Press coverage painted true mass of 1811 quake

The New Madrid earthquake occurred 200 years ago, and though centered in New Madrid, Missouri, much of the southeastern United States felt it on December 16.  Each locality that felt the quake published the news of it in their local paper. As these papers were exchanged with others, it gradually became clear how massive it had been.  The St. Louis paper, the Louisiana Gazette, then a weekly, did not print the news of “one of the most violent shocks of earthquake that has been recorded since the discovery of our country,” until December 21, five days after the event.  By December 28, the Wilmington American Watchman could reprint newspaper articles collected by the Washington, D. C., National Intelligencer covering the effects of the earthquake at Alexandria, Richmond, Norfolk and Charleston.  All agreed that the first shock occurred between 2 and 3 o’clock, another occurring at 8 o’clock.  In Charleston “the agitation of the earth was such, that the bells in the church steeples rung . . . .”  By January 8, news had reached Wilmington from Savannah and Milledgeville, Georgia, from Raleigh, North Carolina, from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and from Marietta, and Chillicothe, Ohio.  By January 22, the Wilmington paper reported more details from the West. “It is reported and we believe on good authority that at Massac, on the Ohio, about thirty miles from its mouth, the earthquake has rent the earth on both banks of the river, by a fissure 15 or 18 inches wide; and of a depth not yet ascertained.”‘

On December 20, the Raleigh Register reported this:  “On Monday morning several slight Earthquakes were noticed in this city.  The first, which was sensibly felt by all who were awake at the time, happened between 2 and 3 o’clock.  Two others took place about 7 o’clock, but were not so distinctly felt, except by some of the Members of Assembly who were in the State-House, and were considerably alarmed by the shaking of the building.”  By December 27, the Registerhad received papers from Richmond, Edenton, Wilmington, Charleston and Savannah.  The same letter from a man in Springfield, Tennessee to his brother in Washington, D. C., appeared in the Wilmington American Watchman on January 8, and the Raleigh Register on January 10.  By January 24, a letter from a man in Tennessee, written on December 30, had reached Raleigh.  He wrote “that several chimneys were thrown down; and that eighteen or twenty acres of land on Piney River, had suddenly sunk so low, that the tops of the trees were on a level with the surrounding earth.  Four other shocks were experienced on the 17th, and one or more continued to occur every day to the 30th until the date of the letter.”

By February 7, one John Clark Edwards responded to an earlier published wish. “I wish some able philosopher to ascertain the cause, if possible.”  Edwards wrote the Raleigh Register from Burke County, North Carolina, “I herewith communicate to you a brief account of the cause of those dreadful shocks which have lately shaken these mountains to their base, whose foundations were laid when the Almighty Architect first reduced chaos to order.”  His solution?  “The great noise that was heard through the day, and continued smoke, left no doubt but it was a VOLCANO that had burst forth during the Earthquake.”  Edwards concludes, “It is hoped that it will draw the attention of some Geologist, or man of Science, who will be able to give a correct description of it.”  It was not until three weeks later, that the editors confessed to their readers this. “From information lately received, we are satisfied that the letters recently published in theStar and the Register, under the signature of John C. Edwards, are destitute of truth, and that the name is an assumed one.”  However, the news of the volcano had been printed in papers as far away as Boston:  the Boston Weekly Messenger announced “Another Mount Aetna” on February 21.

 Accounts from the middle Mississippi began to appear around March 1.  On March 7, 1812, the Louisiana Gazette published a first-hand account written by John Bradbury, who had been on the Mississippi 120 miles south of New Madrid.  “In our situation particularly, the scene was terrible beyond description: our boat appeared as if alternately lifted out of the water, and again suffered to fall.  The banks above, below and around us were falling every moment into the river, all nature seemed running into chaos.  The noise unconnected with particular objects was the noise of the most violent tempest of wind mixed with a sound equal to the loudest thunder, but more hollow and vibrating.  The crashing of falling trees and the loud screeching of wild fowl made up the horrid concert.”  A more extensive first-hand description is in the February 28, 1812 issue of the Boston Weekly Messenger, which is on-line at
Happy reading!

If you are interested in contributing funds to speed The University of Texas’ massive project of scanning and putting on-line historic newspapers online, please contact Linda Abbey, of UT’s General Libraries, phone (512) 795-4366 or online to the Historic Newspapers Preservation link.

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden