A Comet, An Earthquake, And The End of The River Pirates

By Herman Gall via Wikimedia Commons - Version 4

On our recent travels we discovered that the Mississippi River’s past is a treasure trove of tales. But if there weren’t historical records to support it, I’d believe that what happened in 1811 was a Tall Tale.

As this apocalyptic year proved – sometimes truth is stranger than fiction . . .

* * *

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.

Wicked River

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, the chapter about the events of 1811 so captivated me, that I had to write about it. For me, the astounding thing is that any one of these events is historically significant, but the occurrence of all three in the same year is almost beyond belief.

By NASA via Wikimedia Commons

The Comet
“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 comet’s tail was two-pronged – strangely reminiscent of the devil.

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.

The Earthquakes
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?

Happy Trails,

Last Updated 5/29/2014

Photo Credits via Wikimedia Commons: 1. Herman Gall 3. NASA 4. USGS/Joan Gomberg and Eugene Schweig 5. David Cox

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

58 thoughts

    1. Amazing is the word Alison. We were just in Natchez, MS, and imagining the Mississippi River with a couple of waterfalls and flowing backwards is difficult to do. I saw Halley’s comet in 1986 (in the desert outside Khartoum, Sudan), and it wasn’t very large. I can’t imagine a comet that lights up the night sky. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Lara, and for dropping by the blog. In American history the Mississippi River has been a water highway which has been a life giver and killer at the same time. And it’s a constant reminder of how nature, rather than man, is in control. ~James

  1. You are right this definitely sounds like a tall tale. Was there any explanation for the thousands of squirrels? What a vision that creates! Open your front door and there they go marching by. Sounds like the pirates got what they deserved. Some serious karma. Great post James. Very engaging.

    1. Sue, there has been lots of anecdotal evidence that animals behave strangely before earthquakes, but no scientific study has confirmed it. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, just that it hasn’t been proven. Personally, I have no difficulty believing that animals in the wild have a better capability to “feel” pre-earthquake micro-vibrations. Or maybe that’s just me being squirrelly. ~James

      1. I’ve also been wondering about those squirrels. Perhaps they were actually another kind of animal altogether, like a type of lemming. I only wonder about this because I was once working on a Spanish book and I discovered that the Spanish ‘ardilla’ can mean many more animals than the English squirrel, including chipmonks. Perhaps that historical account was also written by someone who confused two different species. Nevertheless, it’s a memorable image, a bit like a rain of frogs.

      2. You may be squirrelly ( haha) but I have heard that as well. Still to see thousands of them strolling by…I wonder if there were other animals on the move. At any rate a very intriguing post James.

      3. An interesting point Alastair. There aren’t that many different types of small mammals in this part of the US besides squirrels, chipmunks, moles, etc. And because squirrels were probably a major food source for the pioneers, I suspect that the ID is correct. But, a 200 year-old verbal account should always be treated as slightly suspect. And as you say, nevertheless, it’s a memorable image. ~James

  2. I would love to see this movie knowing it’s based on fact! It’d be especially interesting if the pirates are a consistent part of the plot to build up to a big climax. The squirrel scene might be the most difficult for movie-goers to swallow, though… I’m sure it must have been creepy in real life, but I can’t help but giggle at the thought of it.

    1. Brittany, the pirates on the Mississippi River would make great movie characters, because they were really, really evil men, and the audience would cheer when the river washed them away. And in these days of computer animation, Hollywood can give you as many squirrels as you like (Want them to talk and dance as well?). ~James

  3. I’ve read Wicked River and I second your opinion. It’s an extraordinary history of the Mississippi river. The thing that blew me away was the fact that the river reaches Chicago and it runs below drain covers in the city. Astonishing.

    1. Thanks for the comment Alastair and for dropping by the blog. I really enjoyed this book, and the chapter on the events of 1811 was only the tip of the iceberg for me. The Mississippi River has made a huge impact on American history, and before reading this book, I was woefully unaware of most of it. ~James

    1. Thanks Kamila. The Mississippi River has played (and continues to play) a big role in American History. And for most people, it’s easy to overlook. Stories like this show just how interesting it can be. ~James

  4. If all of that happened in this day and age, doomsayers would be drinking tainted coolaid but the gallon and survivalists would lock themselves in their bunkers to wait out the apocalypse. And all sorts of “heathens” would be born again. Me – I’d be out there with my camera, documenting it all! Funny thing, I’m currently at Crow’s Nest Campground in Newport, NH. Wonder if all of the loot was ever recovered?

