy shakes. The houses, The trees, the whole earth shook. Some thought the end of the world was come and time would be no more. Those shakes sometimes occurred in the night and everyone rose up alarmed. There was a story told of an old man who was looked on as one of the best of men. There occurred a very hard shock one night, he sprang up and started to the window no doubt expecting to see the Lord and his angels coming in the clouds and hear Gabriels trumpet blow, when his wife saw his actions she called to him to wait for her.

He replied, "I may be in heaven a thousand years before I think to look for you." That idea don't accord with people ideas of the present day who think their friends will meet them at the "beautiful gate and welcome them in"...

Mary Morriss Smith memoirsMary Morriss Smith memoirsMary Morriss Smith memoirs
Mary Morriss Smith memoirs, 1886-1895
Archives Manuscript Collection



Section researched and written by Lucinda Kinsall, Library Assistant