Unstable Times When the Earth Trembled

        The Three Big Shocks

While the people of New Madrid were well aware of the dangers the river presented, however, the threat from below the earth’s surface surprised everyone. The evening of December 15, 1811 was clear and quiet and life was normal. There was no indication of what the morning darkness would bring.

 While the river announces its threat by a slow rise, there was no warning; the inhabitants of the areas were suddenly awakened by the groaning, creaking, and cracking of   the timbers of their houses. The earth suddenly started shaking and producing a loud noise.

Unexpectedly, the earth started spewing water and sand along with a substance resembling coal. Sulfur scented cloud rose to announce what many thought was the end of the earth. The buildings they were in started dancing before falling apart. They were awakened by the crash of falling chimneys. Furniture was moving as if a large hand was pushing it across the room. All of this and more happened at 2 A. M. as they groped through the darkness to the door to rush out into the cold December morning.

The repeated shocks lasted the night keeping the settlers from returning to the useless protection of their now weaken and damaged cabinets. They remained shivering and terrorized in the dark winter cold until morning.

Daylight brought little improvement to their situation. Early morning brought another shock. It was preceded by a low rumble and proved to be as severe as the previous. The ground rose and fell as earth waves, not unlike long low swell of the sea. As it moved along the ground giant trees tilted until their branches interlocked and opened the soil in deep cracks.

Landslides slipped down steeper bluffs and hillsides while large areas were uplifted and larger areas sunk and filled with water. Ground water rose through fissures and accumulated from obstructions of the surface drainage.

On the river, great waves were created which overwhelmed many boat and flipping keelboats while lifting others and dropping then high upon the bank. As water returning to their channel it broke off thousand of trees and carried them into the Mississippi.

During December 16th and 17th, the shocks continued at short intervals and gradually diminishing in intensity as time passed. The land had only a short retrieve.

         Permanent Physical Changes

Much the same thing happened on December 16, 1811, January 23, and February 7, 1812 during a series of earthquakes, starting near the newly formed Big Lake in Arkansas and moving east to end in New Madrid County, Missouri. The combined total of energy released made it the largest earthquake in American history equal to energy of 100,000 atomic bombs like those used to end World War II.

People felt the quake along the east coast where it rang church bell in Boston and woke people sleeping on the second flood in Charleston, South Carolina. Aftershocks lasted for month.

The area most directly affected by the earth tremors which produced uplift, sunken lands, fissures, sinks, sand blows, and landslides extended from a line from Cairo, Illinois westward and south just above Memphis and to the west along Crowley's Ridge. Alluvial terraces and uplifts have been described as a result of the earthquake. The topography of the area was changed. Old familiar landmarks were no longer to be found.

One fault under the Mississippi River caused an uplift that temporarily blocked the current. The newly formed damn trapped the water causing it up back up enough to give the appearance of the current running upstream.

 Other uplifts included the Tipton Dome extending from south of new Madrid to Reelfoot Lake; just south of the Arkansas  line was the Blytheville Dome; and the Little River Dome some 20 miles southwest of Blytheville. Sikeston Ridge with 15 feet uplift (?), is thought by some scholars’ to be a continuation of the Tipton Dome.

While some of the land was lifted up, other parts sunk. The four principal areas of sunken lands are mainly outside Missouri in the depression as Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee and Big Lake, St. Francis Lake, and Tyronza Lake in Arkansas.

A large area along the St. Francis River in the area near Lake City and Market Tree, Arkansas is known as Sunken Lands. This lowland is 11 miles long and up to two miles wide in the southern end.

A subsided area along Little River southeast of Kennett, formerly called Lake Nicormy had since been drained by a canal is located in Missouri. New Madrid was no longer on a high point looking over the river; here the elevation was lowered some 15 to 20 feet.

Decypri was the name of a large deep pond in the center part of New Madrid Township formed by the 1811-1812 earthquakes. Until 1823, it was known as Earthquake Lake. About that time the name Bayou de Cyrie or Bayou de Cypriere (a rare word meaning cypress grove or swamp) was used; named for the cypress swamps in the area. After the 1912 flood, it was locally known as the Washout when a deep hole formed or washed out the stream and it disappeared.

In New Madrid, one settler tells that during one of the quakes at night he ran in terror from his cabin. The shaking so surreal, he knew his cabin would fall on him. In the darkness, he unexpectedly ran into a water channel that was not there when he went to bed. Daylight revealed a bayou that had ran beyond his outhouse now flowed between it and his cabin.

