When you think of earthquakes in the United States, do you tend to think of Missouri?
“The earthquakes began about two o’clock on the morning of Monday, 16 December 1811.”
With this stark beginning, James Penick describes in The New Madrid Earthquakes an event that is not particularly well-known to history. One contemporary source recorded nearly 1,900 shocks between 16 December and 15 March 1812, “8 of which he classed as violent, 10 as very severe, 35 as moderate but alarming” (p. 6). The sheer scale of the quakes, which were felt up and down the East Coast of the young United States, through the midwest, and westward toward the Rocky Mountains, was mitigated by only one factor: in 1811/12, the New Madrid area was sparsely populated. In the “boot-heel” of Missouri, on the borders of Kentucky and Tennessee, there were not yet many settlers, and this was a fortunate twist of history. Unlike the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, an event of similar intensity which killed between 10,000 and 100,000 (accounts vary), and which inspired some of the events in Voltaire’s famous short novel Candide, the New Madrid event was responsible for comparatively few fatalities.
Penick’s survey of the history and science of the most powerful earthquake to strike North American since records were kept is thorough, but now somewhat dated. Although current thinking in some circles is that a future New Madrid earthquake is unlikely, it is still compelling to consider what would happen to major cities in the region (St. Louis, Louisville, Little Rock, et cetera) if there were to be a repetition of multiple earthquake events of 1811 and 1812. Our understanding of the causes of the tremors and quakes, some of which would well have registered as 8s on the Modified Mercalli Scale, and been devastating given present patterns of settlement, has increased tremendously. The notion of a failed intercontinental rift, as deep as twenty miles down, would like have been incomprehensible to even the most scientific mind of the early 19th century. Fortunately, we have science at our fingertips to help us to understand these things. Penick also surveys the historical literature and provides an excellent essay on sources.
The New Madrid Earthquakes is a solid and fascinating book, marked down only for being a creature of thirty years ago. Although there is some treatment of the subject in Spencer’s Roadside Geology of Missouri, a new edition or an updated history would not be unwelcome. Four stars.
Originally reviewed 20 February 2014.
Find your copy of The New Madrid Earthquakes at AbeBooks.com (the links takes you directly to search results).