Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System Part IV: Background Info to the Historic Quakes By Stephanie Osborn

Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System Part IV: Background Info to the Historic Quakes By Stephanie Osborn

Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System Part IV: Background Info to the Historic Quakes

Excerpted from Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System, ©2017

By Stephanie Osborn

Images in this article are public domain, unless otherwise specified.


This whole collection of writings started off with an email exchange, months ago. Our illustrious hostess was part of the discussion, and expressed interest in my converting the info to one or more blog articles. Then, when the LibertyCon programmers heard about it, they asked me to give a presentation on same, which I did.

The presentation was a full house, and at the end, there was a request for me to convert it to blogs and/or an ebook. I asked how many would like to see an ebook of the material; virtually every hand in the lecture hall went up.

A little over a month later, with additional research under my belt and factored into the manuscript, the book has gone live. And as promised, I am providing Sarah a series of blog articles on the subject. This series of blog articles is only a small fraction of the material contained in the ebook; it may be considered in the nature of a series of informative abstracts of the information contained therein. For additional information, may I recommend that you check out Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System.


Part IV: Background Info to the Historic Quakes in 1811-12

While the Native American tribes and nations of the region were aware of the activity in what later came to be known as the Reelfoot Rift, there were no records of this activity until the arrival of European settlers around 1800.

December 25, 1699 is the first quake on the New Madrid fault system known to have a written record. It was recorded in the journal of a French missionary, who was traveling with a group of explorers on the Mississippi River.

The quake occurred at approximately 1:00pm on Christmas Day. The party was at that time ashore near present-day Memphis, TN when they experienced a brief period of ground shaking. Little more is known of the event.


The 1811-12 Series

The best-known stories of quakes in the New Madrid Fault Zone occurred during the winter of 1811-12. This was also the widest-felt, and there are many eyewitness accounts as a result, despite the sparse population density at the time.


The Region As It Was In 1811

The United States of America was only 35 years old.

The Louisiana Purchase was made in 1803. Tennessee had been admitted to the Union about 15 years previous; Kentucky, just 19. Those were the ONLY actual STATES in the Union that were directly affected by the quakes. All the rest were territories, some of which were actively in dispute.


As a consequence, the area was VERY sparsely settled. St. Louis, MO, one of the largest cities in the northern region of the affected area, was relatively small, with an estimated population of some 1,200. Tiny New Madrid, MO had a population of only ~200. Natchez, MS and New Orleans, LA were both about a century old. The total population in New Orleans marked it as a large city of the day, estimated by some at approximately 25,000.


[New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana Purchase]


The Mississippi River was navigated entirely by wooden vessels; there were no iron/steel hulls. Canoes, dugouts, rafts, flatboats, and barges were the typical means of river transport. The New Orleans, the first paddlewheel steamboat on the Mississippi, left Pittsburgh PA on 20 Oct 1811 and navigated down the Ohio to the Mississippi and thence to New Orleans. The distance was 1100 miles. It had to wait in Louisville KY throughout November 1811 for the river to rise sufficiently to get over the rapids that were downstream. It did not depart Louisville until early December. The steamboat was still on the Ohio River at Owensboro, KY, ~150mi upstream of the river’s mouth on the Mississippi and ~200mi from New Madrid, MO when the quake series began, and it had to traverse the affected portions of the Mississippi River during the subsequent temblor swarm. It did not reach New Orleans until 10 January 1812.

replica of

[1911 replica of Steamboat New Orleans on the centennial of its maiden voyage – Lee Line Steamers, Riverboat History]


The “Great Comet of 1811” was conspicuously visible in the autumn of that year; it was viewed by many as a portent of things to come. So common were viewings of the comet, and so great the impact it produced on the viewers, that authors such as Tolstoy and artists like John Linnell and William Blake took note, incorporating it into their respective artistry. It was at least partly viewed as a forecast of Napoleon’s subsequent invasion of Russia, and thus was sometimes called “Napoleon’s Comet.”

A total annular solar eclipse tracked across the United States on 17 September of 1811 as well. Having started in the Bering Sea, it swept over Alaska (then a Russian territory; it would be over 50 years before the USA would acquire it), through the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, clipping the Yukon Territory and Ontario before tracking through northeastern North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and the District of Columbia. It also clipped the adjacent corners on Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. It, too, was viewed as a portent of things to come.

