The New Madrid Earthquake

December 1811

Letter of Eliza Bryan gives detailed account of New Madrid earthquake which happened l36 years ago.
A letter written by one Eliza Bryan to a friend on March 22, 1816, gives a more or less detailed account of the experience of herself and her family during the famous New Madrid earthquake which had occurred a few years previous in February of 1811, 139 years ago, This article taken from a recent issue of the New Madrid record, probably has been published in this paper before, but if so, it was long enough ago that a great many people doubtless will be interested in re-reading the letter.

 The letter follows: 


On the 16th of December 1811 about 2 o'clock a.m. we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud·but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating which was followed in a few minutes by the complete-saturation of the atmosphere with sulphurous vapor causing total darkness. The screams of the frighted inhabitants running to and fro not knowing where to go or what to do, the cries of the fowls and the beasts of every kind and the cracking of trees falling and the roaring or the Mississippi, the current of which was n the first for a few minutes, owing, as is supposed to an eruption in its bed, formed a scene truly terrible, From that time to about sunrise a number of lighter shocks occurred, at which time one still more violent than the first took place with the same accompaniment and the terror which had been excited in everyone, and in deed in all animal nature was now, if possible doubted. The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country, supposing (if it can be admitted that their minds were exercised at all) that there was less danger at a distance from than near the river. In one person, a female, (Mrs. LuFont, the alarm was so great that she fainted and could not be revived). There were several shocks a day but lighter than those already mentioned, until the 23rd of January 1812 when one occurred as violent as the severest of the former ones, accompanied by the same phenomona as the former. From this time until the 4th of February, the earth was in continual agitation visibly waving as a gentle sea. On that day there was another shock nearly as hard as the preceding one; next day four such and on the 7th about 4o'clock a.m., a concussion took place so much more violent than those which had preceeded it that it was denominated the hard shock. The awful darkness of the atmosphere, which as formerly was saturated with sulphorous vapor, and the violence of the tempestuous thundering noise that accompanied it, together with all the phenomena mentioned as attending the former ones, formed a scene; the description of which would require the most fanciful imagination. At first the Mississippi seemed to recede from its banks and its water gathered up like a mountain, leaving for a moment, many boats which were here on their way to New Orleans on the bare sand, in which time the poor sailors made their escape from them. It then rising fifteen or twenty feet perpendicularly, and expanding, as it were, at the moment the bank overflowed with a retrograde current rapid as a torrent. The boats, which before had been left on the sand, were now torn from their moorings and suddenly driven up a little creek-at the mouth of which they laid to the distance, in some instances, a fourth of a mile. The river, falling immediately as rapidly as it had risen, receded within its banks again with such violence that it took with it whole groves of young cottonwood trees which lodged its borders. They were broken off with such regularity in some instances that persons who had not witnessed the fact would with difficulty be persuaded that it had not been the work of art. A great many fish were left on the bank, being unable to keep pace with the water. The river was literally covered with the wrecks or boats and it is said that one was wrecked in which there was a lady and six children, all of whom were lost.

 In all the hard shocks mentioned, the earth was horribly torn to pieces, the surface of hundreds of acres was from time to time covered over to various depths by the sand which issued from the fissures which were made in great numbers all over the county, some of which closed up immediately after they had vomited forth their sand and water which it must be remarked were the substance generally thrown up. In some places, however, there was substance resembling stone, coal or impure stone, coal thrown up with the sand. It is impossible to say what the depth or these fissures of irregular breaks were. We have reason to believe that some were very deep. The site of this town was evidently settled down at least fifteen Feet and not more than half a mile below the town there does not appear to be any alteration in the bank of the river but back from the river a small distance are lakes which covered a great part or the country are nearly dried up. The beds or some of these are elevated above their former bank several feet, producing an elevation often fifteen or twenty feet from their original state, and lately it has been discovered that a lake (Reelfoot Lake) was found on the opposite side of the Mississippi in the Indian country, upward or 100 miles in length and from one to six miles in width and depth of from ten to fifty feet. It had communication with the river at both ends and it is conjectured it will not be many years before the principal part if not the whole of the Mississippi will pass that way.

 We were constrained by fear of our houses falling, to live twelve or eighteen months after the first shocks in little light camps made or boards, but we gradually became callous and returned to our homes again. Most of those who fled from the country in the time or the hard shocks, have re-turned home.

 We have felt·since their commencement in 1811 and still continue to feel slight shocks occasionally. It is seldom that were are more than a week feeling one and sometime three or four a day. There were two this winter, past much harder than we have felt for two years before but since then they appear to be lighter than they have ever been and we begin to hope that ere long they will entirely cease.

 I have now, Sir, finished my promised description of the earth just as it occurred to my memory, many of the most truly awful scenes having occurred three or four years ago. They, of course, are not related with that precision which would entitle it to the character or a full confidence that it is given to a friend. 

The Henderson County KyGenWeb Page wishes to thank Mrs. Dorothy Tobler - tobler@hctc.net - for sharing the letter of Eliza Bryan! 
Thank you Dorothy!

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