From the N. Y. Evening Post

Big Prairie, (on the Mississippi, 761 miles from N. Orleans,) Dec. 25, 1811.

To the Editor - - Dear Sir,

Proceeding on a tour from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, I entered the Mississippi, when it receives the waters of the Ohio, on Friday the 13th day of this month, and on the 15th, in the evening, landed on the left bank of this river, about 116 miles from the mouth of the Ohio. The night was extremely dark and cloudy, not a star appeared in the Heavens, & there was every appearance of a severe rain - for the three last days indeed the sky had been continually overcast, and the weather unusually thick and hazy.

Precisely at 2 o'clock on Monday morning, the 16th instant, we were all alarmed by the violent and convulsive agitation of the boats, accompanied by a noise similar to that which would have been produced by running over a sand bar - every man was immediately roused and rushed upon deck. - We were first of opinion that the Indians, studious of some mischief, had loosened our cables, and thus situated we were foundering. Upon examination, however, we discovered we were yet safely and securely moored. The idea of an Earthquake then suggested itself to my mind, and this idea was confirmed by a second shock, and two others in immediate succession. These continued for the space of eight minutes. So complete and general had been the convulsion, that a tremendous motion was communicated to the very leaves on the surface of the earth. A few yards from the spot where we lay, the body of a large oak was snapped in two, and the falling part precipitated to the margin of the river; the trees in the forest shook like rushes; the alarming clattering of their branches may be compared to the affect which would be produced by a severe wind passing through a large cane brake.

Exposed to a most unpleasant alternative, we were compelled to remain - where we were for the night, or subject ourselves to imminent hazard in navigating through the innumerable obstructions in the river; considering the danger of running two-fold, we concluded to remain. At the dawn of day I went on shore to examine the effects of the shocks; the earth about 20 feet from the waters edge was deeply cracked, but no visible injury of moment had been sustained; fearing, however, to remain longer where we were, it was thought much advisable to leave our landing as expeditiously as possible; this was immediately done - at a few rods distance from the shore, we experienced a fifth shock, more severe than either of the preceding. I had expected this from the lowering appearance of the weather, it was indeed most providential that we had started, for such was the strength of this last shock, that the bank to which we were (but a few moments since) attached, was rent and fell into the river, whilst the trees rushed from the forests, precipitating themselves into the water with a force sufficient to have dashed us into a thousand atoms.

It was now light, and we had an opportunity of beholding, in full extent, all the horrors of our situation. During the first four shocks, tremendous and uninterrupted explosions, resembling a discharge of artillery, was heard from the opposite shore; at that time I imputed them to the falling of the river banks. This fifth shock explained the real cause. Whenever the veins of the earthquake ran, there was a volcanic discharge of combustible matter to a great height, as incessant rumbling was heard below, and the bed of the river was excessively agitated, whilst the water assumed a turbid and boiling appearance - near our boat a spout of confined air, breaking its way thro’ the waters, burst forth and with a loud report discharged mud, sticks, &c, from the river's bed, at least 30 feet above the surface. These spoutings were frequent, and in many places appeared to rise to the very heavens. - Large trees, which had lain for ages at the bottom of the river, were shot up in thousands of instances, some with their roots uppermost and their tops planted; others were hurled into the air; many again were only loosened, and floated upon the surface. Never was a scene more replete with terrific threatenings of death; with the most lively sense of this awful crisis, we contemplated in mute astonishment a scene which completely beggars all description and of which the most glowing imagination is inadequate to form a picture. Here the earth, river, &c. torn with furious convulsions, opened in huge trenches, whose deep jaws were instantaneously closed; there through a thousand vents sulphureous streams gushed from its very bowels, leaving vast and almost unfathomable caverns. -  Every where Nature itself seemed tottering on the verge of dissolution. Encompassed with the most alarming dangers, the manly presence of mind and heroic fortitude of the men were all that saved them. It was a struggle for existence itself, and the meed to be purchased was our lives.

During the day there was, with very little intermission, a continued series of shocks, attended with innumerable explosions like the rolling of thunder; the bed of the river was incessantly disturbed, and the water boiled severely in every part; I consider ourselves as having been in the greatest danger from the numerous instances of boiling directly under our boat; fortunately for us, however, they were not attended with eruptions. One of the spouts which we had seen rising under the boat would inevitably sunk it, and probably have blown it into a thousand fragments; our ears were continually assailed with the crashing of timber, the banks were instantaneously crushed down, and fell with all their growth into the water. It was no less alarming than astonishing, to behold the oldest trees of the forest, whose firm roots had withstood a thousand storms, and weathered the sternest tempests, quivering and shaking with the violence of the shocks, whilst their heads were whipped together with a quick and rapid motion; many were torn from their native soil, and hurled with tremendous force into the river; one of these whose huge trunk (at least 3 feet in diameter) had been much shattered, was thrown better than an hundred yards from the bank, where it is planted into the bed of the river, there to stand, a terror to future navigators.

