Eyewitness John Bradbury wrote, â€œThe 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.â€ Louis Bringier, riding nearby on horseback, described the â€œhorrible 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.â€
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 thatâ€™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 earthâ€™s rumbles enticed many of his neighbors to give up their sinning ways and suddenly find religion. He also noted that their newfound faith â€œstarted well . . . [but] as the earth became more and more steady, their faith became more and more unsteady.â€ They were known as â€œearthquake Christians.â€
When piecing together the lives of your ancestors, consider investigating what natural disasters they experienced. Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, droughts, fires, hurricanes–thereâ€™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 â€œscene of desolation and ruin which sickens the heart and beggars description–all, all, is swept away.â€ The newspaper also noted that in Louisiana, plantation owners reported â€œhundreds 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.â€
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 Editorâ€™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 Bringierâ€™s account of the disaster.