Tuesday 13 February 2018

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 12: 1811-12 New Madrid Earthquakes

We just passed the 206th anniversary of the New Madrid, Missouri, earthquakes. The first tremors were experienced on 16 December 1811. They continued into March of 1812. The apparently strongest earthquake in US history occurred on 7 February 1812 with an estimated magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter scale. That would make it ten times as large as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (blog post 13 June 2017).

The family of my 2nd great-grandparents lived in Washington County, VA at the time. I am sure they felt the shocks but would not have known from where they originated.

There are many technical summaries of the event and reports done by the USGS.  A few can be found at: Bicentennial of the 1811–1812 New Madrid Earthquake Sequence

This report offers a great summary of the events, geography involved, images illustrating the destruction and first-hand accounts: “The New Madrid earthquakes occurred along the western frontier of the young United States. They were felt in all settled parts of the central and eastern United States, as well as in Toronto, Canada. They caused general alarm from Detroit, Mich., to New Orleans, La. Chimneys were knocked down as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio, 560 kilometers (km) [350 miles (mi)] away. Closer to the earthquakes, Memphis, Tenn. was not yet established, but in St. Louis, Mo., many homes were damaged. The thriving frontier trading town of New Madrid, Mo., was damaged severely and temporarily evacuated. About 45 km (30 mi) south of New Madrid, Little Prairie, Mo., was destroyed. During the earthquake the ground rose, fell, and cracked; trees snapped and were uprooted; large landslides were abundant on steep ground from the future site of Memphis, Tenn., to southernmost Illinois. Large areas rose permanently, and some of them dammed rivers to create or enlarge lakes that remain (Reelfoot Lake, Tenn.). Other large areas sank and were flooded by streams and enormous volumes of water and sand that erupted from thousands of fissures over a region about 240 km (150 mi) long and 80 km (50 mi) wide. Great waves on the Mississippi River and collapsed banks and sand bars destroyed some boats and washed others ashore. A sudden uplift beneath the river caused it to overflow its banks, briefly flow upstream, and form two large rapids.”

A tinted engraving shows the clearing of a passage on the Missouri River for riverboats from the Kozak Collection at the Earthquake Engineering Research Center, University of California, Berkeley; downloaded from The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812

Because the region affected was still sparsely occupied, there were few deaths as a result of the event. Notwithstanding that, there was significant property damage including the total destruction of the town of Little Prairie, MO. The quake actually caused a tsunami on the Mississippi River that upturned boats and eroded banks. Certainly hundreds of families would have been affected, some perhaps losing all that they owned.

These kinds of events may be little known by most people, let alone family researchers. But they no doubt had enormous impact on communities near where they occurred.

Ancestry lists 45 people, likely just the householder, living in Little Prairie, Missouri, on their US Census Reconstructed Records in 1810. The region around New Madrid had been settled by the French during the 18th century. Most of the men named on the census were of French origin. A search of later census record on Ancestry resulted in no one living in Little Prairie. Nine names, at least similar sounding, resided in nearby centres of Cape Girardeau, Louisiana and St. Louis, in 1820. Seven individuals were in Missouri in 1830.

One prominent family in New Madrid started in Little Prairie. Raphael Lesieur appears on the 1810 census list of Little Prairie residents, along with several apparent other related Lesieur families. He was born in Trois Riviere, Quebec in 1777. He and wife, Marie-Francoise Guilbert had one child in Little Prairie in 1810 and nine others after they moved to New Madrid. Lesieur Township, now part of New Madrid may have been named after the family. According to author Goodspeed’s History of Southeast Missouri (page 901), Raphael “came to Missouri in 1798, locating in what is now Pemiscot County. . . but during the earthquake of 1811-1812, the farm of which he resided sank and became part of a lake. He then removed to New Madrid Coutnry, and settled on a farm in the neighbourhood of Point Pleasant…” Raphael died in New Madrid, Missouri in 1855.

One wonders what the history of this family might have been if they had not been driven away from their first home in Little Prairie by the effects of a major earthquake.


Goodspeed's History of Southeast Missouri: Embracing an Historical Account of the Counties of Ste. Genevieve, St. Francois, Perry, Cape Girardeau, Bollinger, Madison, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Dunklin, Scott, Mississippi, Stoddard, Butler, Wayne, and Iron.
Chicago: The Googspeed Publishing Co., 1888