On December 16, 1811, river men sleeping on their flatboats at the foot of Chepousa Creek, just above New Madrid, awoke to the roar of surging rushing waters, lifting them, pushing them wildly only to drop them then to lift them again. Some of the flatboats were left on dry land when the shaking stopped. Others were never seen again.

        February 7, 1812

An ice jam on the Ohio Falls near Louisville broke up shortly after December 17 shake. Then backlogs of steamboats were able to head towards the Mississippi. Those heading for New Orleans tied up at New Madrid on the night of February 6, 1812. At 3:45 a.m., February 7, the fault under the river became active creating a temporary dam followed by a waterfall as the backing river washed over the blockage.

On February 7, 1812, in the flashes of light, they say downstream, between Island Number 8 and New Madrid, a mountain of water rising against a barrier that had not been there before. The water pulsated, formed giant whirlpools, whither as if in torment as it rose higher and higher. They waited in fear as the wall of water grew. Buffered by an animated, unbelievable force from below, the river reversed direction and lowed upstream.

That same day the damn river topped the barricade in the river to form a waterfall. The force was so great that a grove of cottonwood and willow trees on a two and a half mile long island was stripped of leave and branches leaving them pointed downstream.

Dawn approached with a purplish, unnatural light. The river was churning and roiling. The color was an unbelievable red color as if it had just washed a giant wound, and thick with mud and mixed with foam.

        More Damage

Sand mixed with water shot into the air like fountains. One of the large sand blow areas in is Mississippi County Arkansas south of Manila and east of Caraway near the Miligan Ridge community.

What had sounded like artillery fire the residents of New Madrid say had came from jetting, hissing discharges exploding from funnel like holes in the earth pushing up heated water shooting up to some 30 feet or more into the air. Rumbling from under the earth was continually unnerving. A sulphurous smell tented the air and flavored the water.

Then the quakes came. Many of the residents evacuated to New Madrid along with other settlers from the north. At Spanish Mill, the earthquakes destroyed the building. They could have been rebuilt; however, the land was permanently altered. Little River no longer flowed with sufficient current to power the mill. Passage to the Mississippi River was cut off by the closure of Bayou Portage and Portage Open Bay Little River was no longer navigable. Drainage channel to the St. Francis River was blocked with permanent log jams. The east west overland road was now under a 16 mile swamp that ranged from two to four feet of water. Spanish Mill was isolated by the quakes reshaping of the land.

Flat-topped mounds and prairies 20 to 30 feet above the general area surrounding lowland are known as terraces. Some believed the Sikeston Ridge resulted from the actions of the 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquakes: (so named because New Madrid was the largest settlement in the quake area). However, Sikeston Ridge is several thousand years older. Whitewater, for a short time, was the name that seemed applied to the entire Little River system shortly after the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811-1812.

        Wading to Safety?

With the first major earthquake on December 16, the small village of Little Prairie in Dunklin County (near the present town of Caruthersville) was especially hard hit. During the continuing trimmers the village began to sink until two to four feet of had covered it.

Yawning abysses hissed, seethed, bubbled and babble boiling up from below. The muddy water was slowly filling with material from below. Vapor like steam arose from the pit to permeate the air with stench of sulfur and rotten vegetation.

Crevasses were everywhere. Cracks would sometimes open and then slap shut. Groundwater was shooting over tall tree. Some of the large tree would split from the bottom up as the ground parted under them.

Around noon another great shock hit town. The ground began to liquefy causing the town began to sink.

As many as 100 people were forced to wade eight miles in the cold weather to higher ground. With children on their shoulders, carrying what few provision they salvaged, they stumbled through muddied waters always wondering if the next step would drop them into a submerged crevasse of if they would trip over a tree stump loosing the few belonging they had left, if not their lives.

Wild animals, snakes, wolves, possums and raccoons, and all kinds of creatures were also trying to escape and find safety. On Christmas Eve, after walking through the destroyed swamp forest for eight day, the group arrived at New Madrid to fine the village destroyed and the people living out-of-doors. By luck, no one from Little Prairie was killed; however, the town was lost forever.

One black man fell into a sand blow crater and drowned engulfed by quicksand and ground water. Six Indians near the river during one of the major quakes at night drowned. They were caught by a massive-cave in and forced into the Mississippi. A crevasse of over 100 feet wide and more than a mile long opened between their house and their smokehouse. They awoke to find the Pemiscot River flowing between the house and smokehouse. This crevasse opened just a few steps from their cabin.

