Answer Man

Answer Man: New Madrid quake had region’s settlers expecting death

Q. Recently, a BND article about the disappearance of the local Cahokian society hypothesized that an earthquake in the 15th century caused the demise of that culture. The article also mentioned the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes. Supposedly, that latter quake was so strong that it rang church bells in Philadelphia. My question: Did our local area receive any damage from that powerful quake? I have never heard any report of the local impact from that incident.

— James McAfee, of Belleville

A. As Christmas 1811 neared, the only present some residents of Southern Illinois and Missouri might have been anticipating was the end of the world.

It had been that kind of year. An early thaw to the north had sent the Mississippi River flooding the Illinois bottom land to the bluffs. Another outbreak of malaria had been the summer scourge. In August, the Great Comet of 1811, which would be visible for an incredible 260 days, was becoming more and more brilliant as it made its trek across the nighttime sky. No wonder those preaching the apocalypse were having having a field day.

When that first major quake hit at a little past 2 a.m. on Dec. 16, many may have expected to meet their maker. It was so violent that people were awakened in New York, Washington, D.C., and Charleston, S.C., according to the U.S. Geological Service. The shaking was undoubtedly far worse in St. Louis.

“I was roused from sleep by the clamor of windows, doors and furniture in tremulous motion, with a distant rumbling noise, resembling a number of carriages passing over pavement,” Joseph Charless, editor of the Louisiana Gazette (St. Louis’ first newspaper), wrote in a first-person account in his Dec. 21 edition. “In a few seconds, the motion and subterraneous thunder increased more and more.

“Expecting the earth to be relieved by a volcanic eruption, I went out of doors and looked for the dreadful phenomenon. The agitation had now reached its utmost violence. I entered the house to snatch my family from its expected ruins, but before I could put my design in execution, the shock had ceased, having lasted about one and three-fourths minutes.”

Now estimated to have been about an 8 on the Richter scale, the so-called New Madrid quake produced 15 times the energy of the devastating San Francisco quake of 1906. It was felt over nearly 2 million square miles and caused damage over a region of 250,000 square miles. The upheaval reportedly caused the Mississippi to run backward and then start downstream again in waves up to 30 feet high. During the next three months, more than 1,850 aftershocks — including three additional 7-plus level quakes — were felt.

Today even in St. Louis — about 150 miles north of the tiny town of New Madrid — we might be talking about hundreds or thousands of deaths and property damage in the tens or hundreds of millions. But back then, St. Louis had only 2,000 inhabitants and the city limits barely reached the grounds of the Gateway Arch. Southern Illinois, like much of the rest of the region, was even more sparsely populated. As a result, few deaths were reported (no accurate count exists), although some historians have noted that several Indian tribes were missing after the temblors.

While there was no CNN giving people 24-hour, second-by-second coverage, it is thought that the St. Louis area escaped with a few cracked walls and downed chimneys. But I’ll let those who survived the terrifying ordeal tell their stories, thanks to the work of Will Shannon, curator of the St. Clair County Historical Society, Jaime Bourassa at the Missouri History Museum, and noted St. Louis University geophysics professor Otto Nuttli, who, before he died in 1988, compiled a file of national newspaper accounts from the era — including those from St. Louis’ Louisiana Gazette.

Mother Nature may have given a warning of what she had in store as early as a lazy, hot afternoon in late August.

“Several of the settlers and their wives had come to spend the day with the McDaniels and they were seated at the dinner table,” Samuel McDaniel wrote in 1910 of his family’s experiences in New Madrid. “The meal was almost concluded, when the floor of the cabin began to bob up and down. The house seemed to be in a violent spasm. The dishes on the table were overturned, and the occupants of the house, with common impulse, ran out into the yard for safety. The shock lasted for a brief minute and then past off ... The settlers after a time concluded the worst was past and they laughed at each other for their sudden fright and re-entered the house and finished their dinner.”

But it was to be no laughing matter. More shocks followed for the next four months, and the residents became increasingly alarmed.

“One morning grandpop and grandmother, after having spent a sleepless night in watching for the Coming of Death, which they hourly expected as the grim dawn came down on the troubled world, beheld great wild animals in his yard and garden,” he wrote. “There were great bears, panthers, wolves, foxes, etc., side by side with a number of wild deer with their red tongues hanging out of their mouths. Later in the day there came a regular migration of wild things fleeing towards the hills. Great rattlesnakes, black snakes and innumerable rats, coons, groundhogs, etc.”

