Eavesdropping on Texas History
By Mary L. Scheer
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2017 University of North Texas Press
All rights reserved.
"The Earth Had Chills and Fever": The New Madrid Earthquakes and Caddo Lake, 1811–1812
Victoria H. Cummins
Caddo Lake is a mysterious and haunting place unlike any other in Texas. Here, once out on the lake, the sounds of modern life drop away and the visitor finds herself enveloped in an eerie silence, broken by the occasional sound of an alligator or turtle breaking the surface or water birds taking wing at the boat's approach. Fantastic scenery greets the eye. Oak snags and clumps of cypress stumps obstruct navigation. Giant cypress knees rise from the muddy water, looming so large and high as to suggest the gothic cathedrals of old. The landscape suggests that the man-made environment has ceased to exist and the swamp has returned animals and humans to the primitive pre-historic past. From the 1930s to the 1950s Texas artist Don Brown fished these waters and loved this lake. He experienced how the spooky stillness and exotic flora could suspend time and warp the imagination. He once wrote that in this strange and wondrous place "you can easily imagine a dinosaur floundering in the murky depths ... or a pterodactyl banking for a clumsy landing." The lake's history is as mysterious as its ambiance.
Caddo is Texas's largest natural freshwater lake (or rather complex of lakes and bayous), extending from Harrison and Marion counties in northeast Texas eastward across the border to Caddo Parish in northwest Louisiana. Bayous flowing from the west feed it and today the lake ends at the Mooringsport, Louisiana, dam. Historically, it issued into the Red River at Shreveport through Twelve Mile Bayou and has been important to the European settlement of the area. For a thirty-year period in the nineteenth century the lake was navigable by river-boat from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Jefferson, Texas, and was the major transportation route to northeast Texas. This ended in the 1870s when water levels fell after the Corps of Engineers eliminated the "Great Raft," a colossal logjam blocking and backing up the Red River north of Shreveport. Since that time the lake on the Texas side has been a sparsely populated maze of swamps and shallow ponds with deeper channels used as boat lanes. The "Big Lake" has served mostly for recreational purposes while the Caddo's wetlands are known for their exotic plant and animal life, drawing hunters, fishermen, artists, and conservationists for over a century.
Very little is known about Caddo Lake's origins. Was the formation of the lake sudden and catastrophic or gradual and peaceful? Or was it something in between? Native-American legend seems to ascribe its birth to the catastrophic series of earthquakes that devastated the Missouri boot heel and nearby territories in 1811-1812. There is some archaeological and biological evidence to support this. However, most scientists now discount the legends and support the idea that the lake formed gradually, either from spring flooding or with water backed up from the Red River, covering swamplands and alluvial plains along its course. It is also possible that both explanations are partially correct and neither is wrong.
Scarcity of historical and scientific data explains the lack of surety about Caddo's birth. No direct eyewitness accounts exist of the lake's formation. The Native Americans who lived on the shores of Big Cypress Bayou must have known, but they left only orally transmitted legends and no written records. The science of seismology hadn't been invented when the New Madrid earthquakes happened, so measurements of intensity and magnitude have been extrapolated from the unscientific accounts of distant eyewitnesses. Only since the late nineteenth century has seismological data been systematically collected from the area.
Thus, while there are some definite opinions among scholars and local historians, there is no consensus about whether the earthquakes that hit the Mississippi Valley in 1811-1812 or the Great Raft of the Red River caused the lake to form over the alluvial flood plain of Big Cypress Bayou in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The only way to know for sure would be to have been there and observed what happened. When did the flooding bayou become a lake? Did it exist before December 16, 1811, the date of the initial quake? Would the Caddo Indians have felt terrifying shaking, heard loud inexplicable noises, and witnessed unbelievable changes in the land and water on that cold clear December night? Does their legend accurately describe the topographical and hydrographical changes they saw that evening? In short, what impact did the New Madrid earthquakes have on northeastern Texas?
The New Madrid earthquakes of December 1811 to February 1812, which destroyed towns near the epicenter, were powerful enough to have impacted northeast Texas and northwest Louisiana some 370 miles to the southwest. The small town of New Madrid in the Missouri Territory was located on a ridge above a horseshoe bend in the Mississippi River. George Morgan founded the port town in the late 1780s. Its 400 or so inhabitants prospered on the trade with flatboats heading downriver to Natchez and New Orleans. As night fell on December 15, 1811, a number of these boats tied up below the river bank. Without warning, at about 2 a.m. on December 16, the night erupted with a loud noise and strong movement, causing the astonished inhabitants to scurry from their cracking and crumbling abodes. After suffering a series of milder aftershocks, which kept them terrified and outside on the cold December night, two more heavy earthquakes hit the area later that morning. Aftershocks continued for nearly a year in the region of the epicenter with two additional temblors as intense as that of December 16 on January 23 and February 7, 1812. By the time this cycle of earthquakes ended, the banks at New Madrid had collapsed into the river and the town had been swallowed up by the new channel of the Mississippi River created by the quakes. These strong quakes of December 1811 to February 1812 created topographical and hydrographical phenomena so singular as to seem fantastic even to those who witnessed them. Yet, modern scientific and historical research has confirmed most of what firsthand accounts described.
