Tremors and Portents

An 1851 drawing of the New Madrid Earthquake by Henry Howe (1816–1893).



As I was headed to see the earthquake museum there last week, New Madrid, Missouri, felt a 3.3-magnitude quake. This is not unusual. In the last six months alone there have been more than 100 temblors in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, according to the Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI) at The University of Memphis.

Tens of thousands of quakes have shaken the Zone since they began to be recorded 200 years ago by non-Native people. Back then there was almost no infrastructure or building of significant size in the region to be damaged. In 1811 the population of St. Louis was only about 1200, and Memphis did not exist.

The Zone has long been a scientific mystery, since tectonic plates do not meet there, as they do in Southern California. The Midwest is in the center of the North American craton, our continent-sized chunk of rock that has been stable for a very long time.

In 2008 I interviewed Dr. Buddy Schweig, Chief Scientist, Earth Surface Processes Team, U.S. Geological Survey, and USGS scientist at CERI, who said, “[T]here are lots of theories. For instance, the continent is thickest in the middle, so if you can imagine the tectonic plates sailing through the asthenosphere in the process of continental drift, that thickness acts like a keel would on a boat, and there’s going to be drag forces at work …

“There have been rivers flowing where the Mississippi is for 80 million years, so you could say there’s naturally a low spot there. Question is, why? Maybe a weakness in the earth’s crust, or it’s a place where the continent tried but failed to rip apart. There’s certainly a relationship. We’re just not clear on what it is.”

The idea of an ancient rift appears to have been validated two years ago, when geophysicists finished a study that says gravity in the region is distorted by dense rock that bubbled up from the lower core when the continent nearly broke apart 600 million years ago. These gravitational distortions might affect regional faults in the New Madrid Zone.

The name New Madrid is associated with earthquakes primarily for the three major quakes and 1,800 sizable aftershocks that occurred there in 1811-12. They were some of the largest seismic events in North America since the arrival of Europeans (magnitude 7.5 and greater) and could be felt over two million square miles. Church bells on the East Coast rang. The earth near New Madrid split open and spewed forth sand and tar; the Mississippi River was said to run backwards for a time; enormous new lakes were formed; graveyards and living people disappeared; “earthquake smog” stinking of sulfur polluted the air; lightning and thunder came from the earth; and everywhere, the people were in terror. As many as 10,000 smaller aftershocks kept them on edge.

“What are we gonna do?” a man named George Heinrich Crist wrote. “You cannot fight it cause you do not know how. […] The earth quake or what ever it is come again today. It was as bad or worse than the one in December. We lost our Amandy Jane in this one—a log fell on her. We will bury her upon the hill under a clump of trees where Besys Ma and Pa is buried. A lot of people thinks that the devil has come here. Some thinks that this is the beginning of the world coming to a end.”

Humans assign meaning even in ignorance, and portents seemed to abound for whatever this cataclysm was. The Great Comet was first seen in March 1811. Tens of thousands of squirrels were observed running off the tip of Illinois into the confluence of the rivers and drowning themselves, before the quakes. Shawnee leader Tecumseh, named “Shooting Star” at birth, and his brother, “The Prophet,” led a confederation to war with the US for taking their land, and both comet and earthquakes were seen as signs of heaven’s involvement. Ash from massive volcanic eruptions in the Philippines (1814), and in now-Indonesia (1815), created in 1816 “the year without a summer,” or “the poverty year,” due to widespread food shortages across the northern hemisphere. This was the “haunted summer” that helped inspire Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, in which science and the sublime do battle.

People of all faiths thought it was kingdom come. They still do, sort of.

Knowing the science does not take away the dread. Large quakes, we know, have occurred in the region for thousands of years, including in 900 AD, 1450, 1843, 1895, and 1976. The chances for another major quake (magnitude 7.0 or greater) in the next 50 years are 7-10 percent, and for lesser ones (6.0 or greater) 28-46 percent.

The effects of 1811-sized quakes would be much worse now, due to increased population and urban development. The Mid-America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois, established by the National Science Foundation, ran a simulation in 2009 that predicted 86,000 injuries and fatalities; 7.2 million displaced people; 715,000 damaged buildings in eight states; 3,500 damaged bridges; and 425,000 breaks and leaks in pipelines. It would take 42,000 rescue personnel to respond. “Direct economic losses” would be $300 billion.

I have long been interested in the New Madrid quakes—the events of 1811-12 pegged out my weird-stuffometer from an early age—but I had never been to New Madrid, a quiet little river town, or its charming museum crouched against the levee, almost as if I had been purposely avoiding them. As in 1811, there are portents of the end of the world, but then there always are.

The museum contained Civil War and other historical artifacts, as well as plenty of information about the quakes. The curator kept it open longer that day, just for me, its only visitor. He said he had slept through the quake that morning. I bid him farewell and walked up the hill. The promontory on the levee let me watch the River run past at a million gallons per second. It was hard not to hunch my shoulders a little, as it passed by so still and quiet, as if anything could happen at any time.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.