Steamboat Adventure
Made possible by the Rivers Institute and the History Department of Hanover College.

The New Madrid Earthquakes


When the steamboat New Orleans made her way down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in 1811-1812, it marked a turning point in the Transportation Revolution.  After the New Orleans showed that it could be done, steamboats proliferated on the Ohio and the Mississippi and their tributaries.  Steamboat traffic helped create a national economy, opening markets for farm goods and drawing people and commerce to cities along the rivers.

On December 16, 1811, a major earthquake occurred with its epicenter in the town of New Madrid (now in the state of Missouri).  The Roosevelts and the crew of the New Orleans were about 200 miles from the epicenter on December 16, and they felt the shock distinctly.  (It was discernible as far away as Boston.) It caused enough damage to change the shape of the Mississippi River, meaning that they traveled through miles and miles of uncharted waters.  The tremors continued for more than a year, with the three largest ones (with magnitudes between 7 and 8) occurring in the first three months.  The U.S. Geological Survey offers more detail on the New Madrid earthquakes.

New Madrid earthquake

News of the Earthquakes

Dec. 18, 1811, Liberty Hall - early reports of the Dec. 16 earthquake (from Cincinnati)
Dec. 20, 1811, Pittsburgh Gazette - report of the Dec. 16 earthquake (from Pittsburgh)
Dec. 25, 1811, Liberty Hall - reports of eight shocks felt in Cincinnati from Dec. 16 to Dec. 17
Dec. 27, 1811, Pittsburgh Gazette - report of the Dec. 16 earthquake (from Lexington, Kentucky) -- apparently Nature can "no longer tolerate the moral turpitude of man"
Dec. 28, 1811, Western Spy - evidence that "a great portion of the continent" felt the earthquake
Jan. 1, 1812, Liberty Hall - another shock felt in Cincinnati on Dec. 31
Jan. 1, 1812, Liberty Hall - earthquake reports from the midwest
Jan. 4, 1812, Western Spy - more shocks felt in Cincinnati
Jan. 4, 1812, Western Spy - earthquake reports from the Atlantic states
Jan. 8, 1812, Liberty Hall - earthquake reports from Washington D.C. and the East
Jan. 11, 1812, Western Sun - reports of the earthquake: east as far as Pittsburgh, south as far as Nashville
Jan. 11, 1812, Western Spy - shocks continue to be felt in Cincinnati
Jan. 15, 1812, Liberty Hall - earthquake report from Chickasaw Bluffs (now Memphis, Tenn.)
Jan. 18, 1812, Western Spy - detailed report of the earthquake and the river, from Chickasaw Bluffs
Jan. 25, 1812, Western Spy - shocks felt in Cincinnati continue, with the Jan. 16 shock causing more damage (from Cincinnati)
Jan. 29, 1812, Liberty Hall - the Jan. 23 shock, as felt in Cincinnati, was "equally severe with" the first (Dec. 16) shock
Jan. 29, 1812, Liberty Hall - review of earthquakes and other disasters in world history
Jan. 31, 1812, Pittsburgh Gazette - detailed "letter from a gentleman" who experienced the Dec. 16 earthquake from the river, as the Roosevelts did
Feb. 1, 1812, Western Spy - eyewitness to the earthquake: "at New Madrid the shocks have been uncommonly violent"
Feb. 1, 1812, Western Spy - more "comparatively light" shocks felt in Cincinnati, and "it now appears the earthquake has been felt along the Atlantic coast as far as N. Jersey"
Feb. 5, 1812, Liberty Hall - another mild shock felt in Cincinnati on Feb. 4
Feb. 7, 1812, Pittsburgh Gazette - earthquake reports from Alabama
Feb. 8, 1812, Western Spy - on Feb. 7, Cincinnati was "seriously alarmed" by a shock "far more violent than any before experienced"
