On Shaky Ground: The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812

On Shaky Ground: The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812

by Norma Hayes Bagnall, Rebecca B. Schroeder

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Although most Americans associate earthquakes with California, the tremors that shook the Mississippi valley in southeast Missouri from December 16, 1811, through February 7, 1812, are among the most violent quakes to hit the North American continent in recorded history. Collectively known as the New Madrid earthquakes, these quakes affected more than 1 million


Although most Americans associate earthquakes with California, the tremors that shook the Mississippi valley in southeast Missouri from December 16, 1811, through February 7, 1812, are among the most violent quakes to hit the North American continent in recorded history. Collectively known as the New Madrid earthquakes, these quakes affected more than 1 million square miles. By comparison, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake affected only 60,000 square miles, less than one-sixteenth the area of the New Madrid earthquakes.

Scientists believe that each of the three greatest tremors would have measured more than 8.0 on the Richter scale, had that measuring device been in place in 1811. Vibrations were felt from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast and from Mexico to Canada. The quake zone was in constant movement during this period. Five towns in three states disappeared, islands vanished in the Mississippi River, lakes formed where there had been none before, and the river flowed backward for a brief period.

Providing eyewitness accounts from people both on the land and on the river, Bagnall captures the fears of the residents through their tales about the smells and dark vapors that filled the air, the cries of the people, the bawling of animals, and the constant roar of the river and its collapsing banks. On Shaky Ground also traces the history of the founding of New Madrid and considers the impact of the earthquakes on population and land in southeast Missouri. Predictions for future earthquakes along the New Madrid fault, as well as instructions on preparing for and surviving a quake, are also included.

Informative, clearly written, and well illustrated, On Shaky Ground will be of interest to all general readers, especially those interested in earthquakes or Missouri history.

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University of Missouri Press
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On Shaky Ground

The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811â"1812

By Norma Hayes Bagnall

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 1996 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-1054-8


Early History of New Madrid

"In 1799, New Madrid was the gateway for all trade between the Allegheny Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Mississippi River." —Earl A. Collins and Felix Eugene Snider, Missouri: Midland State

The Earliest Americans

Indians had lived in the area that is now southeast Missouri for thousands of years before European settlers began coming to the area. It was a good place to hunt. Black bear, elk, cougar, bison, and antelope lived there in great abundance in the late 1600s.

The New Madrid area was first called by the French name L'Anse à la Graisse, which means "cove of fat" or "cove of grease," because there was so much game there, especially bear. French hunters and trappers sold or traded bear meat and other meats to passing boat crews. Indians also traded there. In the winter, they had deerskins and bearskins as well as smaller animal skins to barter. In the summer, they traded honey and bear oil.

The Indians living in southeast Missouri during early settlement by the French and Americans were primarily from the Delaware and Shawnee tribes. To the north, Kaskaskia Indians lived at the mouth of the River Des Peres, now a part of St. Louis. The Kaskaskias had left their village in Illinois to escape crowding and attacks as other tribes moved into what had been their territory. There may also have been Quapaw Indians in southeast Missouri.

Teciekeapease, the sister of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee chief, was a member of a tribe who moved west of the Mississippi River and settled in what is now Uniontown, north of Cape Girardeau, in Perry County, Missouri. Teciekeapease was noted for her beauty and intelligence. When she traveled to New Madrid to visit some of her tribe living in the area, she fell in love with a French Creole, François Maisonville, and married him in 1808. This marriage angered Tecumseh, who forced her to return to her own settlement. However, she stayed only a few months with her people and then went back to her husband in New Madrid, where she was during the earthquakes. Her long and happy marriage produced twelve children.

Indians were being forced out of lands east of the Mississippi River because of the advance of American settlers. The power, guns, and sheer numbers of the new settlers overwhelmed the Indians, and they had little choice but to move or be moved west. The American government protected American pioneers and their interests and showed little or no sympathy for Indian land claims. The anger the Indians felt frequently resulted in raids on the new settlements on both sides of the Mississippi River.

