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The Chief and the Earthquake

By: Bill Shankle

The thunder, which seemed as timeless as the river and the wind, had stopped. For twelve months, the earth stood silent. To the four hundred pioneers surrounding the town of New Madrid, Missouri Territory, it's absence scarcely seemed notable. Balanced on the then western fringe of the United States, New Madrid- a bustling town of farmers, rivermen and merchants - was becoming just civilized enough to lose touch with nature.

By 1811 the territory encompassing the Mississippi and it's two mighty tributaries - the Ohio and Missouri - was attracting the attention of the Americans.

Well familiar with the Spanish and the French, and the Native Americans, the land patiently endured another invasion of pesky humans.

Just five years after Lewis and Clark - exploring President Jefferson's purchase of three million square miles from France in 1803, and long given up for dead - returned to St. Louis, settlers were arriving in increasing numbers. By 1811 the area's population was estimated at several thousand, though no accurate count was established. The settlers felt themselves prepared for whatever crisis might arise.

At 2:00 o'clock AM on December 16, 1811 the earth reawakened and the thunder returned. And with the thunder, the most devastating earthquakes in America's recorded history.

Far to the north, near Detroit, the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh also felt the tremors and heard the roar of the earth. But he was neither surprised nor fearful. All this - the wrenching of the land, the flattening of settlements and villages, the windless, dancing waves of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi flowing backward, the destruction of thousands of square miles - he had prophesized years before.

The horror of the shock among the sparsely settled territory was compounded by the pitch black night and cold weather of mid December. Followed by hundreds of minor quakes - as well as two more major ones in the next six hours - the disaster threw humans and animals into madness.

“We were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder” wrote eyewitness Eliza Bryan of that night. “The screams of the affrighted inhabitants, the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species - the cracking of trees falling, the roaring of the Mississippi - formed a scene truly horrible.”

The quake - estimated at over 8.0 on the Richter Scale - was ten times stronger than the quake that devastated San Francisco in 1906. Felt over an area of what would become twenty-seven states and Canada, it crumbled cabins in St. Louis and Cincinnati, overturned trees in Kentucky, and rang church bells in Boston and Washington D.C. Five thousand square miles were permanently altered; Reelfoot Lake formed in Tennessee, islands vanished in the Mississippi, thousands of acres of prime farmland were transformed into worthless waste.

Surprisingly, only one death was attributed to the quake and aftershocks, though isolated cabins and campsites disappeared without a trace, the inhabitants never missed or known. No accurate count of Native American casualties was ever attempted. But among the various tribes Tecumseh had visited, the quake was not wholly unexpected. There were those who gathered their weapons and journeyed to join the great chief in the north.

Tecumseh would have been a man to follow in any age. He was most likely born near Springfield, Ohio in the spring of 1768. His birth was heralded by a comet in the night sky, a harbinger of greatness to the Shawnee.

Both Tecumseh's father and older brother were believed to possess the gift of prophesy. Tecumseh also became known for seeing the future, as well as being a dominating warrior and frightening enemy. His personal beliefs - respect other religions, show mercy to noncombatants, refrain from inflicting suffering on man or beast, speak the truth - were light years ahead of the views of most people of his - and our - times.

He had learned to speak English from a boyhood white friend who had been adopted into the tribe, and later learned to read and write from a settler's daughter. His poise, character, and demeanor were applauded by Indians and whites alike.

As Americans pushed into the Ohio Territory in the late 1700's, Tecumseh realized only a concentrated effort involving all tribes could challenge the Shemashese, as the Shawnee called the Americans. He traveled constantly among the Native Americans; the Cherokee and the Creeks, Seminoles and Sioux, Iroquois, Fox, his exploits and reputation proceeding him, to form an Indian union, tens of thousands of warriors. Put aside ancient tribal hatreds and petty squabbles, give up liquor and intermarriage, quit raids and depredations until the great sign is given. And the tribes listened - hadn't Tecumseh's prophesies in the past all been accurate?

On the night of November 16, 1811, the darkened sky lit up from the southwest. A comet roared across the sky toward the northeast, seen from Arizona to Maine. Tecumseh's final sign signaling the miracle he had prophesised was only thirty days away.

But for many Indians, the promise was nine days too late. On November 7th an event, entirely man-made, had destroyed Tecumseh's lifetime goal of united tribes - The Battle of Tippecanoe.

Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh's younger brother, was seen as a prophet by some and a troublemaker by all. During one of Tecumseh's recruiting absences, Tenskwatawa convinced the warriors assembled at Prophet's Town, near the site of Keth-tip-pe-can-nunk, a defunct trading post, that the American's bullets would pass through the braves as if they were ghosts, and that William Henry Harrison's soldiers were either already dead, or mad.

Tippecanoe - while in actuality a draw - was considered an Indian defeat. The warriors fled the field after the unnerving sight of bullets entering bodies, resulting in all-too-familiar wounds.

Tenskwatawa's rashness almost cost him his life at the hands of the disgruntled warriors, and shattered Tecumseh's Indian Confederacy. It would still take years, but American dominance of the territory was assured.

No one in the scientific circles of Europe or America would have considered New Madrid earthquake country. Seismology was still in it's infancy, and the remoteness of the land left the cause a mystery, soon forgotten except by the terrified inhabitants who endured two more 8.0 quakes on January 23rd and February 7th, 1812, along with thousands of minor shocks over that time.

The New Madrid Fault, as it is now known, runs approximately 190 miles long through Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. The fracture, deep within the earth, is overlaid with rock, then shifting alluvial material. Geologists refer to this as a “failed rift,” where molten magma attempted to split the North American continent, but inexplicably stopped. this doesn't necessarily cause an earthquake, something must “trip” it. That remains the mystery.

In the February 2001 issue of Geology, Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback theorizes the weight of the glaciers extending into Illinois 20,000 years ago bent the earth's crust. As the glaciers melted, the earth began, and continues, to rebound to it's original form. According to Zoback the mantle under the crust “is very viscous goo. When the load (glacier) is removed, it takes a long time to respond.” He predicts frequent earthquakes for the next ten thousand years as the earth reverts to it's natural state. While the 1811 earthquakes toppled a few cabins and overturned a few river boats, an earthquake of 8.0 intensity today would cause thousands of casualties and billions of dollars of damage in the heavily populated area.

The earthquakes of 1811 did result, indirectly, in one more death. After the Battle of Tippecanoe, Tecumseh knew his attempt to drive back the Americans was doomed, and he urged his followers to return to their homes. But the warriors who joined him after the quakes insisted they would fight, with or without him. Principled to the end, Tecumseh led them in the fatalistic endeavor, aligning himself with the British in the War of 1812. After some initial success, the British and Indian coalition was driven into Canada. On October 5th, 1813, Tecumseh died in the Battle of the Thames, a death he had prophesized, “like a warrior going home.”

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