Eyewitnesses saw the earth undulating in a wave-like motion, pitching trees horizontally, causing blowholes and opening deep fissures. Bluffs crumbled; some land was lifted up while other areas sank and were filled with water, either pushed up by pressure from below the earth or from water rushing in from the river. The naturalist John James Audubon, who was out riding his horse in Tennessee to the east of the epicenter, described how "the ground rose and fell in successive furrows like the ruffled waters of a lake ... the earth waved like a field of corn before the breeze." Another witness similarly described "undulation of the earth resembling waves, increasing in elevation as they advanced, and when they had attained a certain fearful height the earth would burst."
Along the river high banks caved in, causing waves that swamped boats and drowned rivermen. The riverbed lifted up. Islands vanished and new ones appeared. The shifting land caused the mighty Mississippi River to flow backward for a short period and created falls above New Madrid, which remained until spring floods washed the underlying sand ridge away.
In May of 1812 Texas's founding father Stephen F. Austin passed through New Madrid by boat. He reported in his diary that at Cape Girardeau, some forty-five miles north of New Madrid, "the Earthquakes were felt severely here having thrown down, or cracked every chimney in the place and ruined two handsome brick buildings which were not quite finished." Moving south past the juncture of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Austin's boat arrived at New Madrid.
On landing at New Madrid the effects of the earthquake were so prominently visible as well in the sunken and shattered situation of the houses, as in the countenance of the few who remained to mourn over the ruin of their prosperity and past happiness. ... The effects of the earthquake began to be visible about 20 miles above this place by the shattered state of the bank of the river .6 miles above this the bed of the river rose on the night of 7 February the most severe shock which has been felt, and formed a kind of falls very similar to the falls of Ohio, and rendered the navigation very dangerous until the spring floods had washed it away being only sand — There were a number of boats lost at this place, And many lives. The banks are very much shattered and sunken from this place to N.M. where the bank has sunk about nine feet which reduces the former site of the town, below high water mark ... the earth is very much cracked ... and perforated with holes of different sizes out of which immense quantities of white sand has been discharged.
One reason that the event was so destructive was that there was not one New Madrid quake, but a whole series of them. Hundreds, even thousands, of aftershocks followed in the year after the initial quakes on December 16, 1811. The largest earthquakes — those of December 16, 1811, January 23 and February 7, 1812 — were felt over more than 5,000,000 sq. km., as far away as Detroit to the north, New Orleans to the south, Washington, D. C. to the east, and the Texas-Louisiana border to the southwest. These three great quakes, with magnitudes of Mw 8.0 (February 7, 1812), Mw 8.1 (December 16, 1811) and M 7.8 (January 23, 1812) respectively, constitute three of the ten strongest earthquakes ever experienced in the lower forty-eight states. Using the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale, seismologists estimate that they would have been felt on the Texas-Louisiana border (where Caddo Lake is located) at the level of MM VII, "difficult to stand ... hanging objects quiver ... furniture broken. Weak chimneys broken at roofline. Fall of plaster, loose bricks, stones, tiles, cornices, unbraced parapets, and architectural ornaments. ... Waves on ponds; water turbid with mud. Small slides and caving along sand or gravel banks." Even in areas remote from the epicenter the tremors would have a notable impact for those living in the alluvial river valleys: "the shocks were much more distinctly felt by those living in the alluvial flats of the valleys than by those on the rock uplands."
No eyewitness accounts exist of the impact of the New Madrid quakes on the area where Caddo Lake connects northeast Texas to northwest Louisiana. In 1811-1812 Native Americans populated the area, leaving no written records. The Caddo Indians who inhabited the area that became Caddo Lake had migrated there only at the end of the 1700s. They settled on the shores of a bayou to the west of the Red River to escape epidemic diseases, alluvial flooding, and slave raiding by the Osage Indians. The Caddos comprised a federation of loosely related villages tied together by common language and culture. They were a sophisticated tribe of agriculturalists, cultivating corn as their main crop along with beans and squash, and hunters, tracking deer, bison, rabbits, fowl, and other animals to provide meat for food and skins for clothing and other uses. Fishing and collecting wild berries and nuts further supplemented their diet. By the end of the eighteenth century the Caddos had acquired horses from the Europeans and were able to maintain long distance trade contacts. Trade goods connected the Caddos to areas as far away as Illinois, the Gulf Coast, and New Mexico. They used stone, wood, and shells to manufacture tools and weapons and produced fine pottery and baskets. The Caddos were also a peaceable people. They accepted the Alabama, Coushatta, and Quapaw, other indigenous groups being pushed west by white settlement. By 1835, however, under strong pressure from European westward expansion, the Caddos sold their land in Texas to the United States and eventually migrated to Oklahoma.
