Natural Disasters and Your Family History, by Mary Penner

Eyewitness John Bradbury wrote, “The noise was inconceivably loud and terrific, I could distinctly hear the crash of falling trees, and the screaming of the wild fowl on the river . . . all nature was in a state of dissolution.” Louis Bringier, riding nearby on horseback, described the “horrible disorder of the trees . . . being blown up, cracking and splitting and falling by the thousands at a time. In the meantime, the surface was sinking, and a black liquid was rising up to the belly of my horse, who stood motionless, struck with terror.”

Can you identify this incredible natural disaster? These lucky survivors were describing the series of earthquakes that struck near New Madrid, Missouri, over a period of several months in 1811 and 1812. Scientists today estimate that the earthquakes had an average magnitude of 8.0. There may have been as many as five distinct earthquakes along with thousands of aftershocks.
 
The anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 just passed. The devastating loss of life and property, as well as the loss of thousands of photographs and first-hand accounts, has cemented that disaster into our historical psyche. The New Madrid earthquakes, on the other hand, occurred in a remote area with small populations, primitive structures, and few literate eyewitnesses.

Recently, while reading a book about the New Madrid earthquakes, I learned that people as far away as Montreal, Baltimore, and Charleston felt the tremors. That prompted me to pull out my atlas. I realized that Montgomery County, Tennessee, where my Martin and Hubbard ancestors lived at the time of the quakes, is roughly 120 miles from New Madrid. Now that’s an interesting footnote to my family history.

I starting digging through the historical earthquake rubble and found a few eyewitness accounts from Montgomery County residents. One resident noted that nearly every brick chimney in the county broke apart and tumbled to the ground. Some homes collapsed and many people, fearful of living inside, spent months living outside in tents.

Another Montgomery County resident noted how the earth’s rumbles enticed many of his neighbors to give up their sinning ways and suddenly find religion. He also noted that their newfound faith “started well . . . [but] as the earth became more and more steady, their faith became more and more unsteady.” They were known as “earthquake Christians.”

When piecing together the lives of your ancestors, consider investigating what natural disasters they experienced. Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, droughts, fires, hurricanes–there’s no shortage of potential catastrophes. For example, did any of your ancestors live near Charleston, South Carolina? Hurricanes devastated that city in 1686, 1713, 1728, and 1752. The residents endured many more hurricanes in subsequent years.

What about tornadoes? A massive twister struck Natchez, Mississippi, in 1840. The local paper described a “scene of desolation and ruin which sickens the heart and beggars description–all, all, is swept away.” The newspaper also noted that in Louisiana, plantation owners reported “hundreds of (slaves) killed, dwellings swept like chaff from their foundations, the forest uprooted, and the crops beaten down and destroyed. Never, never, never, was there such desolation and ruin.”

Hunt for disasters by reviewing state and county histories. They might mention noteworthy calamities. The U.S. Geological Survey has details of historic earthquakes online. You can also search for earthquake activity by state from the USGS homepage.

Look for newspaper and firsthand accounts of historic natural disasters. Knowing about a local disaster adds depth to the family portrait, and it could offer explanations for untimely deaths or sudden changes in family fortunes. It could also explain why some families packed up and moved.
AWJ Editor’s Note: A keyword search in the Ancestry.com Family and Local History Collection turned up quite a few hits on the New Madrid earthquakes, including the aforementioned Louis Bringier’s account of the disaster.

Genealogist Mary Penner writes Lineage Lessons, a weekly genealogy column, for the “Albuquerque Tribune.” She can be reached at mpgene@juno.com.

10 thoughts on “Natural Disasters and Your Family History, by Mary Penner

  1. This doesn’t apply only to historic events. Our family and many of our relatives were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. An estimated 75% of us will not be returning to New Orleans very soon. We are noting what happened to their homes and where they landed in the personal history sections of our genealogy, so the generations to come will have trails to follow.

  2. there was also the great storm that swept across three states on march 18, 1925 it cut a path a mile wide across missouri, illinois and indiana. my family lived in west frankfort, ill.my mothers house was destroyed, the only thing left was the foundation.pieces of wood no bigger than kindling were all that was left. the storm killed many people. my mothers husband was one, in murphysboro, illinois about 45 miles from west frankfort my fathers wife was killed and one of his four children was injured. his home was also leveled as were others. the devastation was unbelieveable. two years later, these two survivors met and married and picked up the pieces of their lives. all my life i have heard first hand stories of what happened that day. every one id a little different except for their descriptions of being scared to death while it was going on and saddened after bt the death and destruction.

  3. there was also the great storm that swept across three states on march 18, 1925 it cut a path a mile wide across missouri, illinois and indiana. my family lived in west frankfort, ill.my mothers house was destroyed, the only thing left was the foundation.pieces of wood no bigger than kindling were all that was left. the storm killed many people. my mothers husband was one, in murphysboro, illinois about 45 miles from west frankfort my fathers wife was killed and one of his four children was injured. his home was also leveled as were others. the devastation was unbelieveable. two years later, these two survivors met and married and picked up the pieces of their lives. all my life i have heard first hand stories of what happened that day. every one a little different except for their descriptions of being scared to death while it was going on and saddened after bt the death and destruction.

  4. When this earthquake hit in 1811-12 western TN and KY were not open to settlers. That did not happen until The Jackson Purchase of 1819. Consequently deaths and injuries caused by this disaster were very few. (Montgomery Co. is in middle TN). It has been stated that if it happened today it would cause billions of dollars in property loss and deaths and injuries would make it one of the worst disasters to hit the U.S. And scientist say another one might come at any time in this area along the New Madrid fault. Building codes have only recently added
    earthquake requirements.

  5. I found this article of particular interest, in that I was born and raise in Johnstown, Pa. Johnstown is home to 3 horrific floods; 1889, 1936 and 1977. My grandfather, Upton Herbin Shugars was a messenger for Clara Barton after the “89″ flood and my father expeerienced the “36″ flood by having to search for my mother,brother and 3 sisters. I was fortunate to have been save at home during the flood of “77″ but the night before was an experience I shall never forget.

  6. You mentioned blizzards. After reading about the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard of Jan 1888, I had to check my families from that time period to see where they were during that storm. As far as I knoow no family stories came down from that one, but most of my immediate lines were in Iowa, so were on the fringes of the storm. Makes those names and dates alot more interesting when you consider the tragedies they may have witnessed or experienced.

  7. Interesting article on the New Madrid area. My husband’s family farmed there. In 1937 There was record flooding all around the area and in Ohio. Because the flood waters were so high, the Army Corp. of Engineers blew a levee near New Madrid, Mo. and our family farms were flooded. The families had to leave the farms and move to the city, they never went back to farm the land. One of the aunts was a child then and remembered that her family and her grandparents next door had to leave. I should note they blew the levee there so that other large towns with high population would be spared from the flooding.

  8. Have you ever heard of the Peshtigo fire which occurred in October, 1871? Many folks lost their lives and much property damaged or lost in that event. My great-grandfather Joseph Laisure, a Civil War veteran, lost his first wife and 5 children in that disaster. They are all buried in a mass grave near Harmony Corners, WI. There also is a Peshtigo Fire Museum in the town of Peshtigo, WI which contains a great many items of interest. There is also a mass grave and cemetery there.

  9. My mother was teaching school in the Mississippi Delta in 1927 when the Mississippi River flooded. I recently read a book about the flood–about the same time Katrina hit New Orleans and I found my reading even more interesting.

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