The Earthquake

Extract of a letter from a gentleman on his way to New Orleans, to a friend in
this place (Lexington, Ky.) - - dated 20th December.

"We entered the Mississippi on the morning of the 14th, and on the night of the 15th came to anchor on a sand bar, about ten miles above the Little Prairie - - half past 2 o'clock in the morning of the 16th, we were aroused from our slumbers by a violent shaking of the boat - - there were three barges and two keels in company, all effected the same way. The alarm was considerable, and various opinions as to the cause were suggested, all found to be erroneous: but after the second shock, which occurred in 15 minutes after the first, it was unanimously admitted to be an earthquake. With most awful feelings we watched till morning in trembling anxiety, supposing all was over with us. We weighed anchor early in the morning, and in a few minutes after we started there came on in quick successions, two other shocks, more violent than the former. It was then daylight, and we could plainly perceive the effect it had on shore. The bank of the river gave way in all directions, and came tumbling into the water; the trees were more agitated than I ever before saw them in the severest weather and many of them from the shock they received broke off near the ground, as well as many more torn up by the roots. We considered ourselves more secure on the water, than we should be on land, of course we proceeded down the river. As we progressed the effects of the shock as before described, were observed in every part of the banks of the Mississippi. In some places five, ten and fifteen acres have sunk down in a body, even the Chickesaw Bluffs, which we have passed, did not escape; one or two of them have fallen in considerably.

The inhabitants of the Little Prarie and its neighborhood all deserted their homes, and retired back to the hills or swamps. The only brick chimney in that place was entirely demolished by the shocks. I have not yet heard that any lives were lost, or accident of consequence happened. I have been twice on shore since the first shock, and then but a very short time, as I thought it unsafe, for the ground is cracked and torn to pieces in such a way as made it truly alarming; indeed some of the Islands in the river that contained from one to two hundred acres of land have been nearly all sunk, and not one yet that I have seen but is cracked from one end to the other, and has lost some part of it.

There has been in all forty-one shocks, some of them have been very light; the first one took place at half past 2 on the morning of the 16th, the last one at eleven o'clock this morning, (20th) since I commenced writing this letter. The last one I think was not as severe as some of the former, but it lasted longer than any of the preceding; I think it continued nearly a minute and an half. Exclusive of the shocks that were made sensible to us on the water, there have been, I am inclined to believe, many others, as we frequently heard a rumbling noise at a distance when no shock was to us perceptible. I am the more inclined to believe these were shocks from having heard the same kind of rumbling with the shock that affected us. There is one circumstance that has occurred, which if I had not seen with my own eyes, I could hardly have believed; which is, the rising of the trees that lie in the bed of the river. I believe that every tree that has been deposited in the bed of the river since Noah's flood, now stands erect out of the water; some of these I saw myself during one of the hardest shocks rise up eight or ten feet out of water. The navigation has been rendered extremely difficult in many places in consequence of the snags being so extremely thick. From the long continuance and frequency of these shocks, it is extremely uncertain when they will cease, and if they have been as heavy at New Orleans as we have felt them, the consequences must be dreadful indeed; and I am fearful when I arrive at Natchez to hear that the whole city of Orleans is entirely demolished, and perhaps sunk.

Immediately after the first shock and those which took place after daylight, the whole atmosphere was impregnated with a surphurous smell."

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


How to cite this article:  “Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman on His Way to New Orleans,” Pittsburgh Gazette, 31 Jan 1812, p. 2, available at