    1. Imagine the TV coverage with our 24/7/365 news coverage Laura. And you’re right about the survivalists. I’d want to invest in bunkers, generators, guns and ammo of course, dehydrated food, and bibles. You’d hope that in these enlightened days, people wouldn’t go crazy, but we know differently. ~James

  5. Wow. That’s what I call a riveting read and I agree, truth is stranger than fiction. I need to look that book up. 😀 Thanks for sharing. It’s always good to learn new things.

    1. Tess, I think that you would enjoy this book. It presents a readable account of the history of the river, and highlights many of the characters (good and bad) that made a contribution. I’m sure that the same could be said of the history of any of the world’s other great rivers, but having it so close to home makes it even more interesting. ~James

  6. I can only imagine what the ‘Wild Mississippi’ might have looked like before the Army Corps of Engineers and the communities all along the banks of the river dredged, channeled and tamed this greatest of rivers on the North American continent. I have often thought how great it would have been to live in a time before the Westward Movement claimed the wildness of the West. Your story offers a compelling glimpse into this remarkable era and the challenges it presented to those who lived through it. – Mike

    1. There are arguments on both sides of the issue whether the dredging, etc is a good thing, as well as wether the river is actually “tamed”. As hurricane Katrina demonstrated in New Orleans, the river will eventually show (as it did in 1927), that nature can find a way to overcome man’s technologies. I think that you’d enjoy this book Mike. It’s a detailed snapshot of a pivotal time and place in American history. ~James

  7. Fascinating. I could handle a comet with a two-pronged tail . . . but squirrels? Not so much! Thanks for the book recommendation — it’s right up our alleys!

    1. I think that you’ll enjoy it Rusha. And your travels in the area will make it even more meaningful. We traveled the Great River Road some years ago, and ever since, I’ve had an interest in Mississippi River History. And depending how geeky you get on river history, there’s another book: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John Barry, which is also interesting. ~James

      1. You have great recs! I’m currently inhaling Natchez Burning. It’s a Grisham-like page turner. If you want something with little history and just plain ol’ what’s gonna happen intrigue, get it. It mentions little towns like Ferriday and Vidalia, LA and the crooks who could have been there, I guess! Happy summer!

  8. Comet: Not so concerned unless it was heading for a collision with earth. An army of squirrels marching by: I would be definitely nervous. 🙂 I’d be following to see where they were heading. If it was higher ground, I think I would take the hint. As for pirates… enjoyed the justice. Thanks for the story, James. I always love history, even more so when it has such an intriguing twist. –Curt

    1. Like you, I’ve read lots of history Curt, but never have I read of so much weird stuff happening in one year. In fact, I’m intrigued and will probably go looking for other momentous years to investigate. Also, I’ve been biting my commenting tongue all day with all the talk of squirrels – just waiting for someone to comment that would understand. An experienced outdoorsman such as you certainly knows that when it comes to squirrels, whether one or one thousand, you just have to guard your nuts. (I couldn’t help myself.)~James

      1. i think i’ve mentioned this before, but i will always remember the day that the howler monkeys raced through the treetops by my studio in costa rica.. then half an hour or an hour later they raced back in the opposite direction. later that day we had a very strong earthquake.. and about an hour later we had a second one that shook the landscape as if it were a living salvador dali painting.

        barry’s ‘rising tide’ is indeed a great read and helps anyone understand the river and man’s attempts to control mother nature! z

      2. Lisa, as I said to someone else, I have no difficulty believing that animals in the wild have a better capability to “feel” pre-earthquake micro-vibrations. The official position of the US Geological Survey is that there’s no scientifically documented evidence that confirms the connection. But remember, for a scientist, a positive proof requires a controlled experiment with repeatable results. And as you know, when it comes to earthquakes, you can forget the word “predictable.” So designing and successfully conducting an animal/earthquake experiment is almost impossible. In the meantime, in your part of the world, I’d pay attention when the animals start to act strangely. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog Dominik. This book covers lots of interesting history that isn’t commonly thought about, and I think you’d enjoy it. ~James

    1. Given your knowledge of the area and the river (and of course your first-hand experience with earthquakes), I think that you’d enjoy this book. Strangely, I’ve never been to New Madrid, but after reading this book, it’s on my list. Enjoy your trip back stateside. ~James

  9. Wow, this was fascinating. I live close enough to the New Madrid Fault that sometimes I calculate which piece of furniture might fall on me if it struck. I didn’t know about the pirates, nor the squirrels, nor heard of the Great Comet of 1811. Here’s what I wrote about the New Madrid earthquake. (Link below) I’m going to update my post with your post and also get a copy of “Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild.”