While the Caddos left no written records about the lake's formation, we can deduce evidence of the earthquakes' impact in their oral tradition. According to Caddo legend the lake was formed by a sudden catastrophic inundation. The Caddo Indians who lived along its shores in the early nineteenth century called the biggest lake (or the whole series of connected lakes) Tso'to, which the white settlers corrupted to Sodo (now Caddo). One translation of Tso'to is "water thrown up into the draft along the shore by a wind." In her book Caddo Indians: Where We Come From, Cecile Elkins Carter, a tribal historian, recalls the legend of the lake's sudden formation.
The legend, remembered in the present time, is at least as old as Tso'to itself. The traditional sequence of Turkey Dance songs that relate past events includes one about two brothers who saw the creation of Sodo Lake. Several tribes were gathered for a dance when the high water came. The brothers were worried about the rising waters and went to higher ground. They looked to the east and saw a ridge of land moving like a great snake. The ridge was holding back the water in the valley, blocking the stream running through, and making a lake where the people were dancing. The older brother called out to warn the dancers of the danger, and a few were saved by climbing up the hill to join him. The others paid no attention and were lost to the high water.
In the 1930s the WPA Writers' Project collected a variant version of the legend of the lake's origin:
There is a legend of the Caddoes who once had a populous village in this [Caddo Lake] vicinity, of a chief who was warned by the Great Spirit to take his tribe to high ground, or see his people destroyed by earthquake and flood. The chief paid no heed to the warning, and one day a party of warriors returning from a hunting expedition found the village gone and a lake covering the place. They referred to the region as the "trembling ground," and maintained that it was the predicted earthquake that had formed the lake.
Caddo resident and conservationist Fred Dahmer gave a similar version in his 1989 history Caddo Was ... A Short History of Caddo Lake, but in his retelling the Caddo chief took the warning seriously and saved his people. Dahmer's version adds that when the flood came it was accompanied by loud sounds and flashing lightning.
These Caddoan accounts parallel a Chickasaw Indian legend regarding the origins of Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, which all agree was a product of the New Madrid quakes, and which shares some similarities with Caddo Lake. According to the oral tradition, Reelfoot Lake was named for a club-footed chief who caused trouble by kidnapping a Choctaw princess for his wife, "despite warning in a dream that if he did so the earth would tremble in rage. During the wedding ceremony the ground shook, the town sank, and the Mississippi gathered its waters and flowed backwards over it, drowning everyone."
Don Brown was an artist and freelance journalist who published articles about the history and folklore of the area. Brown had grown up in Marshall and hunted and fished Caddo Lake in his youth. As an adult, he spent many hours on the lake sketching and painting its moss-covered cypresses, its exotic wildlife, and its local inhabitants. He taught art at Centenary College from the mid-1930s to his death in 1958. In articles written in the 1950s he gave several versions of a story he had heard since boyhood: "An old Indian had returned for a last visit there [Caddo] many years before and told how 'the earth had chills and fever and shook in the night and the waters rolled over our village and we fled to the hills.' He also pointed out the wide expanse of lake lying in front of Long Point where the water now averages five or six feet deep, and said that he had seen herds of buffalo grazing on the prairie there."
A few months later, Brown published this version of the lake's creation, a story told in 1903 to Carnegie Institution researchers by a Caddo informant named Wing:
One day, Wing related, a man went down to the bayou to get a drink of water and saw this great creature moving through the water. He started running along the bank in the direction it was swimming and ran nearly two miles before he caught up with its head. The man then went back to camp and told his grandfather what he had seen. "You have seen something wonderful, my son," the old man said. "This has been sent as a sign to our people." The old man called all of the men of the tribe together and told them the story. Some did not believe him but others went to the bayou and saw the creature. There was one man in the camp who was old and blind but very wise. The chief asked him the meaning of what had happened. The old man sat silent for a long time then said, "The sign is a very bad one for it signifies that the waters shall rise in a short time." The waters rose soon and formed a large lake. The lake was very dangerous. When one crossed he had to cross without saying a word to anyone. (Continues...)
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