In 1811 and 1812, a series of earthquakes of almost unimaginable power rocked America’s western frontier. It all began in the early morning hours of December 16, 1811, with a violent shock (estimated to have been over 8.0 on the Richter scale) that threw sleepers from their beds. Centered near present-day Blytheville, Arkansas, the quakes affected the entire Mississippi and Ohio river valleys, but were felt most strongly near the town of New Madrid (pronounced MA-drid) about 200 miles south of St. Louis. For miles around, chimneys tumbled, houses cracked, and the ground moaned and roared. The shocks continued about every ten minutes for the rest of the night. Lightning flashed and crackled across the ground, and black vapors obscured any visibility from the night sky.
Not long after the sun arose and the bleeding, terrified survivors began to venture out of their homes, an aftershock of equal power ripped through the area. In New Madrid it opened cracks in the earth and spewed mud, liquid sand, and sulfurous gases. Quakes followed all day, with sinkholes swallowing houses, trees being thrown like twigs in the air, and wild and domestic animals running around in terror. It seemed like the end of the world.
In St. Louis, where William Clark lived, the effect was not as devastating but still dramatic. In the first seconds of the quake, windows rattled and furniture shifted, getting everyone up out of bed. Within another minute, chimneys began to tumble and walls to split and crack. Without a doubt, Clark must have been torn between his duty as commander of the territorial militia and his desire to protect his wife Julia, and his two sons, Lewis (age 2) and William (a newborn).
The worst was yet to come. Both settlers and Indians struggled to make sense of the events even as small quakes continued into the new year. On the morning of January 23, 1812, another massive quake (estimated at 8.4 on the Richter scale) thundered from an epicenter near Point Pleasant, Missouri in the Missouri bootheel. That entire community was destroyed. On the waterways, the main arteries of transportation in those days, boats were tossed and wrecked and the banks caved in. Hundreds of trees became floating missiles to menace anyone on the water, and huge sandboils formed new and permanent lakes. Hundreds of aftershocks followed.
Finally, on February 7, 1812, came the “big one.” Centered in the town of New Madrid itself, it is estimated to have been at least 8.8 on the Richter scale–ten times as powerful as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. For several days prior to the quake, a survivor recorded, the earth had quivered continuously “like a side of freshly killed beef.” At 3:15 a.m., the earthquake exploded. Instantly, a tsunami from the river roared through the town, wrecking everything that was left and killing an unknown number of people. The quake was so powerful that within three minutes, church bells were ringing and walls were cracking as far away as Charleston, Washington, and Boston. The quake itself lasted an ungodly fifteen minutes. For several hours that followed, the Mississippi River ran backwards. Two temporary waterfalls lasted for days. Needless to say, even the sturdiest brick and stone homes were tumbled from their foundations for miles around. St. Louis and Louisville suffered major damage. Aftershocks hammered the country for days.
About of a population of about 15,000 in the affected area, about a thousand people were killed and at least 2000 were homeless refugees. (The population of the same area today is five million). Besides the loss of life was the physical damage. Five settlements, one military fort, and countless Indian villages were completely gone. In many places, the land itself was completely destroyed, covered with sand boils, fissures, and crevasses. Dead trees were everywhere. Swamps had been lifted, good land submerged, and huge new lakes formed.
The United States had never experienced a disaster of such magnitude. In St. Louis and throughout the wrecked area, a wave of doomsday prophecy swept the area, with one group who called themselves the Fanatical Pilgrims wandering the streets and byways exhorting, “Repent! Repent!” For a while, at least, there was a dramatic increase in church attendance.
So did the federal government rush troops to the scene bearing tents, the fixings for hot meals, and cash to tide the survivors over until they could get back on their feet? Not exactly–the quake victims got exactly bupkis for over two years. Nor is there any evidence that the territorial government or Clark’s militia played any role in the cleanup or restoring order. Clark was almost immediately swept into the frontier combat of the War of 1812. The earthquake victims just had to shift for themselves.
One such victim was John Ordway, the lovable and reliable first sergeant of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. After the expedition, Ordway had married and settled in New Madrid, where he had made a success of his farm. He was entirely wiped out by the disaster and died in poverty a few years later, never able to get back on his feet.
By 1815, William Clark had become governor of the Missouri Territory. The war was over, and attitudes about disaster relief had begun to shift, not least because of another earthquake half world away. When a terrible earthquake destroyed Caracas, Venezuela, killing more than 10,000 people, the U.S. Congress voted to send $50,000 to the suffering city. Needless to say, this decision got the attention of both politicos and residents in Missouri, who wondered why federal dollars were available to foreigners while they were still struggling to put their lives back together in the face of a similar disaster.
Clark and the territorial legislature petitioned Congress for relief for those who had lost their land in the quake. Unwilling to vote cash, Congress agreed to do the next best thing: they granted those whose property had been destroyed the right to choose a new homestead of the same size from other public lands in the Missouri Territory. Clark’s petition goes down as the first application for federal disaster relief in the nation’s history.
As it so often does, what began as tragedy ended as farce. Speculators from St. Louis and the eastern United States descended on the hapless citizens, many of whom had made new starts in Indiana and Arkansas. These humble folk didn’t understand what the certificates really were, and often thought they were selling their worthless land back in New Madrid, happy to take a few pennies on the dollar. To make matters worse, counterfeit certificates soon began to circulate. The New Madrid land rush soon became synonymous with fraud and helped set back the cause of federal disaster relief until after the Civil War.
For more reading, check out The Virtual Times: The Great New Madrid Earthquake and The Earthquake America Forgot, by David Stewart and Ray Knox.