Imagine if you will, a comet as big as the moon that lights up half the night sky. Imagine an earthquake so severe that it rings church bells in a city over 1000 miles away. And imagine a river tsunami that totally obliterates an island and its gang of bloodthirsty pirates, loot and all.
No, it isn’t the Twilight Zone. The place is the small American town of New Madrid, Missouri, and the time is 1811.
Recently I read Lee Sandlin’s fascinating book, Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, in which he recounts this story, and other amazing tales about the river and its colorful history. The entire book was interesting, but somehow this story so captivated me, that I had to write about it. For me, the astounding aspect is that any one of these events is historically significant, but the occurrence of all three in the same year is almost beyond belief.
“The Great Comet of 1811,” as it’s officially known, was discovered on March 25, and was visible with the naked eye for 290 days. For superstitious settlers, this exceptional phenomenon could only be a harbinger of doom. According to Sandlin’s book, the comet appeared in early September in the New Madrid area, and became more brilliant with each passing day. By December, the comet was as big as the moon, and the tail covered half the sky. And to add to the creep-factor, the tail was two-pronged like the devil’s tail.
And then the squirrels came. (I am not making this up.) Driven by some unknown force, tens of thousands of squirrels marched through the area heading south. I don’t know about you, but this would certainly freak me out. And suddenly, after the squirrels moved on, the comet disappeared, and the earthquakes began.
According to the US Geologic Survey:
“Shortly after 2 o’clock on the morning of December 16, 1811, the Mississippi River valley was convulsed by an earthquake so severe that it awakened people in cities as distant at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk, Virginia.”
- Red circles — indicate earthquakes that occurred from 1974 to 2002 with magnitudes larger than 2.5 located using modern instruments.
- Green circles — indicate earthquakes that occurred prior to 1974. Larger earthquakes are represented by larger circles.
This was the beginning of what would be 2 months of earthquakes, some of which would be the most severe in US history. Because the area was sparsely populated, and communications were poor at the time, the loss of human life is unknown. But the eyewitness accounts of the effects on the Mississippi River are remarkable.
In addition to large scale flooding and changes in the course of the river, huge blocks of earth were tilted producing two large waterfalls, and causing the river to temporarily reverse its direction and flow upstream. Western Tennessee’s 15,000 acre Reelfoot Lake was also formed from one of these large tilted blocks.
The End of the River Pirates
In the early 19th Century, the river was dangerous, notoriously lawless, and home to thieves, brigands, and pirates. One particularly ruthless band of pirates operated from an island called the “Crow’s Nest.” The gang was well-organized, clever, and incredibly barbaric. Over the years there were attempts to root them out, but they always re-appeared … until the earthquake.
In what must be one of history’s best examples of poetic justice, the earthquake-churned river entirely decimated the island, the pirates, and their stash of loot. All that was left was a large sandbar.
Wicked River is an engaging book, and a wonderful demonstration that history doesn’t have to be boring. Hopefully, they will soon begin work on the apocalyptic movie “1811.” I wonder if Johnny Depp will be interested?