Earthquakes Documented in Museum Collection

Earthquakes Exhibit at New Madrid Museum
The events surrounding the earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 are included in a well-documented collection at the New Madrid Historical Museum in New Madrid, Missouri. These quakes were a sequence of main shocks that began Dec. 16, 1811 and continued through Feb. 7, 1812. They were felt throughout the entire eastern United States. Aftershocks numbered over 1,000 and continued for years, finally becoming quiet in 1817.

The New Madrid earthquakes were named after the largest settlement in the early 19th century along the banks of the Mississippi River between Natchez, Mississippi and St. Louis, Missouri. Geographically, this southeastern region is part of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. The land used to be marshland but was drained, leaving behind rich soil. It is the only part of the state where cotton can grow. This area is nicknamed the “Bootheel” because, when looking at a map of Missouri, it is the section shaped like the heel of a boot. It is somewhat separated from the rest of the state by the Ozark and St. Francois Mountains.

A few years prior to these earthquakes, Missouri had been included in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase authorized by Thomas Jefferson. Meriwether Louis and William Clark began their expedition in 1804 to explore the newly acquired territory as they followed the Missouri River and continued to the Pacific Ocean. Clark was Missouri territorial governor from 1808 to 1813, which included the time of the 1811-1812 earthquakes.

New Madrid Earthquakes
New Madrid Seismic Zone

The museum collection includes an overview of the area’s history and documented accounts from eyewitnesses. The first of the earthquakes hit Dec. 16, 1811, in northeastern Arkansas. People wrote that it woke them up around 2:00 a.m. The entire United States, east of the Mississippi, felt the ground shake anywhere from one to three minutes, including New York, Washington, D.C. and Charleston, South Carolina. Houses in Nashville, Tennessee and Louisville, Kentucky shook to the point where chimneys fell over. Five hours later, the “Dawn” aftershock was described as “severe” in some locations. This was also felt on the East Coast and is often referred to as the fourth principal earthquake in the New Madrid sequence.

The second and third principal earthquakes occurred in 1812: Jan. 23, 9:15 a.m., and Feb. 7, 3:45 a.m. New Madrid was the epicenter for both. The Ohio River was frozen during the January quake so there was little boat traffic or people to observe the event, and was determined to be the least severe of the three major quakes. In contrast, the February quake is said to be the most severe with damage surpassing the first one in December. The entire town of New Madrid was destroyed. Ground warping, landslides, fissures, sand and water ejections were some of the worst damages.

One written account by Eliza Bryan, a woman who lived in New Madrid, described the roar of the Mississippi and how the current was flowing backwards for awhile. Each aftershock seemed more violent than the one before it. The river receded from its banks, leaving the boats on sand. Then, “rising 15 to 20 feet perpendicularly,” the water suddenly forced boats some distance then receded again, leaving fish and groves of trees in its path.

The museum collection has items that survived from that time period. Furniture, dishes, toys, clothing all represent daily life before and after the earthquakes. All three of the major quakes were between 7.5 and 7.7. The damage and loss of life would have been much worse had the area been more populated. Because the town is in the heart of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, this museum is not just about the past. Earthquake activity is constantly being monitored and documented on the premises. Seismographic recordings continue to monitor activity of the New Madrid fault.

By: Cynthia Collins


New Madrid Historical Museum

U.S. Geological Survey – New Madrid Earthquakes 1811-1812

U.S. Geological Survey – New Madrid Earthquake Summary

The New Madrid Earthquake – Eyewitness Account

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