On a more political front, Louisiana was in the midst of a slave uprising. In the same region, the Creeks were growing restless; intra-tribal tensions were building to the Red Stick Rebellion, a kind of tribal civil war that would break out in 1813. The Seminoles were likewise uneasy, and in essence the Creek uprising would touch off the First Seminole War a few years later.

To the north, many of the area’s Native American population was already in turmoil, as Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa had formed a multi-tribal confederation, with Tenskwatawa and others leading a spiritual revival. It was in this timeframe that Tecumseh began what some have called “Tecumseh’s War,” which ultimately segued into the War of 1812, all beginning with the Battle of Tippecanoe just over a month prior to the first quake.

It was in this uncertain time that the earth chose to move.

It did not help matters of Indian unrest.


To obtain a copy of Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System by Stephanie Osborn, go to:

40 thoughts on “Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System Part IV: Background Info to the Historic Quakes By Stephanie Osborn

  1. Waitaminit! You’re saying Bonaparte sold us damaged</I< goods?

    It figures that Jefferson was too naive to demand a warranty.

    1. Sigh. Speaking of damaged goods. Well, not exactly goods; damaged mediocres?

      Waitaminit! You’re saying Bonaparte sold us damaged goods?

      It figures that Jefferson was too naive to demand a warranty.

    2. I remember learning about it in history class and my dad’s exclamation about how “The French sold the Americans land that wasn’t theirs!”
      Something I have been meaning to research I believe my dad was wrong though. 🙂
      But I do wonder how the Louisiana Purchase managed to stay in French hands after the Plains of Abraham.

      1. Napoleon had only recently defeated Spain and claimed title to as much of its New World territories as he could get away with. That wasn’t actually very much. Between British and the Americans, colonial New France was pretty much lost anyway. He was short on cash (and other things) from trying to swallow Europe, and in no position to enforce a real claim in the New World, so he sold off an undeveloped chunk of Spanish North America to the Americans.

        The Spanish military had had a fearsome reputation for a couple of centuries, and so the defeat by Napoleon was quite the shock. The more developed parts of the Spanish empire were more interested in taking advantage of Spain’s suddenly revealed weakness and claiming independence for themselves than in trading bad Spanish masters for French devils.

      2. The lands that were subsequently the Louisiana Purchase had been ceded to Spain by France in 1762 as part of the aftermath, er, settlement of the Seven Years’ War (French-Indian War).

    3. “On the next episode of Flip This Territory, Napoleon seizes an opportunity.”

      Napoleon: “Yeah, Josephine. I’ve found a great one.”
      Josephine: “If it’s that Spanish property, you’re out of your mind.”
      Napoleon: “Oh, come on: It’s got a great town and great access, and I’ve already got a buyer.”

      “But has Napoleon gone to far?”

      Josephine: “You didn’t do a title search? What were you thinking?”
      Napoleon: “How was I supposed – I thought it was all ours free and clear.”
      Josephine: “Please tell me you didn’t make the sale.”
      Napoleon: “I made the sale.”
      Josephine: “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”

      “Can Napoleon save is real estate empire?”

      Napoleon: “Hey, it’s Nap … yeah, I know we’re not supposed to know each other, but we need to talk”

      “Tune in and find out.”

      Napoleon: “That’s it. The next time, I find something more local.”

      Sorry; I’ll go away now.

  2. Grr. Serves me right for not checking before I post. OK, so after the French defeat in 1763, New France got divided between Britain and Spain, which is how the thinly settled French Louisiana got to be part of New Spain in the first place. Then, after Napoleon came to power, the king of Spain was the infamously incompetent Charles IV. Napoleon had an ally in the Spanish court who maneuvered a transfer of Louisiana back to Spain in 1800. Napoleon didn’t actually occupy Spain until 1807, and the war began in 1808 when he put his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne.

  3. Well, my point with all this was to illustrate that 1) the area was little more than barely-explored territory, with little in the way of population, and 2) there was plenty of unrest in the area that this tended only to exacerbate, by leaving the inhabitants uneasy.

  4. This is your gratuitous Hunnouncment of publication elsewhere:

    Solar Flares Can Be X-Rated
    By Stephanie Osborn
    It’s the afternoon of September 7, 2017. The Sun has been quiet up until around a week and a half ago when it suddenly woke up and started producing a more normal amount of sunspots. And at the same time, it started waking up, sunspot complex 2673 formed as it rotated around from the far side.

