Bicentennial of a great sign

It is said that the Shawnee leader Tecumseh foretold a widespread catastrophe as he traveled throughout the Midwest in his effort to unite the Indian tribes against the encroaching whites. He used prophecy to convince doubting, hesitant Indians that he was chosen by the Great Spirit to lead them, and while traveling hundreds of miles for many years, talking to hundreds of Indians, he foretold a sign so great they would know it when it happened, and afterward they were to travel to Ohio to push the whites back east of the Appalachians for good. The great sign came, but Tecumseh’s brother by then had ruined the grand plan, and the tribes never aggregated in the great confederacy Tecumseh hoped for.
Tecumseh’s sign to the Indians was the New Madrid earthquake, and he supposedly knew beforehand the day it would occur, for he gave Indian leaders sticks to burn, saying the sign would come when the sticks were gone. When the sticks were burned the great quake shook the land, in the wee hours of Dec. 16, 1811.
Although people later attributed odd doings beforehand to the coming of the quake, such as floods, hurricanes, plagues of pigeons and parakeets, and squirrels that drowned themselves in several lakes, the quake was a complete surprise. Tracts of forest fell to the ground and huge fissures opened in the ground. In New Madrid, Mo., the largest settlement in the area, residents jumped from their beds as their cabins splintered. They later reported flashes like distant lightning, the air thick with sulfurous fumes, and geysers of sand and coal dust spouting from the ground.
Simon Winchester in “A Crack in the Edge of the World” said the quake was felt over a million square miles, as far away as New York, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee and New Orleans, and caused damage far from the epicenter. The Mississippi River flowed backward toward the mouth of the Ohio, and a drawing shows a rowboat on the river struggling against surging waves and a house falling in. Scottish botanist John Bradbury was on the river and said it was covered with foam and thick with broken branches and whole trees, and he heard the crash of falling trees and screaming of wildfowl as riverbanks caved in. He counted 27 ensuing shocks that night and said a shock would start with a sudden sound, usually coming from the east-northeast, followed by the sound slowly dying away to the west.
This was the first in a five-month series of quakes now called the New Madrid Sequence. A Louisville, Ky., resident counted 1,874 quakes over the next few weeks, and two more big shocks came, on Jan. 23 and Feb. 7, the last the biggest of all. That one rattled windows and chandeliers in Washington, D.C., stopped clock pendulums in Charleston, S.C., set church bells tolling in Richmond and awoke residents in Pittsburgh. In Kentucky, John James Audubon said “the ground rose and fell in successive furrows like the ruffled waters of a lake. The earth waved like a field of corn before a breeze.”
The quakes converted thousands of acres of prairie to swamp, lifted a lake bed and transformed it to dry land, created Reelfoot Lake, and caused eruptions of sand that deposited mounds of white quartz grit. New Madrid was leveled, Mississippi River islands disappeared and many of its banks collapsed.
The quakes mystified scientists for many years. Most major quakes occur along tectonic plate boundaries, but New Madrid lies smack in the middle of the North American Plate. Scientists have recently identified faults lying deep under thousands of feet of Mississippi River sediment, two trending northeast to southwest and two perpendicular to those. A map of past and present shocks shows they precisely follow the fault lines.
The area is still seismically active. I regularly check the U.S. Geological Survey website,, which shows earthquakes around the world, and rare is the week that shows no quake, albeit quite small, in the New Madrid fault zone. Geologists believe the region is bound to repeat the violent shaking of 1811-12, the difference being that in the early 1800s few residents lived in the southeastern Missouri and Arkansas area and almost no one in the area west of the fault zone, whereas now the Midwest is densely populated, and an equivalent quake or series of quakes would spawn untold amounts of damage and loss of life.
The website is devoted to the bicentennial of the New Madrid earthquakes. It discusses science and history of the quakes, events to commemorate the quakes and earthquake preparedness, and it links to the website for the Great Central U.S. Shakeout, to be held on Feb. 7. That site is It also addresses the recent popular comments about whether fracking caused the Oklahoma earthquake.
What can we learn from this quake? Knowing your region’s history is important, and the practice of a short collective memory can be harmful. That holds true in California, and it may also hold true for the central United States.

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