Spanish Exploration

North America west of the Mississippi River was almost unknown to Europeans until the late 1600s. Spanish treasure hunters had searched there for valuable minerals, and some believe that explorer Francisco Coronado and his men may have ventured northeast from Mexico into Missouri to search for gold during the sixteenth century. If this is true, the explorers did not remain long, probably because Missouri did not offer them the riches they wanted.

In 1541, according to legend, during the time of a great drought, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto visited what is now part of the New Madrid area. He so charmed the Indians that they asked him to pray to his god for rain.

One historian reports that de Soto ordered his men to build a large cross of cypress and raise it on a mound of earth near the river. He and his men, joined by the Indians, celebrated Catholic Mass there, close to the site where New Madrid was built more than 200 years later. This means that the first Christian worship on the west side of the Mississippi River may have been held in Missouri. We do not know whether rain came and saved the crops.

Historian William Parrish believes that de Soto arrived in Arkansas opposite what is now Memphis, Tennessee, in 1541. He heard from Indians near his camp that salt and a yellow metal could be found to the north. De Soto, who was exploring to find gold and riches, probably would have gone north to find the treasure when he heard this. Parrish suggests that de Soto and his men may have traveled as far north as the Saline River near Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.

Traveling in 1540 from their base in Florida, de Soto's party crossed the Mississippi River and explored the area around present-day Helena, Arkansas. Don Kurz, writing in the Missouri Conservationist in July 1991, suggested that de Soto followed Crowley's Ridge north from what is now Arkansas to what is now Missouri and was the first European explorer in that area. De Soto then moved northward along the ridge to a point somewhere in what is now Dunklin County. He likely followed Indian trails. Of the numerous Indian paths and trails on Crowley's Ridge, the Shawnee Trail was the best known and most widely used.

Historian William Foley thinks that de Soto did not get to Missouri. Foley also believes that Coronado in his explorations did not venture farther east than Kansas and so never came to Missouri. The Mississippi Valley area in southeastern Missouri was not of much interest to early Spanish explorers. They were interested in mining gold and silver, not in building colonies for settlers. It was left to later pioneers to begin the European-American settlement of the land that became Missouri.

French Settlement

In June 1673, a young French trader and explorer, Louis Jolliet, was sent by French officials from Quebec to St. Ignace, Michigan, and joined a Jesuit priest, Jacques Marquette, on an exploration of the Mississippi River. Foley believes that Jolliet and Marquette were the first Europeans to set foot in Missouri.

Jolliet and Marquette wanted to learn more about the Mississippi River. At that time, explorers did not know the location of the mouth of the Mississippi. Some guessed that the river might flow east toward Virginia; others believed it turned west to the Pacific Ocean. By the time Jolliet and Marquette reached Arkansas, they knew that the river was headed for the Gulf of Mexico. It was not until nine years later, in 1682, that Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, another Frenchman, followed the river to its mouth. He claimed the entire area for France.

More French people came in the late seventeenth century to settle their lands along the Mississippi River. They were the first to challenge Spain's hold on all lands west of the Mississippi. Both England and France wanted to expand their lands in America at this time. While the English settled mostly on the eastern seaboard of the "New World," the French were interested in the St. Lawrence waterways. They established Quebec in 1608, and in 1673 they began exploration of the Mississippi River valley. In 1682, when La Salle claimed the Mississippi and the land west of it for the French, the territory west of the river was named Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV.

In 1762, near the end of a war between the French and the English, King Louis XV of France decided to cede the Louisiana Territory to his cousin, King Charles III, of Spain. As Foley states, with the stroke of a pen the territory switched from French to Spanish rule. Life for the French settlers did not change much under the Spanish. The area was sometimes called Upper Louisiana, sometimes New Spain, showing the territory's ties with both France and Spain. It remained under Spanish rule until it was traded back to France in 1800, when Napoleon ruled France. The French leader feared that the British or Americans might capture the small Spanish garrisons at New Madrid and St. Louis and lay claim to New Spain.

