New Madrid Earthquake


Starting in December 1811, a series of massive earthquakes struck southeastern Missouri along the New Madrid fault line. Named after the town of New Madrid, the line runs through southeastern Missouri and adjacent states. The initial quake on December 16 likely registered between 7.2 to 8.2 on the Richter Scale and was of such force that it caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards for a few minutes as well as rearranged the riverbed and the land along its shores. Equally powerful aftershocks continued through February 1812. These earthquakes were the largest in recorded history east of the Rocky Mountains and were felt over a long distance – there are even claims that they caused church bells to ring in Washington, DC.

This woodcut of “The Great Earthquake at New Madrid” appeared in Henry Howe’s 1851 Historical Collections of the Great West. The image depicts the terror felt by the inhabitants of New Madrid, whom eyewitness Eliza Bryan described as “affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do.” In the end, there was little loss of human life or destruction of buildings due to the region’s sparse population at the time. However, the quakes disrupted some land deeded to settlers by the Spanish, and the US government was forced to exchange the land that was no longer suitable for cultivation for new claims in central Missouri.

Object Details

Categories: Natural Enviroment

Date: 1811-1812

Subject: Earthquakes, New Madrid Earthquakes, 1811-1812

Contributing Institution: Missouri Historical Society

Accession Number: N21365

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Region: Southeast

Type: Wood Engraving, Image

Language: English

Latitude: 36.584827098322236

Longitude: -89.52651609547443

Source: Henry Howe, Historical Collection of the Great West (Greenville, Tenn: James A. Roberts, 1854), 237.