Genealogy Ramblings

Kentucky Bend and the 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquakes – Fulton County

When Ritchey and I visit the Jackson Purchase area next month – which includes the counties of Ballard, McCracken, Carlisle, Hickman, Fulton, Graves, Marshall and Calloway – we are very interested in going to Kentucky Bend in Fulton.  Most think these 30 square miles of land, completely circled east, north and west by the Mississippi River, and the state of Tennessee on the southern border, was made into almost a little circle of Kentucky land by the earthquakes that occurred in New Madrid, Missouri, 1811-1812 (pronounced “MAD-drid”).  It does not touch the rest of Kentucky!  A portion of the state of Missouri sits between Kentucky Bend and the rest of the state.

The city of New Madrid sits across the Mississippi River to the north of Kentucky Bend.  The seismic zone is located about five miles west of the city.  Before we go to this famous area, I wanted to do a little research, and thought you might find it interesting.  There is one cemetery located in Kentucky Bend – and we will visit.

At one time as many as 300 people lived there, but today there are less than 20 inhabitants.  There was a famous feud between the Watson and Darnell families.

To reach this area you must drive from western Fulton County, Kentucky, into Tennessee, and take Hwy 22 into Kentucky Bend.  Our son, Linton, who enjoys road trips as much as we do is quite envious.  We love visiting unusual, out-of-the-way places.

Tremors from this earthquake 208 years ago were felt in half of the continental United States, along the western frontier, in Chicago, in Canada, along the eastern seaboard, in Natchez, Mississippi, even without instruments.  In Louisville, Kentucky, a man who had homemade recording instruments reported a total of 1,874 shocks between December 11, 1811, and March 16, 1812.

And finally, I have a letter Eliza Bryan wrote to Rev. Lorenzo Dow in 1816, describing the earthquake as eye-witness.

New Madrid, Territory, Missouri, March 22, 1816

Dear Sir:

In compliance with your request, I will now give you a history, as full in details as the limits of a letter will permit, of the late awful visitation of Providence, in this place and its vicinity.

On the 16th of December 1811, about two o’clock, a.m., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurous vapor, causing total darkness.  The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do – the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species – the cracking of trees falling and the roaring of the Mississippi – the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing, it is supposed to an eruption in its bed – formed a scene truly horrible.  From that time until about sunrise, a number of lighter shocks occurred; at which time one still more violent than the first took place, with the same accompaniments as the first, and the terror which had been excited in every one, and indeed in all animal nature, was now, if possible, doubled.  The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country, supposing (if it can be admitted that their minds were exercised at all) that there was less danger at a distance from, than near to, the river.  In one person, a female, the alarm was so great that she fainted, and could not be recovered.  There were several shocks of a day, but lighter than those already mentioned, until the 23rd of January 1812, when one occurred as violent as the severest of the former ones, accompanied by the same phenomena as the former.  From this time till the 4th of February the earth was in continual agitation, visibly waving as a gentle sea.  On that day there was another shock, nearly as hard as the preceding ones.  Next day four such, and on the 7th at about four o’clock, a.m. a concussion took place so much more violent than those which had preceded it, that it is denominated the hard shock.  The awful darkness of the atmosphere, which as formerly was saturated with sulphurous vapor, and the violence of the tempestuous thundering noise that accompanied it, together with all the other phenomena mentioned as attending the former ones, formed a scene, the description of which would require the most sublimely fanciful imagination.  At first the Mississippi seemed to recede from its banks, and its waters gathering up like a mountain, leaving for a moment many boats, which were on their way to New Orleans, on the bare sand in which the poor sailors made their escape from them.  It then rising fifteen or twenty feet perpendicularly, and expanding as it were, at the same moment, the banks were overflowed with a retrograde current rapid as a torrent; the boats which before had been left on the sand were now torn from the moorings, and suddenly driven up a little creek, at the mouth of which they laid, to the distance, in some instances of nearly a quarter of a mile.  The river falling immediately as rapidly as it had risen, receded within its banks again with such violence, that it took with it whole groves of young cottonwood trees, which hedged its borders.  They were broken off with such regularity in some instances, that persons who had not witnessed the fact, would with difficulty be persuaded that it had not been the work of art.  A great many fish were left on the banks, being unable to keep pace with the water.  The river was literally covered with wrecks of boats, and ‘tis said, that one was wrecked in which there was a lady and six children, all of whom were lost.  In all the hard shocks mentioned, the earth was horribly torn to pieces – the surface of hundreds of acres was, from time to time, covered over, of various depths, by the sand which issued from the fissures, which were made in great numbers all over this country, some of which closed up immediately after they had vomited forth their sand and water, which, it must be remarked, was the matter generally thrown up.  In some places, however, there was a substance somewhat resembling coal, or impure stone-coal, thrown up with the sand.  It is impossible to say what the depth of the fissures or irregular breaks were; we have reason to believe that some of them were very deep.  The site of this town was evidently settled down at least fifteen feet, and not more than half a mile below the town there does not appear to be any alteration on the bank of the river; but back from the river a small distance, the numerous large ponds or lakes, as they were called, which covered a great part of the country were nearly dried up.  The beds of some are elevated above their former banks several feet, producing an alteration of ten, fifteen, to twenty feet from their original state.  And lately it has been discovered that a lake was formed on the opposite side of the Mississippi, in the Indian country, upwards of one hundred miles in length, and from one to six miles in width, of the depth of from ten to fifty feet.  It has communication with the river at both ends, and it is conjectured that it will not be many years before the principal part, if not the whole of the Mississippi will pass that way.  We were constrained, by the fear of our houses falling, to live twelve or eighteen months, after the first shocks, in little camps made of boards; but we gradually became callous and returned to our houses again.  Most of those who fled from the country in the time of the hard shocks have since returned home.  We have since their commencement in 1811, and still continue to feel, slight shocks occasionally.  It is seldom indeed that we are more than a week without feeling one, and sometimes three or four in a day.  There were two this winter past much harder than we have felt them for two years before; but since then they appear to be lighter than they have ever been, and we begin to hope that ere long they will entirely cease.

I have now, Sir, finished my promised description of the earthquake – imperfect it is true, but just as it occurred to my memory; many of, and most of the truly awful scenes, having occurred three or four years ago.  They of course are not related with that precision which would entitle it to the character of a full and correct picture.  But such as it is, it is given with pleasure – in the full confidence that it is given to a friend.  And now, Sir, wishing all good, I must bid you adieu.

Your humble servant, Eliza Bryan

There is one circumstance which I think worthy of remark.  This country was formerly subject to very hard thunder; but for more than a twelve month before the commencement of the earthquake there was none at all, and but very little since, a great part of which resembles subterraneous thunder.  The shocks still continue, but are growing more light, and less frequent. – E.B.

Wow!  All I can say is I hope there is not another one while we are there.  Can you imagine the destruction and loss of life today?

9 replies »

  1. Some of my family who were in Ky went to Indiana after this eqarthquake. They lived along and near the Ohio river.

  2. Great to read a first hand account of probably the greatest natural event to occur in the US in modern times.

  3. My husband’s 3rd great grandfather lived in Henderson, Kentucky. His name was Thomas Heugh Beall. He was a cabinet maker, and he traveled back and forth between Henderson and New Madrid about this period of time. He is buried in Henderson, Kentucky and died there around 1853. Your article is so interesting.

  4. My goodness, Thank you for this article. To have that happen today would be horrendous, as you said but then how terrifying for all those that had no idea what was happening. Puts a whole new light on that area. Thank you.

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