History Timeline 1810s

Image above: The U.S.S. Constitution captures the British war ship Guerrier, War of 1812. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Right: Battle of New Orleans, E. Percy Moran, 1910. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

War of 1812

U.S. Timeline - The 1810s

The War of 1812

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  • Timeline

  • 1812 - Detail

    February 7, 1812 - With an estimated magnitude of 7.4 to 8.3, the final New Madrid earthquake strikes near New Madrid, Missouri. This quake was the largest earthquake ever recorded in the continental United States, destroying one-half of the town of New Madrid. It was felt strongly for 50,000 square miles, created new lakes, caused numerous aftershocks, and reversed the course of the Mississippi River. A request by William Clark, the Missouri territory governor, for federal help, may have been the first request for disaster relief.

    Reelfoot Lake

    What had begun as the first major New Madrid earthquake on December 16, 1811 had not relented into the year of 1812. Thousands of aftershocks had shaken the towns of Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky over the following weeks, causing continuing damage to the residents and topography. But the damage was just beginning, as the final major earthquake within the New Madrid seismic zone would occur on February 7, 1812, devastating the region in even bigger terms.

    The residents of the area had not been lulled into a sense that these shakes were over. A large quake had just occurred only two weeks prior, on January 23, 1812, south of Point Pleasant, to an estimated magnitude of 7.3. That estimate is difficult to measure as river traffic on the Mississippi River was light due to the Ohio River being iced over and eye witnesses less than on December 16, 1811. However, while that quake may have been the smaller of the three principle quakes, its impact was significant. Point Pleasant, abandoned earlier, fell into the Mississippi River. Today's Point Pleasant was reconstructed one to two miles from the river. The beginning of the restructuring of the Reelfoot River began when a sand bar rose, creating a dam across Reelfoot Creek. The January 23 shock served as a warning that the seismic activity had not halted and was again felt throughout the nation. The legislature of North Carolina, in session, felt its shock. There were reports of its rumble in Canada, Mexico, and Cuba.

    In the days prior to February 7, the residents of New Madrid began to notice a change in the way the aftershocks occurred. Added to the shock and bump was a twitch jerking the ground back and forth. At 3.45 a.m. on February 7, 1812, those warnings came to fruition. The shock, located southwest of town near Marston, hit. It's magnitude, at 7.5 (some historians and scientists contend it may have reached 8.8), would be the largest in the series, although technically tied in USGS measure with the first in December. The quake occurred along the Reelfoot fault in Missouri and Tennessee. It destroyed the town of New Madrid. Even as far away as St. Louis, there was severe damage to buildings. In western Tennessee, the Reelfoot River stopped flowing; the subsistence from this quake caused a drop of five to six meters in some areas, thus now creating a lake instead of a river. It wasn't the only one, but was the largest. Between Island #9 and #10 on the Mississippi River, the waters again ran backwards. Thousands of acres of trees were crushed by the waves of the river; boats were thrown onto dry land by water twenty feet above the normal level. Twenty-eight were lost altogether, including many lives. Two temporary waterfalls, lasting two to three days, were created. Fissures in the earth were hundreds of feet in length; one measured five miles.

    In comparison to other later large earthquakes such as the Alaska quake of 1964 (M9.2) or the San Francisco quake of 1906 (M7.8), the New Madrid quake had an even broader impact in area, with an intensity V or greater impact over 2.5 million square kilometers, even though its magnitude was lower (M7.5). For comparison, the San Francisco intensity V area was much lower, 150,000 square kilometers, but due to its population and amount of buildings near its epicenter, was much more costly to life and property. Lives, however, were lost in the New Madrid disaster. Estimates vary, rising to hundreds.

    Due to the widespread damage in the Missouri Territory, Territorial governer William Clark, speaker of Territorial House of Representatives George Bullitt, and President of the Legislative Council Samuel Hammond petitioned the federal government for federal aid. On February 17, 1815, Congress passed the first federal relief aid package, the New Madrid Relief Act, worth $50,000, granting residents affected by the earthquake with public lands of like quality to compensate for their losses. These certificates, five hundred and sixteen, were granted for lands in Missouri (471) and Arkansas (22). Some were not redeemd or nullified.

    Topography Changes and Additional Impacts

    Reelfoot Creek (also known as Reelfoot River, thirty yards wide prior to the quakes) had been blocked by a sand bar during the January 23 quake, but Reelfoot Lake, fifteen miles across the river from New Madrid in Tennessee was made permanent during the February 7 shock. It is now part of Reelfoot Lake State Park and covers an area of fifteen thousand acres. It is swampy in many areas with a maximum depth of eighteen feet.

    Big Lake had been previously formed near the Arkansas and Missouri state lines after the December 16, 1811 quake. It is now a popular fishing area known as Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge, an eleven thousand acre wildlife area with eight thousand acres of open water, most of it shallow. The lake itself comprises two thousand six hundred acres.

    Many other lakes formed during this period of seismic shift including Lake Nicomy, west of Hayti, Lake St. John, south of Benton, and Lost Lake, east of Bell City. Some of these lakes have ceased to exist due to the construction of draining canals.

    Some islands in the Mississippi River disappeared forever.

    The town of Fort Jefferson, Kentucky fell into the Mississippi River and was not rebuilt.

    The original town of New Madrid fell fifteen to twenty feet toward the water; spring rains washed the remainder into the river. The new town was built further west with the original site now in the center of the Mississippi River about one half to one mile away. The town, twenty-five years later, would have only two hundred and fifty residents. Today, New Madrid has a population of around three thousand and includes the New Madrid Historical Museum, which recounts the story of the earthquakes and other New Madrid history, including the Civil War Battle of Island Ten in 1862.

    In total, five towns in three states disappeared.

    Aftershocks continued for months after the February 7 quake, some significant, but began to lessen over the next several months. There were small aftershocks in the area of New Madrid for several years.

    The estimations above are taken from the USGS; other estimations list the earthquakes somewhat higher on the scale, some reaching above 8.0.

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    Text of New Madrid Earthquake Relief Bill

    CHAP. XLV. - An Act for the relief of the inhabitants of the late county of New Madrid, in the Missouri territory, who suffered by earthquakes.

    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That any person or persons owning lands in the county of New Madrid, in the Missouri territory, with the extent the said county had on the tenth day of November, one thousand eight hundred and twelve, and whose lands have been materially injured by earthquakes, shall be, and they hereby are authorized to locate the like quantity of land on any of the public lands of the said territory, the sale of which is authorized by law: Provided, That no person shall be permitted to locate a greater quantity of land under this act, than the quantity confirmed to him, except the owners of lots of ground or tracts of land of less quantity than one hundred and sixty acres, who are hereby authorized to locate and obtain any quantity of land not exceeding one hundred and sixty acres, nor shall any person be entitled to locate more than six hundred and forty acres, nor shall any such location include any lead mine or salt spring: And provided also, That in every case where such location shall be made according to the provisions of this act, the title of the person or persons to the land injured as aforesaid, shall revert to, and become absolutely vested in, the United States.

    SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That whenever it shall appear to the recorder of land titles for the territory of Missouri, by the oath or affirmation of a competent witness, or witnesses, that any person or persons are entitled to a tract or tracts of land under the provisions of this act, it shall be the duty of the said recorder to issue a certificate thereof to the claimant or claimants; and upon such certificate being issued, and the location made on the application of the claimants, by the principal deputy surveyor for said territory, or under his direction, whose duty it shall be, to cause a survey thereof to be made, and to return a plat of each location made to the said recorder, together with a notice in writing, designating the tract or tracts thus located, and the name of the claimant on whose behalf the same shall be made; which notice and plat the said recorder shall cause to be recorded in his office, and shall receive from the claimant for his services on each claim, the sum of two dollars, for receiving the proof, issuing the certificate, and recording the notice and plat as aforesaid; and the surveyor shall be entitled to the same compensation for his services from the party applying, as is allowed for surveying the public lands of the United States.

    SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of the recorder of land titles, to transmit a report of the claims allowed, and locations made under this act, to the commissioner of the general land office, and shall deliver to the party a certificate, stating the circumstances of the case, and that he is entitled to a patent for the tract therein designated, which certificate shall be filed with the said recorder within twelve months after date, and the recorder shall thereupon issue a certificate in favour of the party, which certificate being transmitted to the commissioner of the general land office, shall entitle the party to a patent, to be issued in like manner as is provided by law for other public lands of the United States.

    APPROVED, February 17, 1815.

    Image above: Reelfoot Lake, Copyright 2001, Jeremy Atherton. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons CC2.5. Image below: Montage of (left) drawing of the New Madrid Earthquake, circa 1851, book by Henry Howe. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons; (right) landslide trench and ridge from New Madrid earthquakes, Chickasaw bluffs, 1969. Courtesy USGS. Source Info: "1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquakes Overview," 1974, Otto W. Nuttli, USGS; "Science of the New Madrid Seismic Zone," USGS; USGS; "The Great Midwest Earthquake of 1811," 2011, Elizabeth Rusch, Smithsonian Magazine; "The Earthquake That Never Went Away," Dr. David Stewart and Dr. Ray Knox; "The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12," 2018, Ron Soodalter; Missouri Life Magazine; new-madrid.mo.us; "The End of the World, New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812," Garry Glen Jones; History of the House of Representatives; honors.uca.edu; "Cole County History: America's First Disaster Relief Act of 1815 Brought Flurry of Abuse," 2021, Wayne Johnson, Newstribune.com; Wikipedia Commons.

    New Madrid Earthquakes

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