It was about 2 A.M. on December 16, 1811, that the sparsely populated community of New Madrid, down in the Missouri Bootheel region, was rudely awakened by the strongest earthquake ever recorded in North American.

At the onset of the earthquake the ground rose and fell – dropping huge trees and opening deep cracks in the ground. Landslides swept down the steep bluffs and hillsides; large areas of land were uplifted; and still larger areas sank and were covered with water that emerged through fissures. The ground beneath the Mississippi River heaved upward until the river was rolling backwards. Huge waves on the Mississippi overwhelmed many boats and washed others high upon the shore. The region most seriously affected extended from Cairo, Illinois, to Memphis, Tennessee, and from Crowley’s Ridge to Chickasaw Bluffs, Tennessee.

Chimneys were toppled and log cabins fell down as far distant as Cincinnati, St. Louis and in many places in Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee.

Seismologists of the United States Geological Survey have estimated the earthquakes' magnitudes anywhere from around 7 to 10. Hundreds of aftershocks continued day after day until March 16, 1812. It was estimated that there were as many as 1,874 aftershocks, or about 20 per day.

The famous San Francisco quake of 1906 that leveled that city and killed 700 people was minor compared with the New Madrid earthquake, but there not that many people around the Missouri Bootheel, and only one fatality was reported.

A number of Native American tribes were affected by the quake, and it was interpreted differently from tribe to tribe, but one consensus was universally accepted: the powerful

earthquake had to have meant something. For many tribes in Tecumseh’s pan-Indian alliance, it meant that Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet must be supported. A group of Muskogee people thought the phenomenon was a river god, the Tie Snake, writhing under the ground.

The Tie Snake was believed to be an antlered river monster that lurked beneath the water and straddled the divide between the Upper and Lower Worlds – between the sky and river, and order and chaos. Muskogee culture focused on communal prosperity, but their traditions had been altered by the infiltration of European trade goods and the new culture that accompanied them. Some Muskogee people believed that the Tie Snake was calling them to return to a traditional lifestyle.

A remnant of the Spanish government met some Muskogee warriors in Pensacola, Florida, and gave them weapons. The British had the young American navy tied up off the Atlantic coast in the War of 1812, and the Spanish hoped that the Muskogee men could weaken the Americans from another direction.

The Muskogees themselves were divided over the potential for conflict, but before they could reach a consensus, European settlers in the area caught wind of the exchange and ambushed the Muskogee warriors at the Battle of Burnt Corn. The Muskogees retaliated at the Battle of Fort Mims in 1813, and panic flared all the way from the frontier outpost to the paved streets of the new capital. Andrew Jackson charged south, leading a cavalry that chased the Muskogees from the Battle of Talladega to the slaughter at Horseshoe Bend in 1814.

The Muskogees were forced to cede a huge portion of their land in the subsequent peace treaty, and Jackson didn’t forget the experience. When he ascended to the presidency, his harsh policies led to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, removing 46,000 Native Americans from their ancestral lands during a forced migration, in the exodus now remembered as the Trail of Tears.

Reference: “Missouri Heritage,” by Lew Larkin.

To reach Ted W. Stillwell send e-mail to or call him at 816-896-3592.