Brother; I have just received your kind letter, written some three or
four weeks ago, requesting me to give you a description of the late
horrible visitation of Providence, and the sinking of Reelfoot Lake
in this section.
The morning of December 15, 1811, was cloudy and a dense fog prevailed,
and toward nightfall the heavens showed signs of distress. On the following
morning, the 16th, about five o’clock a.m., we felt the shock
of an earthquake, accompanied by a rumbling noise resembling the distant
firing of a cannon, which was followed in a few minutes of the complete
saturation of atmosphere with sulphurous vapor. The moon was shining
brilliantly, but the sulphurous vapor caused the earth to be wrapped
in absolute darkness.
The wailing inhabitants, the stampede of fowl and beasts, the noise
of falling timber, the roaring of the Mississippi --- the current of
which was retrograde for a few minutes – formed a scene too appalling
to conceive of. Then until daylight a number of lighter shocks occurred,
one that was more violent and severe than the first one, and the terror
which prevailed after the first shock was now even worse than before.
The people fled hither and yon, supposing that there was less danger
at a distance from the river, which was boiling, foaming and roaring
terrifically. Men, women and children gave up in despair, some praying
and others fainting, so great was their fear.
There were light shocks each day until January 23, 1812, when one as
hard as the first occurred, followed by the same phenomena. From this
time until February 4 the earth was in continual agitation, visibly
wading as a gentle sea. That day a shock, almost as severe as the others,
occurred and on the 8th, about sunrise, a concussion took place, so
much more violent than the others that it was called “the hard
The earth was transformed into total darkness, the chickens went back
to roost, the cows mooed and the frightened horses pitifully neighed.
At first the Mississippi River seemed to recede from its banks, and
its waters, gathering up like a mountain, leaving for a short period
of time many boats that were passing down the river, on the bottom of
the river, during which time the crews escaped to land in safety.
The river rose ten to fifteen feet perpendicularly. Expanding, as it
were, at the same time the banks were overflowed with a retrograde current.
The river falling immediately, receded within its banks again with such
violence that it took with it whole groves of young cottonwood trees
and much cattle and stock.
A great many fish were left on the banks, being unable to keep up with
the water, and an old canoe, antique in construction, was washed ashore.
The river was a mass of floating wrecks of boats, and it is said that
one was wrecked in which there was a lady and six children, all of whom
In the hard shocks described, the earth was horribly lacerated —
the surface from time to time was covered over of uneven depths by the
sand which issued from the fissures, which were made in great numbers
all over the country, some of which closed up immediately after they
had vomited forth their sand and water.
In many places, however, there was a substance resembling coal thrown
up with the sand. It is impossible to say what the depth of the fissures
or irregular breaks were. The site of New Madrid, Missouri, was settled
down at least fifteen feet, and not more than half a mile below that
town there does not appear to be any alteration of the river, but back
from the river a short distance the numerous large ponds or lakes, which
covered a great part of the country, were totally dried up. The beds
of some of them bulge about their former banks several feet.
The most remarkable feature of all the entire disturbances, which was
not generally known for some months afterwards, was the discovery of
a huge lake on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi River, upward of
25 miles long and from one-half to eight miles in width. This lake was
later called Reelfoot Lake. There are places in it the bottom of which
has never been found, though many efforts have been make to ascertain
the depth of these places.
The lake has communication with the Mississippi River at both ends,
and it is conjectured that it will not be many years before the principal
part, it not the whole, of the Mississippi will pass that way. In the
last year or so an herb, resembling moss, has literally covered the
surface of the lake, and during the winter months wild fowls, such as
ducks, geese, cranes, etc., winter on the lake and eat this moss as
food. Deer and other animals seem to enjoy it.
It is said that where the lake was formed was a vast area of fine timbered
lands, and in places only the tops of trees can be seen. The lake runs
north and south, and each end has a neck shape, widening out about the
center, or nearer the northern terminus than the center. The water in
it does not seem to rise and lower to any marked degree, and the lake
is destined to become the great hunting and fishing resort of the west.
It is said that where this lake was formed was formerly the Indians’
hunting grounds, and also where they held their annual war dances; but
since the terrible visitation of the earthquake it is a rare thing that
one ventures in that vicinity. By some method, known only to themselves,
they marked a warning on the trees for other Indians to keep away.
Most of those who fled from the vicinity during the hard shocks returned,
but always greatly alarmed at the slightest trembling of the earth.
We have, since their commencement in 1811, and occasionally, felt light
shocks. Hardly a week passes but I feel one. There were two the past
winter, much more severe than we have felt them for several years before.
Since then, however, they are lighter than ever, and as the months and
years pass the inhabitants are becoming more and more reconciled to
One circumstance worthy of mention is: This section was once subject
to severe thunder, but for a long time previous to the first shocks
there was no thunder at all and but very little since.”
New Madrid, MO.”