          Lost Towns

Other towns were lost because of the series of earthquakes. Big Prairie, Arkansas, founded in 1797, home of 20 families, near present-day Helena, Arkansas also disappeared in a similar fashion. During the spring floor of 1812, New Madrid being of a lower elevation was swept into the Mississippi.

On December 20th, the steamboat New Orleans, the first steamboat down the Mississippi was tied up to island 32, near the present site of Osceola, Arkansas. During the night, people on board the steamer were not awakened when the island they were tied to for the night disappeared.

As to be expected, many during the worse of the earth’ trembling, though the world was coming to an end. In their bargain with God, that if they were left alive, they would straighten up their lives were full filled for a while. Church attendance increased, for a short time. After the earth became quiet, after the threat lessened, so did the remembrance of the promise.

Native Americans also saw the earthquakes as a sign from their God, the Great Spirit. The violent shaking of the land was a sign the Great Spirit was not just angry with them but was furious because they had forsaken the old ways of their fathers and adopted the lifestyle of the white man. Many quietly left the area leaving most of their possessions behind; in some cases this was a lot.

Immediately following the earthquakes, a mass migration of the population of New Madrid deserted the territory just west of the river. From a population of over 3,200 before the event, there were less than 100 before the worse of the trimmers ended.

As late as 1818, New Madrid was described as being sparse of population. Visitors found that little had been done to clean up the mess nature had created. Brick chimneys still lay scattered where they had fallen. Fallen buildings still were as they had collapsed. Water spouted up from the earth shooting in all directions. Sink holes were common. Trees leaned together with their limbs intertwined. Other trees were split, some twisted and torn from their root.

Yet, the few people that remained in New Madrid had to hold court for that part of Southeast Missouri and the Arkansas District. Two badly supplied stores were open, as was one tavern and the post office.

         Measured on the Ricker Scale

The first of a series of earthquakes struck a 2: AM December 16, 1811 with an estimated strength of 8+ on the Ricker Scale. This quaked was centered just east of Big Lake in Arkansas.  At 7:00 another shock north Blytheville, almost as strong (8.0) as the first followed by another at 11:00 just south of Caruthersville (Little Prairie): again estimated at around 8.0. January 23, 1812 at 9:00 AM, an estimated 8+ was center north of Hayti and south of Marston shocked the area. Just south of Marston, on February 7, 1812, at 3:15 in the morning, the last big one, 8.8 terrorized the area. (Some of these estimates are questioned by some seismologist at the Memphis University Earthquake Center). Aftershocks continued for at least ten years.

Shortly after the earthquakes started, a Louisville engineer, Jared Brooks created a crude seismograph with an ensemble of spring and pendulums with pens that recorded seismic actives 24-hours a day. From December 16, 1811 to March 15, 812, he noted 1,874 tremors. Of these, he classified eight as violent, ten quakes as severe, and 35 as moderate, but alarming. The others were either called generally perceptible or barely perceptible.

For every tremor felt in Louisville, three to five may have been experienced in and around New Madrid. Speculation has it the Number of aftershock was from 6,000 to 10,000 and they did not end in five months. Eliza Bryant a survivor of the New Madrid earthquakes stayed there and wrote in 1816,”It is not four years since the big quake, and we still feel slight jarring now and then.

        Area’s Earthquake History

The 101-mile stretch of Interstate 55 between Benton, Missouri and Blytheville, Arkansas is sometime referred to as “Earthquake Alley.” Minor trimmers are so common there is a 30 % chance of one occurring every day. The active New Madrid Earthquake Zone includes western Kentucky western Tennessee, northeastern Arkansas, southeastern Missouri and southern Illinois.

In 2006, the Arkansas Archeological Society in their work at Eaker Air Base in Blytheville, Arkansas documented earthquake series around AD 900 and again around A. D. 1450- 1470. Researcher Margaret Guccione from the University of Arkansas finds the Mississippi River path changed significantly at this time. Another major series of quakes happened around A. D. 300. Tree ring studies in Reelfoot Lake and the St. Francis Sunken Lands show seismic activity occurred in A. D. 1682 and A. D. 1321.

Excavation at Towosahgy Mound 2 has produced evidence of earthquakes as early a A.D. 400. Evidence suggests another quake destroyed a temple in about 1400.

