Oct. 23, 2021

The Great Quakes

The Great Quakes

Did you know the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was not the largest to hit the United States?

Tune in as I discover a series of devastating earthquakes, known as the New Madrid Earthquake Sequence. For a few months in 1811 and 1812, residents of the small community were left helpless as the ground beneath their feet shook violently, destroying property and altering the geological landscape.

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Bryan, Eliza. Letter to Lorenzo Drew (1816). University of Memphis Center for Earthquake Research and Information. Accessed September 12, 2021. (LINK)

Feldman, Jay.When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 

Ponti, Crystal. “How a Trio of Hellish Earthquakes Prompted America’s First Disaster Relief Act.” History.com. Accessed September 12, 2021. (LINK

Rafferty, John P. “New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed September 12, 2021. (LINK)

Rusch, Elizabeth. “The Great Midwest Earthquake of 1811.” Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian.com. Accessed September 12, 2021. (LINK)

“Summary of the 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquake Sequence. United States Geological Survey. USGS.Gov. Accessed September 10th, 2021. (LINK)

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“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 the 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 interruption in its bed - formed a scene truly horrible.” Eliza Bryan, 1816.

Welcome to Civics & Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S. History and give yo both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 

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Hey peeps, welcome back. 

Earthquakes are a fascinating, albeit sometimes terrifying, natural occurrence in nature that ranges from a minor jolt to rolling sidewalks. As a California native, I’ve never quite gotten used to the sudden shake of the ground myself, but luckily I live with a boy scout who is always prepared. 

While we know a lot about earthquakes, they remain unsettling and of course unpredictable. Can you imagine living through an earthquake in the nineteenth century when the reasons given for the quake could be anything from volcanoes to the end of times. In the late part of 1811 and early months of 1812, the residents of a small town called New Madrid experienced a series of violent shakes that caused quite an uproar. 

So this week I am diving into the great quakes of 1811. 

Grab your cup of coffee peeps. Let’s do this. 

When people think of earthquakes, they tend to think of the western half of the United states and Hawaii. And for good reason too; the west coast is home to the infamous San Andreas fault line, a strike slip fault that has caused its fair share of damage over the years. California, firmly planted along the San Andreas, and Alaska, settled on a similar fault line known as the Queen Charlotte Fairweather fault, have seen some of the most violent and destructive earthquakes in United States history. 

What is less common, however, are major quakes in the middle of the country. Most of the land mass residing east of the Rockies sit in the middle of a tectonic plate, instead of a tectonic boundary like the west coast and therefore are not subject to the constant friction and ruptures of a strike slip fault. 

But for a few months between 1811 and 1812, the new settlement town of New Madrid, in what is today Missouri, experienced a series of dangerous and violent earthquakes resulting in a religious revival in the area and prompted Congress to pass its first ever federal disaster bill. 

New Madrid, officially incorporated as a town after the shocks, was originally a planned community by Colonel George Morgan, a land speculator who served in the American Revolution. His plan was to obtain a land grant from the Spanish government to set up a community along the Mississippi River. The area in question was still controlled by the Spanish and Morgan felt the access to a major waterway would enable the town to prosper by taking advantage of the merchants sailing down river to sell their wares. His proposed town would stretch four miles south along the river and two miles inland to the west. One thing Morgan did not identify during his survey of the land? His new town sat on top of a seismic fault zone three miles below the earth’s surface. 

While Morgan’s plans may have proved unsuccessful, a small community formed what came to be known as New Madrid. Located in the southeastern part of Missori, the emerging settlement sat on high ground above the bank of the powerful Mississippi River. Sparsely populated, the town was in full holiday celebration as the ground below them prepared to convulse.

In the twilight hours of December 16th, 1811 as the residents of New Madrid were sleeping soundly in their homes, the earth suddenly began to shake violently. The quake, ranging in estimates of 7.1 and 8.2 on the magnitude scale, thundered across the town at 2:15am, sending the community scrambling to find some place of safety. Given the shallow nature of the quake, the earth shook with more force and eyewitnesses reported seeing the ground “rolling in waves” causing cracks in the earth’s surface. 

In a letter five years later, resident Eliza Bryan wrote, “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 a complete saturation of the atmosphere with sulphuric vapor, causing total darkness.” 

Violent vertical shakes caused the ground to rupture, creating fissures measuring 10 feet wide by 10 feet deep and stretching for miles. The force of the movement caused the Mississippi River to heave such large waves that flatboat operators reported seeing the Mississippi shift its tidal course almost appearing to flow backward. Boats previously docked along the river were pushed ashore; small islands within the river disappeared as the river swelled to thirty feet above its normal level. 

According to the United States Geological Survey, the quakes in New Madrid were two to three times as intense as the Alaskan earthquake in 1964 and ten times - yes ten times - as intense as one of the most notable earthquakes in U.S. history - the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. 

The shockwaves of the earthquake reverberated far and wide with people reporting feeling the quake as far away as South Carolina and seeing damage as far away as 250 miles. Even president James Madison made reference to feeling the quake in a letter to a friend. As residents of New Madrid fled, a little town just thirty miles up the river was also dealing with the shallow shattering caused by the quake. Little Prairie got slammed by the initial onslaught and experienced heavy damage as a result of soil liquefaction. 