Several small islands have been already annihilated, and from appearances many others must suffer the same fate. To one of these, I ventured in a skiff, but it was impossible to examine it, for the ground sunk from my tread, and the least force applied to any part of it seemed to shake the whole.

Anxious to obtain landing, and dreading the high banks, we made for an island which evidenced sensible marks of the Earthquake; here we fastened to some willows, at the extremity of a sunken piece of land, and continued two days, hoping that this scene of horrors was near over - still, however, the shocks continued, though not with the same frequency as before.

On Wednesday, in the afternoon, I visited every part of the island where we lay. It was extensive, and partially covered with willow. The earthquake had rent the ground in large and numerous gaps; vast quantities of burnt wood in every stage of alteration, from its primitive nature to stove coal, had been spread over the ground to very considerable distances; frightful and hideous caverns yawned on every side, and the earth's bowels appeared to have felt the tremendous force of the shocks which had thus riven the surface. I was gratified with seeing several places where those spouts which had so much attracted our wonder and admiration had arisen; they were generally on the beach; and have left large circular holes in the sand, formed much like a funnel. For a great distance around the orifice, vast quantities of coal have been scattered, many pieces weighing from 15 to 20 lbs. were discharged 160 measured paces- These holes were of various dimensions; one of them I observed most particularly, it was 16 feet in perpendicular depth, and 63 feet in circumferences at the mouth.

As we descended the river every thing was a scene of ruin and devastation; where a short time since the Mississippi rolled its waters in a calm and placid current, now subterranean forests have been ushered into existence, and raise their heads, hard and black as ebony, above the surface of the water, whose power has been so wonderfully increased, that strength and skill are equally baffled. Our Boat was borne down by an irrestible impulse, and fortunately escaped uninjured; we passed thousands of acres of land which had been cleft from the main shore and tumbled into the water, leaving their growth waving above the surface. In many places single trees, and whole brakes of cane, had slipped into the river. A singular instance of this kind peculiarly attracted my observation; a large sycamore had slipped from its station on the bank, and had so admirably preserved its equilibrium, that it has been left standing erect in the river, immersed about 10 feet, and has every appearance of having originally grown there.

The shocks I perceive were most sensibly experienced upon the Islands, and numbers of them have been much shattered, for I observed where the stratum of Earth was fairest, it did not crack, but undulated excessively. At Fort Pickering in the extremity of the fourth Chickasaw Bluff, and 242 miles from the mouth of the Ohio, the Land is strong and high; here, however, the Earth was extremely agitated, and the block House which is almost a solid mass of hewn timber, trembled like the aspen leaf.

The obstructions in this river, which have always been quite numerous, are now so considerably encreased as to demand the utmost prudence and caution from subsequent navigators. Indeed I am very apprehensive that it will be almost impassable in flood water; for until such time it will be impossible to say where the currents will hereafter run, what portion (if any) of the present embarrassments will be destroyed, and what new sand bars, &c. may yet be caused by this portentous phenomenon.- Many poor fellows are undoubtedly wrecked, or buried under the ruin of the banks. Of the loss of four boats I am certain.

It is almost impossible to trace, at present, the exact course of this earthquake, or where the greatest injuries have happened. From numerous inquiries, however, which I have made of persons above and below us at the time of the first shock, I am induced to believe, that we were very nearly in the height of it. The ruin immediately in the vicinity of the river is most extensive on the right side in descending. For the first two days the veins appeared to run a due course from W. to E. afterwards they became more variable, and generally took a N.W. direction.

At New Madrid, 70 miles from the influence of the Ohio, and on the right hand, the utmost consternation prevailed among the inhabitants; confusion, terror and uproar presided; those in the town were seen running for refuge to the country, whilst those in the country fled with like purpose towards the town. I am happy, however, to observe, that no material injury has been sustained.

At the Little Prairie, 103 miles from the same point, the shocks appear to have been more violent, and were attended with severe apprehensions. The town was deserted by its inhabitants, and not a single person was left but an old negro man, probably too infirm to fly: everyone appeared to consider the woods and hills most safe, and in these confidence was reposed. Distressing, however, as are the outlines of such a picture, the latest accounts are not calculated to increase apprehensions. Several chimnies were destroyed, and much land sunk, no lives however have been lost.

A little below Bayou River, 103 miles from the same point, and 130 miles from the spot where we lay, the ruin begins extensive and general.

At Long Reach, 146 miles, there is one continued forest of roots and trees, which have been ejected from the bed of the river.

At the near Flour Island, 174 miles, the destruction has been very great, and the impediments in the river much increased.

