restricted access The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes by Conevery Bolton Valencius (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes. by Conevery Bolton Valencius (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2013) 460 pp. $35.00

The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes is surely the definitive cultural and environmental history of the tremors centered in New Madrid, Missouri, in 1811 and 1812. The earthquakes reshaped the landscape, shifted settlement patterns, and raised new questions about the interpretation of such natural events. As Valencius emphasizes, the New Madrid tremors received massive attention at the time of their occurrence, but by the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and certainly through the twentieth century, they have been remembered as little more than a historical footnote or geological curiosity. Indeed, by the 1890s, some prominent scholars denied that the earthquakes had even occurred, attributing them instead to the overactive imagination of the relatively small number of settlers who lived in the region at the time.

Valencius’ book argues persuasively against the the idea that the quakes matter little to American history because the area of their greatest intensity was a kind of no man’s land, only sparsely populated with minimal economic activity during the early 1800s. Instead, multiple chapters of The Lost History emphasize the effects of the earthquakes on various populations with sometimes conflicting interests in what Valencius calls the New Madrid hinterland. She details, for example, the ways in which fairly active trade along the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the region of New Madrid was profoundly disturbed by shifts in land formations and river channels that thoroughly altered transportation routes on the one hand and created swamp lands on the other. Even though the movement of goods became more difficult after the earthquakes, swamped areas created new habitats for hunters and trappers engaged in the fur trade. In addition, the quakes forced many of the Indians who had already been displaced from more eastern regions to move again because the land on which they were living had become nearly uninhabitable after its inundation: “The earthquakes helped accomplish environmentally what American officials failed to accomplish politically: moving Cherokees farther west” (97).

The Lost History, however, provides not only a detailed account of the various peoples in the region of New Madrid and the effect of the earthquakes upon them, it also contemplates the history of knowledge about the event. In the early nineteenth century, the people most affected by these earthquakes were those who were literally shaken by them. Many victims feared and experienced dire somatic symptoms as a [End Page 241] result of the tremors. The symptoms were not necessarily acute bone fractures or the like, but usually took the form of a more general, lingering malaise. “The tremors,” says Valencius, “made their bodies feel, unwell, disturbed, and strange. . . . Earthquakes were experienced as personal manifestations of ill health and imbalance” (145). The force of the shaking was measured not primarily with technologically sophisticated probes and electronics but with makeshift, homemade devices (for instance, an egg tied to a string hanging from a rafter) and by its impacts on the health of survivors.

Given the absence of precise instrumentation and the relatively sparse population in the area at the time, estimates of the magnitude of the three most powerful tremors at New Madrid remain a matter of dispute among present-day earth scientists. All of them recognize, however, that these earthquakes were extremely powerful, likely having a moment magnitude between 7 and 8. People felt their effects as far as the Gulf of Mexico to the south, Quebec to the northeast, and the Atlantic coast to the southeast.

Valencius is wisely respectful of how the experience of disaster is shaped by its moment. Part of what has been lost in our cultural and environmental forgetting of the New Madrid quakes is a proper perspective on what it must have been like to experience them in 1810. But, to her credit, Valencius manages to recover vividly an emotional, somatic, and environmental moment.

Michael Newbury
Middlebury College