American History

The Surprise Missouri Earthquake of 1811

One of the most unusual geological events in the history of the United States, and likely in all of North America, was the Great Missouri Earthquake of 1811 What makes it so unusual is its location in the center of the North American continent. This is a place that is not on a continental shelf, near no coastlines, and not near any major volcanoes or fault lines. Yet, it was one of the most devastating earthquakes east of the Rocky Mountains in North American history.

Occurring on December 16, 1811, the earthquake was actually a series of three earthquakes, which included one major one and two still pretty strong aftershocks. The initial earthquake is estimated, based on eyewitness accounts and reports of damage, to have had a magnitude of close to 8.0. It hit the area of Caruthersville, Missouri the hardest, even though the epicenter was slightly south in northeastern Arkansas. It was so strong that slight shaking from it was felt all across the eastern United States to the east coast.

The area was only sparsely populated by American settlers at the time, but what manmade structures were there were leveled, from Missouri to Arkansas to Tennessee, as far east as Memphis. The devastation to the human population there was incredible, and is described in many eyewitness accounts.

Aftershocks occurred shortly thereafter, and were almost as bad as the initial earthquake. The first aftershock was also centered in northeastern Arkansas, and was almost as strong as the initial earthquake. The second aftershock was a couple of weeks later, and was centered in southern Missouri. There were instances of land warping, landslides, cracks in the soil, and the ruination of the banks of streams. The magnitude was slightly less than the initial earthquake and first aftershock, but not by much. Finally, the last aftershock came a couple of weeks after the second one, and was centered in New Madrid, Missouri. The town was destroyed, and many buildings were damaged in nearby towns like St. Louis. Temporary waterfalls were created by this aftershock, and even created what is now the Reelfoot Lake. The last Missouri aftershock had an estimated magnitude of about 7.4.

What would cause earthquakes in an area not known for them, and with no major fault lines? Most scientists today still don’t fully understand it, but there are some scientifically sound ideas that are accepted as the probable cause for this. Studies of the area have revealed an ancient geological rift buried deep underneath the Mississippi River plain, which is in the area of the earthquakes. This rift is leftover from the catastrophic global flood in the year 4,004 BC. Small faults were created along this rift as the North American continent formed, and now act as small scars on the continental plate. The scars create areas of weakness in the surrounding land, making it susceptible to earthquakes, when conventional wisdom would say earthquakes should not occur there.

Recent seismic activity in the area has proven this to be true. From the time of the 1811 earthquake to now, there have been over 4,000 minor earthquakes in that area. Most of these weren’t felt by humans. Nearly all of these mini-earthquakes originate in the same place as the 1811 earthquake. As the major fault lines in western North America cause ripples in the land, those ripples can make their way to the weak scar-like areas in Missouri, applying pressure to them until they shift just enough to cause an earthquake where there shouldn’t be any. If enough pressure has been applied over a long enough period of time, the weak areas in the land here can cause large earthquakes like the one in 1811. Many geologists estimate there is a 25 to 40 percent chance of another major earthquake of a 6.0 or greater magnitude in the next 50 years in the Missouri area.

If an earthquake of the magnitude that hit in 1811 were to hit the Missouri area today, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency believes it would cause the highest economic losses by a natural disaster ever experienced in the United States. In other words, it would level towns, just like it did in 1811. Only now, the area is more populated and developed, so there is more for our society to lose, just like our ancestors lost over 200 years ago.


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Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)

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