The Fascinating Facts, Fiction, and Frustrations of Family History and My Obsessive Desire to Possess Them All.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards

People have different reasons for doing genealogical research.  Some want to be related to famous historical figures.  Some strive to go as far back as possible.  Some want to find distant cousins and make connections.  That’s not me.  I want to know my people.  Part of knowing them is learning about how they lived day-to-day and how they reacted to what was going on around them.
Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap George Caleb Bingham (1851-2)

Many of my father’s family lived in Southeast Missouri around 1800.  They emigrated from North Carolina and settled in what is now Bollinger County.  They were largely farmers and ran mills to process grains into flour.  There was little trouble with the Native Americans in the area.  It was a hardscrabble existence but life was good for my ancestors.  That was all to change on December 16, 1811. 

US Geological Survey
Publication GIP118

The first of the Great New Madrid Earthquakes occurred.  Because there were no seismographs at the time, scientists have estimated the first to be of at least a magnitude of 7.  Over the next 3 months, 2 more large (7-8 magnitude) earthquakes occurred.  The quakes were felt as far away as Pittsburgh, PA and Charleston, SC.  
The Maryland Gazette
(Annapolis, MD)
Feb 13, 1812

As the area was sparsely populated by European-Americans, there were not many eye-witness accounts of the happenings.  There were reports of the ground heaving and large chasms opening.  The log buildings of the area actually held up fairly well, the logs allowing for some flexibility but the stone chimneys fell leaving the settlers with no means of heat – and it was winter.  Some fled to boats thinking the Mississippi to be safe during the shaking but the great movement of the earth under the water made the river flow backwards for a time and left the riverbanks devastated and nowhere for the boats to safely dock.

During the months after the initial quake, aftershocks, some large themselves, were constantly felt – as many as 2 or 3 per day.  The ground was constantly in motion.  What may have been your farm pond may suddenly raise and flood your crops and home.  Sand may heave up onto what was once productive cropland.  It was years before the shaking subsided completely.  The effects can still be seen today in the area.  Although my ancestors stuck it out, many people fled the area.

Tree with Double Set of Roots
from the New Madrid Earthquake
Near Reelfoot Lake, TN

 In 1815 the Federal Government passed the New Madrid Relief Act, the first disaster relief act in US history.  Naturally, that lead to the first fraud of a disaster relief act.  The government plan allowed a landowner in the affected area to swap their land for other unowned land in the Missouri Territory.  Communications of the time being what they were, many speculators of St Louis and the large cities of the East converged on the rural area before the local citizens were aware of the program.  Residents sold their farms cheaply to the speculator who, in turn, exchanged it for more valuable land, typically near St Louis.  Not to be outdone however, the locals soon began selling their land multiple times leaving court battles to rage for years afterward.  While I have no evidence my ancestors engaged in such activities, it’s entirely possible.

They say, “May you live in interesting times.”  Genealogy is so much more than names of parents and dates of birth.  People then, as now, were products of their times.  Knowing the trials and tribulations your ancestors experienced is as important as their successes.  Hopefully some of their grit and determination has passed on to current generations. 

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