The first known written record of activity in the New Madrid Seismic Zone came from a French missionary traveling up the Mississippi River as part of a party of explorers. He recorded that at 1 PM, on Christmas Day 1699, when near the present day site of Memphis, the party experienced the ground shaking for a short while.

        Nuttall and Cuming Record of the Events

A famous naturalist Thomas Nuttall wrote a journal of his travel down the Ohio into the Mississippi River then to the Arkansas River. It is filled with valuable details about the land and people he met.

On December 21, 1818 he spent the night ten miles above New Madrid moored opposite to an island, Island Number Seven (?) that had been reshaped by the quakes six years before.

Nuttall, the naturalist, visited New Madrid in 1820. The morning he arrived he wrote in his journal that both side of the river was lined with logs. Some were stationary while other large logs were moving and almost wrecked their boat. He considered the town was now an insignificant French hamlet with little more than about 20 log houses. Prices of food staples he complained were too high. The earth was still trembling, sometime two or three times a day.

The next day, around noon, the Nuttall party reached New Madrid. He described the town as an insignificant French hamlet with about 20 log cabins and stores miserably supplied with prices inflated.  The surrounding land he described to appear to be of good quality. Because of the frequent aftershocks, two or three being felt daily, were discouraged for settling there.

The next day, the 23rd, they arrive at Point Pleasant, about six river miles below New Madrid. This place and several islands below were greatly changed by the earthquakes and had consequently been abandoned. He was impressed by the flatness and superior quality of the land. Here the island and sand-bars at the present water level were almost innumerable and connected with the land. During the shaking, the land, Nuttall was told had sunk ten feet.

On Christmas Day leaving Point Pleasant they found the river free of “material” obstacle, except the enormous moving log (or sawyer), which for the moment threw us into terror. These sunken trees became more frequent as they moved downstream.

The next day, the 26th, they were about ten miles below Little Prairie when a violent storm caused them to tie up to an island. The storm continued throughout the night. Nuttall wrote he became afraid the river would bread their cable and set them adrift in the dark and upon some to the many snags and sawyer in that part of the river. Setting off the next day, no other person or settlement was recorded until Memphis was reached.

Cuming visited New Madrid in 1808, returning in 1830 to record the changes since the earthquakes. Earlier, the town contained about 1000 house dispersed over a plain some two miles square. Twenty years later, the Mississippi has encroached half-a-mile inward forcing the inhabitants to move back and slightly downstream. The citizenry is made up of a mixture of French Creoles from Illinois, United Stated, and Germans.

H wrote, they have a lot of cattle, yet they seem poor. While there is still some Indian trade for furs and pelts but is of little importance. Dry goods and groceries’ are priced enormously high. Militia officer’s uniforms are dirty and ragged. The church building was going to decay had has no preacher.


Unstable Times When the Earth Trembled

The  Big Three Shocks

New Permanent Physical Changes

            February 7, 1812

More Damages

Wading to Safety

Lost Town
            Measured on the Richer Scale

Area’s Earthquake History

Nuttall and Cuming’s’ Record of the Events



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    Having grown up on Little River, I have been fascinated with it. Over the past several years, as a local historian, this area has been a special interest. 

     These areas have been treated much like step-children by Jefferson City and Little Rock. They seem to believe nothing has ever happened here.  Our history has been long and varied. Hope you enjoy my trip.  

    Near Puxico is the swampy Mingo Wildlife Refuge. One hundred and fifty year ago, most of the Little River Valley appeared that way. This valley covering two million acres was part of the largest wetland in America.

    Floods frequently intimated the Valley. Between 1815 and 2011, 15 major floods covered or threatened the area.

    Timber companies came in at the end of the 19th Century to clean cut the forest. Louis Houck, a Cape Girardeau lawyer and railroad builder, envisioned a rail network that covered the wetlands.

    Little River Drainage District (LRDD) Corporation was established in 1907 by an act of the Butler County (MO) Circuit Court. 

    Between 1909 and 1928 the LRDD dug nearly 1000 miles of ditches and constructed 30 miles of levees to drain 1.2 million acres of swamp and overflow land in Southeast Missouri. More dirt was moved than in building the Panama Canal.

    One surprise I had was the number of settlements in the area before 1811-1812. Another was the water connection between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis and I had no idea that Little River had enough current to run a grist mill.

    Norman Vickers


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    Little River's Geographic Past