In the 1780s Jean Gabriel Cerré, who had moved to St. Louis to develop a fur-trading business, sent François LeSieur and his brother Joseph, French-Canadian fur trappers, down the river to find a place closer to New Orleans where a trading post could be established. They settled near a large Delaware Indian village and set up a post. They intended to trade with the Indians and build up a profitable business. Their trading post is considered the first permanent European settlement in what was later to be New Madrid. The area kept the name "Cove of Grease" that it was called when only Indian traders lived there. The LeSieurs remained in the area, and the third child of François LeSieur, Godfrey, was an area businessman during the earthquakes of 1811–1812.

The rich Mississippi River bottomlands produced generous crops. The river provided a natural means for trappers and farmers to trade their furs and other goods for those things the area did not provide. Although the area gained some population during Spanish and French rule, it remained remote and sparsely populated. Roads were poorly marked trails, and newcomers needed a trained guide to find their way through them.

George Morgan

In 1789, Colonel George Morgan of New Jersey, traveling with seventy men in four large boats, arrived in southeastern Missouri looking for new lands to settle. Diego de Gardoqui, the Spanish minister to the United States, was trying to promote settlement on Spanish land west of the Mississippi River. He had promised Morgan twelve million acres of land if he could establish a colony. Morgan was a patriot of the American Revolution. He had also been an Indian agent, a public official, a trader, and a land speculator. He now wanted to buy land, build a town, and sell lots to new settlers. Morgan expected the new town to bring him both wealth and importance. He had been disappointed trying to deal with the government of the newly independent United States, so Gardoqui's scheme appealed to him. Morgan chose what would be the New Madrid area to build his planned city.

Morgan had earlier tried to settle areas east of the Mississippi, first in Indiana and then in Illinois. He had lost money on some of his earlier ventures and was frustrated with barriers the United States government put in the way of his success. Moving across the Mississippi River put him under Spanish rule, but he saw no problem with that. New Madrid was the place where he thought he could create a thriving town and become rich. The site was already established as a good place for fur traders.

Handbills were distributed across the eastern part of the United States to lure people to the "Western Lands," as the area west of the Mississippi River was called. Each man who came to the settlement would be able to buy up to 320 acres of land at 121/2 cents per acre. He was promised free navigation of the Mississippi River, which was a major attraction. Com raised on a "common ground" would be available the first season (after the first settlers had raised it) at 12½ cents per bushel. Morgan assumed that families would build their own cabins and begin working their own land during the first year. Then they could live independently on their own property. The common ground would be used by new settlers as they arrived. Wild game was available to hunters; those unlucky in the hunt could buy venison or beef at 1 cent per pound.

Morgan had recognized the importance of the New Madrid location. It was on the Mississippi River but was protected from the river by high ground. The Ohio River, which was used to ship goods to the East, was only 70 miles by river to the north. The Osage River, 150 miles inland from the Mississippi River, was important to Morgan's plan. He wanted New Madrid to take over the fur trade that had been going by way of the Osage River to St. Louis for shipment to New Orleans. He believed that, as a shipping port, New Madrid was more accessible to the trappers than St. Louis was.

The Osage River joins the Missouri River east of what is now Jefferson City, and trade had been going from the Osage River east on the Missouri River, winding its way about 125 miles to St. Louis, which is over 250 miles north of New Madrid by river. A trip from New Madrid to New Orleans, which had a large market for furs and other goods, could be made in about 20 days by way of the Mississippi River. Morgan saw New Madrid becoming a major trading center that could be linked to all the world's markets because of its favorable location.

A letter written in New Madrid on April 14, 1788, to promote the settlement was published in the Virginia Gazette and Weekly Advertiser on August 27 of that year. It described the site of the city: "Here the banks of the Mississippi ... are high, dry and pleasant, and the land westward to the river St. Francois is [suitable] for Indian com, tobacco, flax, cotton, hemp and indigo." Some thought the land to be too rich for wheat. The land was higher than the area around it, and explorers believed that it would be safe from flooding. (Arch Johnston, director of the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at Memphis State University, comments that no one seemed to worry about why this land was raised above the surrounding area.)