At the Devil's Race ground, 193 miles, an immense number of very large trees have been thrown up, and the river is nearly impassible. The Devil's Elbow, 214 miles, is in the same predicament; below this the ruin is much less, and indeed no material traces of the earthquake are discoverable.

The western country must suffer much from this dreadful scourge; its effects will I fear be more lasting than the fond hopes of the inhabitants in this section of the union may at present conceive. What have already been the interior injuries I cannot say. My opinion is, that they are inferior in extent and effect.

The continuance of this earthquake must render it conspicuous in the pages of the Historian, as one of the longest that has ever occurred. From the time that the first shock was felt, at 2 o'clock in the morning of the 16th until the last shock, at the same time in the morning of the 23rd, was 168 hours. Nothing could have exceeded the alarm of the aquatic fowl: they were extremely noisy and confused, flying in every direction, without pursuing any determinate course. The few Indians who were on the Banks of the river, have been excessively alarmed and terrified. All nature indeed seemed to sympathize in the commotion which agitated the earth. The sun rarely shot a ray through the heavens. The sky was clouded, and a dreary darkness brooded over the whole face of the creation. The stars were encircled with a pale light, and the Comet appeared hazy and dim. - The weather was incessantly varying from oppressive heat to severe cold, and during many of the shocks some rain fell.

Here follows a table of the shocks - - amounting to eighty-nine.

It is hardly possible to conceive the convulsion which they created, and I assure you I believe that there were many of these shocks, which had they followed in quick succession were sufficient to shake into atoms the firmest edifices which art ever devised.

I landed often, and on the same shore, as well as on several Islands, found evident traces of prior eruptions, all of which seem to corroborate an opinion that the river was formed by some great earthquake - to me indeed the bed appears to possess every necessary ingredient, nor have I a doubt but that there are at the bottom of the river strata upon strata of volcanic matter. The great quantities of combustible materials, which are undoubtedly there deposited, tend to render a convulsion of this kind extremely alarming, at least, however, the beds of timber and trees interwoven and firmly matted together at the bottom of the Mississippi, are tolerable correct data from which may be presumed the prior nature, &c. of the land. The trees are similar to the growth upon the banks, and why may not an inference be drawn that some tremendous agitation of nature has rent this once a continued forest, and given birth to a great and noble stream. There are many direct and collateral facts which may be adduced to establish the point, and which require time and investigation to collect and apply.

It is a circumstance well worthy of remark, that during the late convulsions the current of the river was almost instantaneously and rapidly increased. In times of the highest floods, it rates from 4 to 5 knots per hour. The water is now low, and when we stopped on the 16th inst. at half after 4 P.M. we had then run from that morning 52 miles, rating at 6 knots generally. This current was increased for two days, and then fell to its usual force. It is also singular that the water has fallen with astonishing rapidity. The most probable and easy solution of this fact, which presented itself to my mind, was, that the strength of the Mississippi current was greater than the tributary streams could support. Either this must have been the case, or some division of waters above has occurred, destruction below has created some great basin or reservoir for the disemboguing (?) of the main body of water. The latter presumption I apprehend cannot be correct, as our progress towards the mouth of this river is marked with little or no injury.

    Your obedient servant,

- - -

New-Orleans, January 13th, 1811.
Dear Sir,

Agreeable to my promise in the last communication which I had the pleasure of making you I present a further detail of the late Earthquake.

The range appears to have been by no means confined to the Mississippi.  It was felt in some degree throughout the Indiana Territory, and the states of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.  I have conversed with gentlemen from Louisville and Lexington (in Kentucky,) who state that it was severe in both of those places.  At the latter indeed it continued for twelve days and did some inconsiderable injuries to several dwellings.  From thence it ranged the Ohio River, increasing in force until it entered the Mississippi, and extending down that river to Natchez, and probably a little lower.  Beyond this it was not perceived.

It is a singular, but well authenticated fact, that in several places on the Mississippi, where the shocks were most severe, the earth was rent (as it were) by two distinct processes.  By one it was burst asunder and instantaneously closed leaving no traces whatever of the shock; by the other it was rent, and an electric flash ran along the surface tearing the earth to pieces in its progress.—These last were generally attended with an explosion, and streams of matter, in a liquid state, gushed from the gaps which were left open when the shocks subsided, and were in many instances of an immense depth.

It is also reported, through the medium of some Indians, from the country adjacent to the Washita, who arrived in a few days since at the Walnut Hills, some distance above Natchez, that the Burning Mountain up the Washita River, had been rent to its base.  This information I received from a Settler at the Hills, and his appearance was such as to attach credit to his information.

                                Your obedient Servant,
                                WM. L. PIERCE

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


How to cite this article:  William L. Pierce, letters, Connecticut Courant  19 Feb. 1812, p. 2, available at