History Record View

Title: The Earthquake of 1811
File Attachment:
Attachment Type:

Probably the most noted earthquake that ever occured in the United States was that which happened in 1811 and reached from a little below Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River to a considerable distance below New Madrid on the Mississipps. The first shock was felt on the 16th day of December of that year.

The few French settlers along the Wabash fromt The Prophet's Town to Montezuma knew that there was likely to be trouble between the settlers and the Indians. The Burnett's in the lower end of Fountain County, had cast their fate with the Indians and Zachariah Cicot, of Independence, had decided to cast his lot with Harrison and the settlers. A Frenchman constructed a flatboat on the Vermillion river about where Eugene stands now, and Zachariah Cicot and the Burnetts helped load this boat with furs and other produce to be taken to New Orleans by the Frenchman who had constructed the boat. This flatboat was to leave, and did leave, the mouth of the Vermillion river before Harrison left Vincennes. Cicot had probably invested about everything he had with the exception of the forty ponies which he saved, in furs, and his furs were on this flatboat on the way to New Orleans when he joined Harrison and the army. This flatboat reached the Mississippi and floated down the stream just in time to be caught in the earthquake.

The channel of the Mississippi river was changed in many places; sand bars were sunk in some places and new ones appeared in others. The banks of the the river caved in in many places and large opening appeared in the earth from which issued smoke, cinders, burnt and reddish sand, mud and boiling water. The chimneys of the houses were shaken down and many houses were ruined. Reel Foot lake, in Tennessee was formed by this earthquake, while many lakes in Missouri were emptied by it. A large island in the Mississippi covered with a forest of large trees sank into the bed of the river never to appear again. Lightning darted from the bosom of the earth towards the sky and this continued along with roaring and other disturbances, for over six weeks, even the current of the Mississippi was changed and one time for more than an hour the waters ran up stream.

Just at this time, while these convulsions were causing universal horror, the first steamboat that ever navigated the western waters, and named te New Orleans, was making her way up the Ohio into the Mississippi and into the Mississippi, the intention being to run the boat between Natchez and New Orleans. This pioneer steam craft was destined to have as strong a time as her human contemporaries but after a thousand narrow escape from snags and sand bars and earthquake shocks she arrived at Natchez January 7, 1812. The flatboat was caught in this backward flow of water. The Frenchman found a good landing for his boat, and knowing that there was trouble along the river, waited until the earthquake was over and then went down the river to New Orleans landing safely with his cargo. Disposing of it and his boat he returned and settled with those whose produce he had taken.

Dr. Hildreth says of this convulsion, or rather series of convulsions: " An eye-witness who was then about forty miles below the town of New Madrid in a flat boat, on his way to New Orleans with a load to produce and who narrated the scene to me, said: 'The agitation which convulsed the earth and the waters of the mighty Mississipps filled every living creature with horror. In the middle of the night there was a terrible shock and jarring of the boats so that the crews were all awakened and they hurried on deck with their weapons of defense in their hands, thinking the Indians were rushing on board, the ducks, geese, swans, and various other aquatic birds whose numberless flocks were quietly resting in the still waters in the eddies of the river were thrown into the greatest tumult and with loud screams exposed their alarm in accent of terror. The noise and commotion soon became hushed and nothing could be found to excited apprehensions. The boatmen concluded that the shock was occasioned by the falling of a large mass of hte bank of the river near them. As soon as it was light enough to distinguish objects the crew were all up, making ready to depart, when a loud roaring and hissing was heard like the escape of steam from a boiler and the sandbars and the points of an island nearby gave way and we saw them swalled up in the tumultous bosom of the river, tearing down with them great cottonwood trees. Cracking and crashing, tossing their great limbs to and fro as if sensible of their danger, the sycamore, cottonwood, and other large trees disappeared beneath the flood of water. The water of the river the day before, was tolerably clear, and the river was rather low. The water changed to a reddish hue and became thick with mud, thrown up from the bottom of the Mississippi, while the surface of the water, lashed violently by the agitaion of the earth beneath, was covered with foam which gathered into great masses as large as a barrel, and these masses of foam floated along on the trembling waters. Along the shores the earth opened in wide fissures and, closing again, threw sand, mud and water, in hugh jets higher than the tops of the trees. The atmosphere was filled with a thick vapor or gas to which the sunlight imparted a purple tinge altogether different in appearance from the autumnal haze of Indian summer of that of smoke. From the temporary check of the current, by the heaving up of the bottom of the river and the sinking banks and the sand bars into the bed of the stream, the river rose in a few minutes five or six feet and, as if impatient of the restraint, again rushed forward with redoubled impetuosity, hurrying along the boats now set loose by the horror-stricken boatmen, believing they were in less danger in the water than at the short where the banks threatened every moment to destroy them by the falling earth or carry them down in the vortices of the sinking masses.

Our boat got thru, but many boats were overwhelmed in this manner and their crews perished with them. Many boats were wrecked on the snags and old trees thrown up from the bottom of the Mississippi where they had quietyly rested for ages while others were sunk or stranded on the new sand bars and new islands. New Madrid, which stood on a bluff bank fifteen or twenty feet above the summer floods, sank so low that the next rise covered it to a depth of five feet.

In all probability the ye-witness who told this story was the Frenchman enrouts to New Orleans with Cicot's and Burnetts' furs from this section of the Wabash valley.

Mr. Bradbury, an English scientific explorer, speaking of this earthquake says: "It commenced by distant rumbling sound, succeeded by discharges as if a thousand pieces of artillery were suddenly exploded. The earth rockt to and fro, vast chasms opened from which issued columns of water, sand and burning coal accompanied by hissing sounds, caused perhaps by the escape of pent-up steam, while ever and anon flashes of electricity gleamed thry the troubled clouds of night, rendering the darkness doubly terrible.

"The current of the Mississippi pending this elementary strife, was driven back upon its source withthe greatest velocity for several hours, in consequence of an elevation of its bed, and the stream ran in the opposite direction. The day that followed this night of terror brought no solace to its day. Shockl followed shock, a dense black cloud of vapor overshadowed the land thru which no struggling sunbeam found its way to cheer the desponding heart of man. Hills disappeared and lakes were formed on this occassion is sixty or seventy miles in length and from three to twenty miles in breadth. In some places it is very shallow, while in other places it is from fifty to one hundred feet in depth, much deeper that the Mississippi river in that quarter. In sailing over its surface, in a light canoe the voyager is struck with astonishment at beholding the giant trees of the forrest, standing partly exposed amid the waste of waters, branchless and leafless, and the wonder is still further increased on looking into the dark blue depth to observe cane_brakes covering its bottom over which a mammoth species of testudo is seen dragging his slow length along which countless myriads of fish are sporting thru the aquatic tickets."

Date: 1/1/1916
Origin: Historical Sketches of the Wabash Valley
Author: J. Wesley Whicker
Record ID: 00001176
Type: Book
Source Archive: Williamsport-Washington Township Public Library
Date Entered: 8/10/2001
Entered By: Amber M Knipe

Information in this record is provided for personal research purposes only and may not be reproduced for publication. If you have questions about copyright issues contact the archive source listed above.