Morgan outlined in detail the kind of town he wanted to establish. It was to be "four miles long and two miles wide." There were to be 10 broad streets parallel to the river, each 60 feet wide, and 18 streets running back from the river, each 45 feet wide. Six public squares were planned, and land was to be set aside for schools and churches. One-half-acre lots in the city and five-acre parcels outside of town were offered to the first 600 settlers. Half a section of land (320 acres) was set aside for each of 350 families. On the waterfront, Morgan planned a street 120 feet wide; there he wanted to build government buildings and a fort. He also planned a convenient marketplace and a central storehouse.

The letter in the Virginia Gazette and Weekly Advertiser gave further details on the planned city:

The limits of the new city of Madrid are to extend four miles south and down the river, and two miles west from it, so as to cross a beautiful deep lake, of the purest spring water, 100 yards wide ... emptying itself by a constant narrow stream through the center of the city.

Morgan knew of the importance of the natural environment to the welfare of a new town. In his concern for preserving the environment, he was well ahead of his time. He planned to be chief magistrate, and he made rules that would ban the cutting down of trees and shrubs without his permission. He also showed concern for Indians and for wildlife. Professional white hunters would not be allowed to live within the town. Morgan would allow settlers to kill only the buffalo and deer they needed to feed themselves and their families, because he knew the Indians in the area depended on hunting to make a living. Morgan had invited Indians representing several tribes to come down the Ohio River with him. He wanted them to see what he was doing so they could learn to trust him. The letter also affirmed Morgan's intention to respect Indian lands: "There is not a single nation or tribe of Indians who claims or pretends to claim, a foot of land granted to Colonel Morgan."

Morgan wanted his town to be the capital of the Spanish empire in America. The Mississippi River had been closed to Americans and was now open only to those who paid taxes to the Spanish government at New Orleans. Kentuckians and other American settlers on the east side of the river were angry at Spain's control over the Mississippi, but they had few options; they needed the river for trade. Morgan did not intend to change the system. He believed that keeping the tariffs would strengthen New Madrid and bring moneys to himself. Gardoqui, the Spanish minister, had assured him of the cooperation of the Spanish government at New Orleans.

In the summer of 1789, Morgan traveled to New Orleans to talk about his town with Don Estevan Miró, governor of Louisiana and ruler of the Spanish territory to the north. He knew that Governor Miró did not like "Cove of Fat" as a town name, and Morgan also wanted a more impressive name for his town. He decided to call the town New Madrid, hoping to please the Spanish by honoring Spain's capital city. (In Spain, Madrid is pronounced with stress on the second syllable, "muh-DRID." In Missouri, we pronounce it "MAA-drid," with stress on the first syllable.)

Miró was not pleased with the idea of Morgan's being in charge of a Spanish town and fort. He had been influenced by James A. Wilkinson, an early wheeler-dealer who had suggested that Miró entice Kentuckians to settle west of the Mississippi River with the offer of free lands. Spain's policy until the 1770s had been to restrict lands west of the river to Spanish Catholics. By 1787, though, the Spanish were offering lands to American Protestants and promising religious tolerance. But Wilkinson wanted to restrict American settlements west of the river in order to gain prominence and wealth for himself. Apparently he persuaded Miró that an agreement with Morgan would be harmful to Spain's interest.

Miró had been offering free land to attract new settlers, and he refused to agree to Morgan's plan to sell land in Spanish Louisiana. He also did not want to lose control by allowing Morgan to be commandant; he instead named a Spaniard as commandant, with Morgan second in command. Miró offered Morgan 1,000 acres of land for himself and for each of his children.


Excerpted from On Shaky Ground by Norma Hayes Bagnall. Copyright © 1996 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Norma Hayes Bagnall never forgot the tales her mother told her in her youth about the New Madrid earthquakes, just as they were told to her mother when she was a youngster growing up in the early twentieth century in New Madrid, Missouri. Professor of English at Missouri Western State College in St. Joseph, Bagnall is also the author of Children's Literature: Passage to the Sea.

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