Feb. 8, 1812, Western Spy - the editor responds to charges from the Liberty Hall that the Western Spy has exaggerated earthquake reports
Feb. 12, 1812, Liberty Hall - the editor responds to criticism from the Western Spy over reporting on the earthquake
Feb. 12, 1812, Centinel - report of "uncommonly violent" shocks in New Madrid
Feb. 12, 1812, Liberty Hall - the New Orleans arrives in Natchez on Jan. 1, bringing news of the earthquake damage
Feb. 12, 1812, Liberty Hall - report of shocks felt at Fort Stoddert (in what is now southern Alabama)
Feb. 12, 1812, Liberty Hall - detailed report of shocks felt in Cincinnati from Feb. 4 to Feb. 11
Feb. 12, 1812, Centinel - report from Chillicothe, Ohio, of Jan. 23 shock "as extensively felt as those on the 16th and 17th of December" and a "slight trembling" on Jan. 27
Feb. 14, 1812, Pittsburgh Gazette - James Fletcher reports on the Dec. 16 earthquake at Little Prairie (in present-day Missouri); they "supposed the whole country sinking!"
Feb. 15, 1812, Western Spy - detailed report from New Madrid of reactions to the earthquake (Dec. 16 through Dec. 28)
Feb. 19, 1812, Liberty Hall - reports of mild shocks felt in Cincinnati from Feb. 13 to Feb. 17
Feb. 19, 1812, Connecticut Current - William L. Pierce reports on the effects of the Dec. 16 earthquake on various places the Roosevelts passed
Feb. 22, 1812, Western Spy - reports on both "slight" and "severe" shocks; Robert Morrison reports on earthquake in Kaskaskia (in present-day Illinois)
Feb. 22, 1812, Western Spy - reports of the earthquake from Dec. 16 to Feb. 7, as felt in Fort Wayne and Fort Dearborn (now Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Chicago, Illinois)
Feb. 22, 1812, Western Spy - observations about earthquakes, copied from the writings of "Dr. Wittich"
Feb. 26, 1812, Liberty Hall - reports of mild shocks felt in Cincinnati from Feb. 20 to Feb. 22
Feb. 26, 1812, Liberty Hall - report of shocks felt in St. Louis
Mar. 3, 1812, Liberty Hall - William L. Pierce's detailed report of experiencing the earthquake on a boat near New Madrid
Mar. 13, 1812, Pittsburgh Gazette - James Smith provides revisions for The Navigator on the Mississippi River's "wonderful changes for the worse" because of the earthquake
Mar. 14, 1812, Western Spy - shocks of the earthquake continue - "there have not passed many hours together without concussions of the earth" since Dec. 16
Mar. 20, 1812, Pittsburgh Gazette - John Vertner gives eyewitness account of experiencing the Feb. 7 "hard shock" in New Madrid
Mar. 21, 1812, Western Spy - Mr. Carter of Cincinnati writes of continuing earthquake-related problems on the river: boats destroyed and people killed
Apr. 4, 1812, Western Spy - Jesse Hunt gives eyewitness account of February's earthquake damage from New Madrid to what is now Memphis, Tenn.
Apr. 10, 1812, Pittsburgh Gazette - overview of momentous events of 1811, including the earthquakes
May 1812, Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal - a "retrospect" of 1811, including the earthquakes

1812-1871 - The Center for Earthquake Research and Information provides this compendium of eyewitness accounts


More about the "Steamboat Adventure" of 1811-1812 --


search
Loading

 

Steamboat Adventure homepage

Chronology

Spring 1811
Summer 1811
Fall 1811
Winter 1811-1812
Spring 1812

Locations

Pittsburgh
Cincinnati
Louisville (Kentucky) and Madison (Indiana Territory)
New Madrid (now in Missouri)
Chickasaw Bluffs (now Memphis)
Natchez
New Orleans

Topics

Nicholas and Lydia Roosevelt
The Transportation Revolution
The Great Comet of 1811
The New Madrid Earthquakes
Indian Relations

Questions or comments -- historians@hanover.edu