As their fields became inundated with water, the settlers turned to McDaniels’ grandfather for guidance.

“He said, ‘Friends, you must all act for yourselves. As for me and my wife, we leave here tomorrow morning forever,’” McDaniels wrote. “They all concurred in his decision and they shook hands for the last time. They never heard of each other after that.”

During the early morning of Dec. 16, their trepidation no doubt was shared by countless others, including Father Urban Guillet, a Roman Catholic priest who was serving at the Monastery of Notre Dame de Bon Secours near Cahokia. In letters collected for the 1902 book “Old Cahokia: A Narrative and Documents Illustrating the First Century of its History,” Guillet wrote to his bishop in Quebec, Jean-Octave Plessis, on Feb. 19:

“An almost continual earthquake which lasted from the night of the 15-16 December until now helped much to bring people back to their religion. A great many houses have been badly damaged but no one was killed. The earth opened in many places especially about three miles from our monastery. Only sand and water came from the opening. Fortunately, our poor cabins of wood and sand can withstand a great deal of shaking without much danger. Their undressed logs piled one on top of another can be separated only by considerable force. Some stone and brick houses have had to be abandoned.”

A month later, he wrote of a close call — and what grew to be an urban legend.

“Since Oct. 16, we have felt earthquakes almost daily,” he wrote on March 14. “They have done little damage in the neighborhood, though I was nearly crushed by a falling chimney. They say New Madrid is entirely destroyed. The source of the disturbance was a volcano in North Carolina from which poured forth great explosions of fire, ashes and stone.” (No such volcano existed, of course.)

The other firsthand account Shannon found came from John Reynolds, who was living near present-day Glen Carbon but who would become Illinois’ fourth governor in 1830.

“On the night of 16th (December), 1811, an earthquake occurred, that produced great consternation amongst the people. The center of the violence was in New Madrid, Missouri, but the whole valley of the Mississippi was violently agitated.

“Our family all were sleeping in a log cabin, and my father leaped out of bed crying aloud, ‘The Indians are on the house!’ The battle of Tippecanoe had been recently fought and it was supposed the Indians would attack the settlements.

“We laughed at the mistake of my father, but soon found out it was worse than the Indians. Not one in the family knew at the time that it was an earthquake. The next morning another shock made us acquainted with it, so we decided it was an earthquake. The cattle came running home bellowing with fear, and all animals were terribly alarmed on the occasion. Our house cracked and quivered, so we were fearful it would fall to the ground. In the American Bottom many chimneys were thrown down, and the church bell in Cahokia sounded by the agitation of the building.”

There apparently was no safe place to run to. Even those on the river were terrified by the destruction.

“I was awakened by the most tremendous noise, accompanied by an agitation of the boat so violent, that it appeared in danger of upsetting,” wrote John Bradbury in his 1817 book, “Travels in the Interior of America.” “I could distinctly see the river as if agitated by a storm; and although the noise was inconceivably loud and terrific, I could distinctly hear the crash of falling trees, and the screaming of the wild fowl on the river, but found that the boat was still safe at her moorings. By the time we could get to our fire, which was on a large flag in the stern of the boat, the shock had ceased; but immediately the perpendicular banks, both above and below us, began to fall into the river in such vast masses, as nearly to sink our boat by the swell they occasioned ... At daylight we had counted twenty-seven shocks.”

Two more massive quakes would hit on Jan. 23 and Feb. 7 as Charless continued to detail the frayed nerves of area inhabitants. Even area Indian tribes convened to ask for mercy from the Great Spirit, Charless wrote.

“Accounts from la Haut Missouri announce a general peace among the Indians,” Charless wrote on April 18. “It is said that the earthquakes have created this pacification.”

Eventually, Mother Nature would settle down, too.

For more newspaper accounts from the era (from as far away as Montreal), see Nuttli’s compilation at http://www.eas.slu.edu/eqc/eqc_history/OWNuttli/Nuttli.1973/nuttli-73-app.html. Or search for the 1811-12 New Madrid Earthquake at usgs.gov and www.new-madrid.mo.us.

Today’s trivia

What is unusual about how groups of bobwhites sleep at night?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: In addition to being a theatrical agent, Herbert Manfred “Zeppo” Marx also was an engineer who obtained U.S. Patent 3,473,526 for a wristwatch-like device that could monitor a wearer’s heart rate and sound an alarm if it the beating became irregular. See a diagram and full description at www.marx-brothers.org/biography/zeppo/inventions.htm.

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