    On a side note, my husband and I met a couple who piloted a large house boat down the Mississippi. Not sure where they started their journey, but it was a long journey of many weeks. Apparently the Mississippi is very hard to navigate, tamed or not. Maybe not so much has changed since Mark Twain traveled those waters.


    1. Thanks Catherine. I read your interesting post, and appreciate the link to our post about the events of 1811. It truly is a fascinating story, and to think that it all happened in a single year! Can you imagine how freaked out people would be if it happened today. And from what I read, there are differing opinions of how “tame” the Mississippi is. A boat trip isn’t something that I’d take on lightly. Depending how geeky you get on river history, there’s another book: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John Barry, which is also interesting. ~James

      1. Thanks for the new title. I’ll check it out. The people who made the long trip down the Mississippi said that it was very hard. I don’t think they knew what they were in for. They had previously piloted the boat on the Ohio, I think.

  10. Hello Gallivance. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Yours supremely excellent! Visually exciting, clean and so well laid-out. And on top of that the writing is great. I’m new at this but you set a wonderfully high bar for me to work toward. Nelson

    1. Thanks for your comment and for dropping by the blog Nelson. I read and enjoyed your Guatemala posts, and can tell from the photos and enthusiasm of your writing, that your blog is going to be a hit. We’ve traveled quite a lot, but for a number of reasons, have only scratched the surface of Central and South America. I’ve been to Belize a few times, but your posts have helped put Guatemala on my list. Thanks again. ~James

  11. So glad I found your website and this post in particular! Though I moved away many years ago, I grew up in New Madrid county about 15 miles from New Madrid, and my 90 year old dad still lives there, so I am back often. I am so eager to read this book! With all the stories and information we grew up hearing, neither my husband, who grew up in a neighboring county, nor I recall anything about squirrels! Maybe we just forgot??? In any case, it’s fascinating and fun to read something about our former part of the world! Thank you so much!

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog Kaye. Isn’t this a fascinating story? I grew up in south central KY, and am a geologist. And can you believe that I’ve never been to New Madrid? After reading this book, I vowed that the next time I’m in the area that I’m going to NM. It’s interesting to hear from someone who actually lived there. Do you or your husband remember earthquakes when you lived there? ~James

      1. Yes, we felt several small tremors over the years, ones that if you sneezed you missed them. We only had two sizable enough to remember distinctly. One was around 1964 or so, I think, on a Sunday morning. My family and I were seated in the First Baptist Church at Risco, MO, and the pastor was preaching for all he was worth when the tremor hit. You could hear it, feel it, and see it as the pews seemed to become ocean waves. We were too stunned to move. Everyone just looked around at their neighbor, and a couple of deacons jumped up and ran outside as soon as it was over. No one seemed to know what to do next, except for the preacher who was not about to let a little earthquake interrupt his sermon. “Sonic boom!” he declared, and kept on preaching!

        The other notable one was years later after we married and moved away. It was in the early 90’s around the time Iben Browning was predicting “the big one” and everyone was real nervous. We had purposely stayed away as much as we could, although we live in Little Rock, so when the big one does hit, we’re in trouble too! And yes, I had a tent and supplies in the trunk of my car in case I was at work when it hit. I taught 4th grade at the time and I guess I thought I’d put 24 nine year olds in a 6×6 pop up tent until their parents arrived to collect them. Silly, yes, but at least I slept better at night feeling as though I had done something even remotely resembling preparation. My parents prepared too. Mom had everything locked down tight. The grandfather clock was bolted to the wall, as were all the mirrors and pictures and tall chests, and all the lamps and vases were attached to the tabletops with sticky tack. Living out in the country meant they already had a generator and a well-stocked pantry. They filled up gallon jugs of water. They were ready. As I recall, we were called home to attend a cousin’s funeral unexpectedly and, of course, went without hesitation. Our older son stayed with friends in Little Rock to play in a basketball game, and we took our younger son with us. We were in the living room visiting with Mom and Dad when it happened. The whole house shook and the floors became ocean waves just as the church pews had years before. I remember all of us jumping up at once. Someone grabbed Cullen, our son, and we tried to run for the back door. Running when you are half witless with fear and the floors are rolling under your feet isn’t an easy task. I don’t think anyone made it as far as the kitchen before it was over. As it was happening, I remember thinking about all the times we had not come before in anticipation of this very event that we were experiencing! My other thought was that my baby was going to die and Adam, our son in Little Rock, was going to be an orphan, and the very people we had named in our wills to be his guardians should we die, my parents, were going to die with us! The thought that we needed to change the will inexplicably crossed my mind. Needless to say, it wasn’t “the big one” and we all survived. The house acquired a few new cracks in the ceiling and walls, but you’ll be happy to know the grandfather clock is still standing firmly in his place to this day, and not one vase was jiggled out of place!

