Finding Faults Missouri's quake history shakes collective memory in powerful, unstable ways

The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes

Conevery Bolton Valencius (University of Chicago Press, 2013), 472 pages including endnotes, index, photographs and illustrations

Like most Americans, my first awareness that major earthquakes had shaken the middle part of the U.S. in 1811-12 came when a former meteorologist named Iben Browning predicted a sequel in 1990. I already knew about the Johnstown Flood, the Chicago fire, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and other disasters but to most of us, including many living in the Mississippi River valley that was home to the epicenter, New Madrid sounded more like a villa in Spain than a town in southern Missouri. How could such a large natural disaster have become so obscure? The question is at the heart of former WU history professor Conevery Valencius’ book, The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes. Valencius begins by asking “How do we know what we know—or what we think we know—of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12” and answers the question by explaining, more broadly, “how knowledge changes” over time.

She does so brilliantly. Valencius writes with creativity and purpose, weaving together history and science and interesting anecdotes ranging from a Davy Crockett hunting trip to the “earthquake pig” that survived 36 days in the rubble of a 2008 quake in China. In addition to the eloquent writing, the book also contains photographs and illustrations, both historic and current,that provide compelling visuals. Valencius has obviously done her homework, displaying an impressive understanding of everything from seismic activity to Native American history. She also displays a sense of humor, for instance challenging one 19th century scientist’s account by not saying that he was wrong or embellishing the truth but rather that “clearly some aspect of Montgomery’s explanation is not well conveyed in his writing!” By the time readers have finished the book, they should understand not only the New Madrid quakes but the larger process of understanding how we remember and contextualize important historical events.

The Lost History is organized quite logically.Chapter 1 explains the actual event, largely through the eyes of an insightful traveler named William Leigh Pierce who experienced the earthquakes firsthand.The next several chapters explore the impacts of the quakes on the landscape, Native Americans, African Americans, religion and revivalism, and the scientific inquiry of the time. Chapter 6 then describes how memory and knowledge of the event was nearly erased by subsequent events such as the Civil War. Finally, Chapter 7 reconnects the nearly-lost knowledge about this event to the heightened awareness and scientific interest in such disasters that has been evident in the last few decades.Each section provides rewards to the reader.

The landscape in the area was changed forever and many remnants, such as lakes and sand blows, are still evident. And yes, the Mississippi River did indeed flow backward for a time.

The events themselves were remarkable. If Pierce was yesterday’s Anderson Cooper, his reporting, even without the visuals provided by CNN, was at least as dramatic. Pierce was traveling on the river at the time the earth suddenly and without warning convulsed, and “ … there was a volcanic discharge of combustible matter to great heights, an incessant rumbling was heard below … whilst the water assumed a turbid and boiling appearance—near our boat a spout of confined air burst forth … at least 30 feet above the surface.” The impacts were immense. People felt the quakes in New Hampshire. Damages occurred in Washington D.C. The landscape in the area was changed forever and many remnants, such as lakes and sand blows, are still evident. And yes, the Mississippi River did indeed flow backward for a time.

The responses at the time were fascinating and I couldn’t help but think how they were forerunners of recent reactions to natural disasters. Many saw the New Madrid earthquakes as omens or warnings from God, Stephen Austin for instance describing them as “terrible engines of his Power.” I immediately thought of television evangelist and media businessman Pat Robertson attributing the Haiti earthquake to that nation’s alleged “pact with the devil” or John McTernan blaming gays for Hurricane Sandy. Congress initiated disaster relief efforts in 1815 but they were as ill-fated as the inept public sector responses to such recent disasters as Katrina. Those on the fringe of society suffered the most from disasters then and now. The New Madrid earthquakes transformed what had been a “culturally and politically significant area of refuge from American encroachment” for Native Americans. While many Indians fled, others responded by aligning with prophets such as Tecumseh who had allegedly warned that he would make “the whole earth tremble.” The prophecy story proliferated and ultimately led to violent confrontations with predictable outcomes. Recent disasters such as Katrina have similarly devastated poor and minority communities.

The heart of the book though is in the explanation of how we know what we do and what happens to that knowledge over time. At the start of the 19th century, unlike European gatherings and journals, scientific inquiry in the U.S. was, according to Valencius, “intensely personal and interactive.” Scientists valiantly attempted to measure and quantify earthquakes as well as understand causes and effects. Those fledgling efforts, however, were either forgotten or denied over time. The Civil War of the 1860s, particularly the extremely violent guerrilla warfare in Missouri, “seared the collective memory of all who experienced it” and thereby pushed aside memories of other “disasters.” The land that provided evidence of the quakes became “remote and insular.” Areas were logged, swamps were drained. After other earthquakes in California, economic boosters intentionally minimized the impacts. Memory and knowledge of the New Madrid quakes almost disappeared.

What was the impact from Browning’s prediction of a large New Madrid earthquake in 1990? Basing his theory on the presence of a full moon and tidal activity, Browning forecast an exact date of Dec. 3, 1990 for the event. Surprisingly enough, he received some support from a geologist at a nearby university. Some in the media partially endorsed the warning by incorrectly stating that Browning had previously made other prescient predictions. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran advertisements for earthquake kits. Local diners offered “quakeburgers.” Supermarkets experienced runs on dry goods. Some schools closed. I personally remember discussing it in a class on the day before, even if mostly just using it as a punch line to rouse student interest. Then, as Valencius writes, on the anticipated day … “nothing happened.” So, while Browing did temporarily increase awareness of the New Madrid earthquakes at least in the surrounding region, the more permanent effect was ironically “a grave hindrance to serious research on earthquake preparation.” Valencius concludes, “Browning’s pseudo-science made serious study of the quakes that much harder.”

Recently, however, interest in earthquakes in general and in the New Madrid quakes in particular has increased. In part, this is due to large earthquakes in California, Haiti, Chile, New Zealand, China, and of all places, Virginia. Enhanced interest has also resulted from the seemingly increasing frequency of other natural disasters, possibly as a result of climate change, and the need for greater preparation. Additionally, it is due in part to improving technology and measurement of seismic activity at universities and institutions such as the Center for Earthquake Research and Information in Memphis. Finally, renewed attention is also due to resurrection of the knowledge of the New Madrid event, as in the recent reprinting of a 1912 report by United States Geological Survey scientist Myron Fuller who characterized these earthquakes as “larger” than others, including the famous one in San Francisco in 1906. Valencius carefully describes “the thread of reappraisal of once-dismissed knowledge” regarding the New Madrid earthquakes.

My only slight disappointment in The Lost History is borne more out of my own interests in contemporary public policy than in any shortcomings of the book. Valencius touches on some contemporary policy debates but only briefly. What is in here is tantalizing for further exploration. For example, she succinctly discusses the asserted relationship between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes, but only briefly. As another example, she points out that some politicians, notably Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, have characterized funding for seismic studies as a notorious earmark but she does not go much further into that debate other than offering her own clever assessment: “Once, the New Madrid earthquakes were a punch line. Now they are a line item.” Again, these policy discussions were not the point of the book so I mention them here less as a criticism than as stepping off points for discussions should the book be used in political science or other classes. For those who might want to read more on policy aspects of disasters, I recommend Thomas Birkland’s Lessons of Disaster (2006: Georgetown University Press) and a 2014 issue (Vol. 26, No. 3) of Journal of Policy History focused on American disaster politics.