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Weekly 150: Creating Reelfoot

The New Madrid Earthquakes (1811-12)

By Jason Martin
Posted 9/27/22

The recent series of earthquakes in Mexico got me thinking about the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812. For those unfamiliar with the New Madrid Earthquakes, these were a set of three earthquakes and aftershocks that led to the natural creation of Reelfoot Lake in Lake and Obion counties.

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Weekly 150: Creating Reelfoot

The New Madrid Earthquakes (1811-12)

The recent series of earthquakes in Mexico got me thinking about the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812. For those unfamiliar with the New Madrid Earthquakes, these were a set of three earthquakes and aftershocks that led to the natural creation of Reelfoot Lake in Lake and Obion counties.
The initial earthquake was estimated at a magnitude between 7.2–8.2 on December 16, 1811. Its aftershock was around 7.4. The epicenter was in northeastern Arkansas near the St. Francis River area along the New Madrid Fault Line. In January and February of 1812, two additional earthquakes of approximately the same magnitude close to the first were felt. Their epicenters were in the Missouri Bootheel near New Madrid, Missouri. The three earthquakes are the most powerful to hit the contiguous United States east of the Rocky Mountains.
The February 7 earthquake destroyed the town of New Madrid. In St. Louis, Missouri, numerous houses were severely damaged and chimneys were toppled. Segments of earth along the fault were lifted creating temporary waterfalls on the Mississippi near the Kentucky Bend. This led to the formation of Reelfoot Lake due to obstructing streams.
According to the Tennessee Historical Society, the quakes that created Reelfoot Lake were strong enough to awaken sleepers in Washington, D.C. and allegedly some tremors were felt twelve hundred miles away in Quebec City, Canada.
“A few personal diary entries and scanty eyewitness accounts quoted in local newspapers, ‘the endless days and nights of earth tremors’ and thousands of aftershocks must have been dreadful to experience. Few settlers had ever experienced a quake.”
Records tell tales of the ground opening up and spewing sand and water leaving crevices as wide as twelve feet across. Currents shifted and temporarily changed the flow of the Mississippi, Arkansas, and Ohio rivers. As the soft soils along the river valleys settle, the currents returned to normal.
Allen Coggins of the Tennessee Historical Society writes, “Many boats capsized, and cargoes and crews were never seen again. Seasoned riverboat pilots had to deal with whole new rivers. Cracks and fissures, downed trees, and other obstacles made roads and trails impassable. Massive landslides occurred along the Mississippi and Ohio River bluffs from Memphis to Indiana. Some ground areas rose or fell as much as twenty feet relative to the surrounding landscape. 
“An eighteen to twenty-acre area near Piney River in Tennessee sank so low that the tops of the trees were at the same level as the surrounding ground. Whole forests sank below their original level and filled with water to form swamps and shallow lakes. The eighteen-thousand-acre Reelfoot Lake was either formed or enlarged during the 1811-12 earthquake episode. In other areas, lakes and swamps rose to higher elevations. Soon their waters drained away or evaporated. In time they evolved into prairies and upland forests. Much of this land now supports Tennessee cotton and soybeans.”
With the February quake, the water of the Mississippi River rose 20 feet above its normal level in some places, overflowing and collapsing its banks. As the schoolteacher Eliza Bryan watched, it “seemed to recede from its banks, and its water gathered up like a mountain, leaving … boats stranded on the sand.” Beached crews ran for their lives as the river crashed upon them and their vessels. The riverbed split and cracked into the same fissures as were occurring on land, causing the water to boil and form whirlpools and geysers.
Two waterfalls appeared on the river, a mile from New Madrid. Although they existed for only a brief interval, they were lethal; 30 boats went over the New Madrid falls, and 28 of them sank. Most of the crew members of the doomed vessels drowned. Another 19 boats tied to the New Madrid docks were ripped from their moorings and swept to destruction. The wreckage of vessels was everywhere.
Below is the The Legend of Chief Reelfoot, the Chickasaw story of the creation of Reelfoot Lake.
Legend says that at the beginning of the 19th century, a tribe of the Chickasaw was ruled by a mighty Chief. His heart was heavy, for his son had been born with a deformed foot. As the boy grew and developed normally, his walk was different from all the other Indians. He walked and ran with a rolling gait, so his people called him Kalopin, meaning Reelfoot. 
When the old chief died, Reelfoot became Chief. He, too, was sad and lonely, for none of the Indian maidens had stirred in him thoughts of love. His father had often told him of the mighty tribes dwelling to the south, and of the wondrous beauty of their maidens. So, restless in spirit, when the robins arrived from the north, he wandered south in search of a princess. 
After many days of travel, he reached the land of the great Choctaw Chief, Copiah. Reelfoot then beheld his dream princess, more beautiful than he had ever dared imagine, sitting close by the side of the Chief, her father. After they had eaten and smoked the peace pipe, Reelfoot asked for the old chief’s daughter in marriage. Old Copiah was filled with wrath because he did not wish his daughter to marry a deformed chief and told Reelfoot that his daughter could only be given in wedlock to a Choctaw chieftain. 
The old chief called on the Great Spirit who spoke to Reelfoot and said that an Indian must not steal his wife from any neighboring tribe, for such was tribal law. If he disobeyed and carried off the princess he, the Great Spirit, would cause the earth to rock and the waters to swallow up his village and bury his people in a watery grave. Reelfoot was frightened at this threat of dire punishment and sorrowfully returned home. 
By the end of the next summer, he decided to ignore the wrath of the great Spirit and to steal the forbidden maiden. He stole the maiden, Laughing Eyes, and returned home to the great rejoicing of his people. Laughing Eyes was greatly frightened for she had heard what the Great Spirit had said to Reelfoot and begged that he send her back to her father. Reelfoot was so much in love that he was willing to defy everything. 
During the celebration and the marriage rites, the earth began to roll in rhythm with kettledrums and tom-toms. The Indians tried to flee to the hills, but the rocking earth made them reel and stagger. Chief Reelfoot and his bride reeled also and the Great Spirit stomped his foot in anger. The Father of Waters heard the stomp, and, backing on his course, rushed over Reelfoot’s country. 
Where the Great Spirit stomped the earth the Mississippi formed a beautiful lake, at the bottom of which lay Chief Reelfoot, his bride, and his people. Such is the Indian legend of Reelfoot Lake.


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