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When the earth shook beneath the Mississippi

The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes tells the story about a powerful seismological event where you'd least expect to find it: The Mississippi Valley.



A U.S. historian, a scholar of Chekhov, and a Japanese medievalist board a Cessna bound for the skies over the Missouri Bootheel. Knowing that a series of major earthquakes befell this region, they're looking for evidence of sand blows, the result of liquefied subterranean sand forced under intense pressure up through the earth's surface. The Chekhovian and the medievalist, just along for the ride, don't show up elsewhere in this story; they're incidental, though they're a nice detail. The historian, Conevery Bolton Valencius, is a scholar of environmental history and the U.S. Civil War; she knows what she's looking for—circular formations of sand visible on the surface of otherwise fertile soil—but at first has a hard time finding it. Eventually she realizes: the sand blows are so dominant in this landscape that they're everywhere. The scars the earthquake left on the land aren't a blemish; they're a feature.

The earthquakes happened 200 years ago.

Until the last couple of decades, the New Madrid earthquakes, which struck the Mississippi Valley in late 1811 and early 1812, were more or less lost to history. They were lost for a number of reasons, not least that there were a few other things going on at the time. In an obscenely interesting new book, The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes, Valencius uncovers the quakes and their rich and various meanings—to increasingly diminished Native populations, who interpreted them as a sign to return to tradition in the face of colonial encroachment; to a young nation about to enter into another war with Great Britain, with some religious revivalists of its own; and to a burgeoning scientific community that still placed a premium on anecdotal evidence. Which is to say stories—stories that became lore, and eventually not much more than that. Into the 20th century the earthquakes had largely disappeared from common knowledge. Valencius tells the story of how knowledge of the quakes was made and then, eventually, unmade.

The small town of New Madrid, Missouri (that's New MAD-rid, if you please), sits at a bend in the Mississippi River most famous as the site of a Civil War battle. The quakes affected land near the borders of Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee, but were felt as far afield as New Hampshire, and caused bells to ring in Charleston, South Carolina. They were so strong that they briefly reversed the flow of the Mississippi River, and destroyed parts of the land around it. The tremors marked the end of a diverse community of French traders and Native Americans in the New Madrid hinterlands—as Valencius writes, they "helped accomplish environmentally what American officials failed to accomplish politically: moving Cherokees further west." New Madrid itself was rapidly depopulated but, not more than a couple decades later, completely repopulated by white settlers expanding farther into the western reaches of the still-new nation.

Part of the reason the quakes were forgotten is that the scientific documentation of them was, in Valencius's term, vernacular—their story wasn't told through scientific journals but instead through the newspapers of the day, which privileged the voice of any white man who happened to be around to witness an event. (Accounts like one by the traveler William Leigh Pierce, which Valencius examines at length, were "excerpted, quoted, and reprinted" nationally throughout the press, appearing "in multiple forms, quoted and re-cited": early modern aggregation!) The shaking of the earth was experienced and recorded bodily, with reference to the spirit of god and the new technology of electricity, which the sensation was likened to.

The swampy "sunk lands" created by the quakes were drained and remade into farmland; Valencius writes that they provide an "apt metaphor" for what happened to knowledge of the quakes, submerged beneath subsequent social and environmental upheavals. Even the language accommodated this forgetting: "sand blows," that telltale physical evidence, came in the 20th century to refer to Dust Bowl dust storms, and in the 21st century to the desert storms seen by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Mississippi Valley became known for its floods, and the middle west in general for its tornadoes. Valencius's book pairs nicely with Lee Sandlin's recent Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers, about a much more recognizable regional phenomenon. The midcontinent simply wasn't earthquake territory; California emerged to claim that distinction.

One peculiarity about the New Madrid region is that, unlike the west coast, it doesn't sit along the edge of a tectonic plate. The reason for intraplate quakes is still unknown, though one theory holds that they're caused by the earth sort of settling back upward now that the glaciers have receded. Nonetheless, Valencius argues, the Mississippi bottomlands should be thought of as quake country; after scientists, historians, and seismologists have (in some cases literally) unearthed evidence of the New Madrid quakes, they've started to be.

Should Saint Louis, for instance, prepare itself? (Paleoseismologists have found that what happened in 1811 and '12 wasn't a singular event; there's evidence of earthquakes in the region going back millennia.) When John McCain makes an appearance late in this book, ridiculing as wasteful the funding of seismic research in Memphis, it's like biting into a piece of glass in the middle of a perfectly nice meal: how easily this careful discussion of a potential natural disaster can be recast in the cheapest political terms. An earthquake in Tennessee? What a joke.

Valencius is an engaging, frequently funny storyteller. Her footnotes and asides alone contain a staggering amount of delightfully random facts: Early-19th-century apples were too tart to eat, but great for cider. Fracking has been blamed for contemporary midcontinent earthquake activity. The author's step-father kept a six-pack of Jimmy Carter's brother's "Billy Beer" in the disaster-prep area of his basement (along with water). References to events discussed here appear in songs by both Rasputina and Uncle Tupelo, and the "Arkansas mud" mentioned in the famous song "Tennessee Stud" was in fact the sunk land produced by the New Madrid quakes.

In 1990, a onetime meteorologist predicted that another major earthquake would soon hit New Madrid. His claims, promoted by a single scientist, entered the public record as legitimate, despite a broad scientific consensus against them. The quakes didn't happen, of course, and the meteorologist's claims drew scorn. For a time afterward, Valencius quotes a geologist saying, "it was hard to get anyone to listen about New Madrid earthquakes."

This tale as Valencius tells it echoes her main project, the story of how the New Madrid quakes entered the public consciousness. In both instances, and in strange and idiosyncratic ways, narratives were created using the technology at hand, and exploited how the public understood things: in the earlier case, in informal and vernacular ways, and in the latter case through mass media that lent an automatic credibility to anybody it labeled "expert." As Valencius concludes, "we are, in the present day, understanding the New Madrid earthquakes still."

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