New Madrid 03 Reelfoot New Madrid 02 Tilted Trees New Madrid 01 Double Set of Roots

Read more about the New Madrid Earthquake that happened in Tennessee during frontier times.

The most violent earthquake to ever hit the United States in recorded history took place in an area that is now Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. 

From December 16, 1811, through February 7, 1812, a series of tremors shook this area. It is estimated that the quakes affected more than one million square miles. Vibrations were felt from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coastal towns and from Mexico to Canada.

Scientists today believe that each of the four major quakes would have probably registered more than an 8.0 on the Richter scale, if that had existed then. The largest quake is estimated to have been ten times larger than the famous San Francisco earthquake of 1906. 

This area of the country was sparsely populated then. Even so, five towns in three states disappeared, the Mississippi River flowed backwards for a short time, and Reelfoot Lake was formed in upper West Tennessee where there had been no lake before.

It is not known how many people died during the quakes, although there were stories of people being thrown from boats and drowned. Log houses, most of the homes during this time, can better withstand earthquakes. The logs are attached at the corners and can move with the earth while stone homes don’t move as much without collapsing.

U.S. Geological Survey scientists say that an earthquake will probably happen in the area again. But, they say, though, it could be any time from next year to a thousand years from now.

Eyewitness Accounts
Published in The Pittsburg Gazette on February 14, 1812, as a report from Nashville, TN, dated January 21, 1812.

Earthquake:  From Mr. James Fletcher…we have received the following narrative:   
At the Little Prairie, (a beautiful spot on the west side of the Mississippi river about 30 miles from New-Madrid), on the 16th of December last, about 2 o'clock, A.M., we felt a severe concussion of the earth, which we supposed to be occasioned by a distant earthquake…Between that time and day we felt several other slighter shocks; about sunrise another very severe one came on, attended with a perpendicular bouncing that caused the earth to open in many places - some eight and ten feet wide…

The earth was, in the course of fifteen minutes after the shock in the morning, entirely inundated with water. The pressing of the earth…caused the water to spout out of the pores of the earth, to the height of eight or ten feet! We supposed the whole country sinking, and knew not what to do for the best. The agitation of the earth was so great that it was with difficulty any could stand on their feet, some could not - The air was very strongly impregnated with a sulphurous smell...

An account from George Crist, who resided in the north-central area of Kentucky (December 1811)
There was a great shaking of the earth this morning. Tables and chairs turned over and knocked around - all of us knocked out of bed. The roar I thught would leave us deaf if we lived. It was not a storm. when you could hear, all you cold hear was screams from people and animals. It was the worst thing that I have ever wittnesed. It was still dark and you could not see nothng. I thought the shaking and the loud roaring sound would never stop. You could not hold onto nothing neither man or woman was strong enough - the shaking would knock you lose like knocking hicror nuts out of a tree. I don't know how we lived through it. None of us was killed.

Both eyewitness accounts were taken from “The New Madrid Compendium: A Comprehensive Source of References for the 1811-1812 Earthquakes” online at

Picture Credits:
  • A 1904 photograph of a tree with a double set of roots caused by the New Madrid earthquakes in 1811-12.   When the Mississippi water overflowed in this area, it covered the ground with about five feet of sand, causing new roots to grow.  When the sand was washed out later, it left a double set of roots.  U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library
  • A photograph of trees tilted by the 1811-12 earthquakes.  The trees were located on the Chickasaw Bluffs on the east side of Reelfoot Lake.  U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library

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