    It’s an impressive, large, physically and magnetically complex sunspot group. And it turns out it’s plenty energetic, too. It had been popping off minor to moderate solar flares from the time it formed.

    Early on 6 September, things got interesting.


    RTWT — Hot Stuff! Hot Pictures!

    1. Aw! Thank you very much, RES! I wasn’t going to post that in here, so as not to overload things, but I surely appreciate it! It’s my first live article as a science correspondent for PJMedia.

        1. Thanks, hon! I’m kind of excited about it.

          And the series of blog articles are enticing people to buy Rock and Roll, too, so I’m happy all around right now.

          Now if folks will just check out my fiction a little more, I’d be over Pluto!

    2. Oh good, they show Ms Osborn wrote it now; when I first saw it last night, it was attributed to “Unknown Author”.

      The Astrophysicist With No Name. Have Solar Sensor, Will Travel.

      1. “Have Sensor, Will Travel” reads the card of the dame
        A lady with knowledge in reading the flame.”

        I’ll have to work out the rest of the lyrics…

        1. There was a glitch when it posted, which is why it did initially go up without my name, but Charlie corrected it fast.

          Please do finish the lyrics; that’s something I do too, and I get a kick out of it.

    3. Total eclipse. Sunspots. Coronal Mass Ejections. Category 8+ earthquake. Major hurricanes. What next? People, plants, and animals displaying new and unprecedented abilities and powers? Aliens engaged in disaster relief of primitive Earthlings??

  5. Great to see the historical sketch is up to the previous standard — already knowing “the country was a very different one back then” (because, *1812*) doesn’t hold a candle to  even a (relatively) short summary like this. The whole “we’re living in ‘interesting times’ right now” feeling really comes across here, both in good ways (1st riverboat) and bad (most of the rest) … and of course we know a major earthquake is about to drop into the pot too. (Though I do have to wonder how differently we and they’d see the same thing.)

    And the details seem to be what does it. When I first started reading more, ah, deeply and intentionally about the 1850s-60s (for an alternate history / hard steampunk story), what jumped out at me was how much the standard, schoolbook-style histories really manage to just miss or leave unsaid of the everyday-vital to people (or characters), and how much more there was to so many things. The competing telegraph systems, the riots in Baltimore soon after Fort Sumter, the inexorable way the politics of different parts of the country just kept on moving past each other like tectonic plates — for me the understanding, not the devil, is in the details. Too often ones “they” leave out.
    Like, again, the way the soldiers of 1812+ would’ve been the “greatest generation” of that later time, veterans of another war to save the country.
    This history is definitely of the better kind.

    (Though *our* times look pretty interesting too, total eclipse, North Korea, X-class flare, historic hurricane/s, 8.0-8.2 quake off Mexico… about all we need now is the comet!)

    1. One thing I am discovering in my research (same era actually, same reasons), is that narrative histories are good. Better though is memoirs of people that lived through that time. You get more details of typical life then what the school book histories cover.
      Example, read “Hardtack and Coffee” about a Union soldier’s experiences in the army. Hilarious, informative, and very much what I was looking for in regards to flavour.

      1. Something I try to address in my journals. I make several specific references to what I think future history books won’t mention.

        Letters are informative. Like that Medieval shopping list that mentioned weapons in the same casual way that it listed staples. One that’s been on my mind addressed a controversial incident that shall remain nameless. There was repeated accusations and denials, but a letter from someone who was there to his wife accomplishes what Hercules did at the stables.

      2. Try “A Confederate Soldier in Egypt” by William Loring. He got a letter of recommendation from General Sherman, and went off to become General Loring Pasha for the Khedive of Egypt. His autobiography is on

        Somehow, men seemed *bigger* then…

        1. *looks at TBR Research pile…quietly weeps* :p
          Have a copy of “Mosby’s War Reminiscences” I got from Gutenberg that is next on my pile AFTER I get some other reading done.

    2. I’m glad you liked my summary. The real problem was where to leave off the historical retrospective in order to get into the actual events of the quake series. I finally decided I wasn’t writing an historical treatise, I was trying to sketch a rough image of the background in which the quakes took place.

      There will be more information coming when I talk about the quakes themselves; this is simply a quick background.

  6. Great excerpts, but I got impatient and bought the book.

    I think this may apply quite nicely to the “How to market in a streaming world?” post from “tomorrow” (since this is, for a brief while yet, “yesterday”).

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