      2. Kaye, thanks so much for the detailed description of your earthquake experiences. I really enjoyed reading both of them. As a geologist, I think it would be interesting to experience an earthquake, with the caveat that I’d be standing in the middle of a field, and be assured of no danger to me. But that would be nothing like your two experiences. I’m sure that you were scared and felt totally helpless. Since I wrote this post, I did a bit or online research on the New Madrid seismic zone, and there appears to be some disagreement in the scientific community about the status. Some researchers believe that the earthquakes and aftershocks are getting less and less frequent, which points toward the system going inactive. The US Geological Survey says that this isn’t the case. They say that the data shows that this is the buildup to more earthquakes in the future. Scientists are accustomed to this sort of uncertainty, but that doesn’t help normal people like you.

        But it appears that you and your family are doing exactly what you should be doing – being prepared. I live in hurricane country, and am a big believer in emergency planning. With month after month passing and nothing happening, it feels kind of paranoid to be worried about it. But when there’s a big event, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief and be happy about your foresight.

        In the meantime, best of luck there. Also, these stories are good first person accounts. Do you have a blog, and have you published them? You should. All the best. ~James

      3. Thank you, James. I’m glad you enjoyed my memories. It was exciting to experience those two small quakes, but I’d rather not experience any larger ones! Yes, it would be interesting for you to be in a mild to moderate quake (safely), and if you do find yourself in southeast Missouri, it just might happen!
        I found you through Alison and Don of Adventures in Wonderland (love them). Larry and I are following in their very interesting footsteps and have sold our home and most of our things to become nomads. I will be writing a blog a bit later, but it will in no way compare to your fabulous one or theirs! I have barely scratched the surface of your blog, but I am following and will be reading all your older posts as well. You and Terri have certainly led a life full of wonderful adventures already, and it sounds as though you have plenty more coming up! I look forward to reading about each of them, and I’ll be taking notes!

  12. Hello, and thanks for your engaging site! Our son is flying to Minneapolis soon for a national speech & debate tournament (we’re in Boston) and I have been looking up info about the region. Since having foot surgery, obviously there’s MUCH time on my hands to read, etc., so I will be armchair-traveling with you two for the next three weeks. Your writing about the Mississippi River was compelling! Thanks for helping my recovery pass so pleasantly. 🙂 I’ve always wondered exactly where in MN the true source is, and how fun it was to walk across the Mississippi & then read about the extraordinary happenings of 1811!! Can’t wait to share this with my husband & son when they come home from work. Unfortunately our son cannot go sight-seeing but he’ll enjoy hearing about the fascinating state of MN, seeing pictures online, and flying over the Great River.

    1. Thanks for your comment Pam and for dropping by the blog. We visited Lake Itasca as part of a long summer camping trip that followed the Great River Road (http://experiencemississippiriver.com/the-great-river-road-the-best-drive-in-america/) which follows the Mississippi River from its source in MN to the Gulf of Mexico. Until taking this trip, I had no idea what a significant role the Mississippi River has played in American history, and this trip inspired me to learn a bit more about the river. If you have an interest in learning more check out John Barry’s book “Rising Tide” which is about the disastrous flood in 1927. It’s exciting that your son has the opportunity to visit Minneapolis. As you might expect, I think travel is a eye-opening experience and is wonderful for kids (and adults as well). Wish your son best of luck in his competition, and also for you in your recovery. ~James

  13. Sounds like a pretty fascinating read! I don’t know when I first became aware of New Madrid (did you know it’s not pronounced like the Spanish capital? You’e a geologist; you probably do know it’s MAD-rid), but I’ve always found the idea of a major fault line in the middle of the country quite intriguing. Loved your summary of the book!

    1. Lexie, it’s believed that the earthquakes in the New Madrid area are caused by a deeply buried, failed rift. Basically, that means that 500 million years ago, what is now the central US was splitting apart, and for some reason, then stopped. This complex system of faults was then buried under 10K feet of sediments. The quakes seem to be related to movement along these deeply buried faults. Probably waaay more info than you wanted, but I couldn’t control myself. 😉 ~James

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