When I did a google slash wikipedia search to try to figure out what that exactly meant, the best I can do is describe how I understand it is. From my reading when soil liquefaction occurs, the ground becomes oversaturated and loses its strength and breaks down almost like quick sand. And here is where I insert the warning that I am not a scientist and my research on this topic was primitive.  

Anyway, as the community was beginning to get their bearings and get a sense of the damage to their town, a forceful aftershock hit at 7:15am and lasted for several minutes. Though it was an aftershock, it’s intensity mirrored the initial quake and Little Prairie - already damaged by the first quake became flooded. The force of the quake and aftershock caused New Madrid to drop by fifteen feet, down to the level of the Mississippi River. 

The residents were in shock, unsure of exactly how the quake occurred. Religious individuals, witnessing the destruction of the earth and the swells of the Mississippi were convinced it was the Day of Judgment while members of the local Moravian indigenous tribe believed the great spirit was displeased with the white man for capturing too much indigenous land and murdering native americans during the battle of tippecanoe. Even scientists weren’t exactly sure how the quakes occurred, with theories ranging from volcanic activity to electricity being the culprits. 

The quakes in December were just the beginning. Two more major quakes would hit the area surrounding New Madrid - once in January and again in February - causing the town to appeal for federal aid. The next major quake occurred on January 23rd with an estimated magnitude between 7.0 and 7.8. The third and final major quake hit on February 7th with magnitude ranging between 7.4 and 8.1. For context, the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco registered in the range of 7.6-7.9. 

And if you know anything about earthquakes, then you know that aftershocks are a common occurrence. This series of events was no different. 1,874 shocks were recorded by Jared Brooks between December 22nd and March 15th. Brooks, living in Kentucky, set up pendulums to try to accurately identify and document the various aftershocks throughout the event. 

These quakes caused major geological disruptions and forever changed the surrounding landscape. As a result of this sequence of quakes, a series of subsidence created new lakes and uplift causing existing lakes to turn into dry beds. Reelfoot lake, located in Northwest Tennessee, over sixty miles from New Madrid, was created as a result of the massive quake. The lake is about eighteen miles long, five miles wide and about eighteen feet deep.  

Staying outside of the damaged town, members of New Madrid set up temporary shelters in the hills above, hoping to stay away from the damage. However, it seemed as though every time they made any headway in their rebuilding efforts, another quake would reset their scales causing them to petition congress for aid. On January 12, 1814 the General Assembly of the territory of Missouri passed a resolution requesting federal assistance for their residents. 

Quote: “Be it therefore resolved, by the General Assembly for the Territory of Missouri, that they do recommend the inhabitants of the said county of New Madrid, who have thus far suffered, to the consideration of the National Legislature, and that in the opinion of the said general assembly, provisions ought to be made by law, for granting to the said inhabitants, relief either out of the public land, or in such other way as may be consistent to the wisdom and liberality of general government.” end quote. 

Congress agreed and on February 17, 815, they passed the New Madrid Relief Act; the first in United States history. Prior to this law, victims of natural disasters were left largely to depend on the assistance of local governments, private donors and mutual aid societies. The federal government had thus far not been overly involved in the cleanup efforts of prior disasters and this relief act proved to be the start of over 100 pieces of disaster response bills before the Federal Disaster Relief Act was passed in 1950. 

But the law in 1815 provided residents the opportunity to trade their land titles for a certificate that would be good for any unclaimed government owned land for sale elsewhere in the territory. Their credit from the government provided for a piece of property of like quantity.Unfortunately, the natives of New Madrid were some of the last to know and land speculators moved in on the town, snatching up the available land for pennies on the dollar. 

It is estimated that of the over 500 certificates issued, only twenty of them went to actual residents of New Madrid.  While the law was well intentioned, it turned out to be a nightmare and led to a series of lawsuits. Litigation stretched so long that the final case to be settled was in 1862, some fifty years after the quakes. 

In the aftermath of the sequence, a religious revival took hold of the area. Preachers moved in from all over, speaking the gospel and the quakes to entice new parishioners to their ministries. 

So how is it if these quakes were so large in scale and violent are they not better known? Well, despite the sizable property damage and devastation to the landscape, the overall loss of human life was minimal. While there are no official records of the death toll from the actual event, the USGS believes only one individual died as a result of the quakes. You compare this to thousands who died in San Francisco, and it is easy to understand why it's perhaps not better known. 

Despite its relative obscurity, the earthquake sequence of New Madrid in 1811 and 1812 proved historic in its own right as the first natural disaster to require federal relief. Geologists estimate the area surrounding New Madrid could experience an earthquake in the next few decades and are concerned about the potential for devastation. The New Madrid Seismic Zone is 45 miles wide and 125 miles long and stretches into parts of eight states who are much more populated than when the original quakes hit, making the potential toll of any event quite large.

Let’s hope if the next quake comes, it will be mild. 

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Thanks peeps.

Thanks for tuning in and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics and Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from American history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together. 

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