The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes by Conevery Bolton Valencius (review)
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The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes. By Conevery Bolton Valencius. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 472. $35.00 cloth)

In this lively, comprehensive study, Conevery Bolton Valencius considers how knowledge was made—and unmade—about the New Madrid, Missouri, earthquakes from their immediate aftermath in 1811–12 through the present day. Although they often have functioned as dramatic narrative hooks or interesting sidebars in wider histories of the trans-Appalachian West, few historians have considered the earthquakes for more than a page or two. But The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes is less a study of the earthquakes themselves than an exploration of the people, ideas, and landscapes that the tremors unsettled, allowing Valencius to offer fresh insights in the histories of science, religion, the environment, Native North America, the early republic, and public works. [End Page 110]

Valencius’s examination of an array of early-nineteenth-century earthquake experiences, thinkers, and theories are befitting of the sprawling geographical scope of the earthquakes. Introducing the earthquakes and their mutual toll on humans and the land, she reveals how they destroyed the New Madrid “hinterland” as a meaningful zone of cross-cultural trade and settlement. She then tours forums as disparate as log cabin church discussions, Indian councils, and scholarly journals for thoughts about the earthquakes, taking the ideas of Indians, evangelicals, and common record keepers as seriously as members of the East Coast scientific establishment. Valencius shows that in seeking to understand the shaking, American Indians and Anglo-American settlers shared spiritual concerns about the meaning of the tremors. People also recorded earthquake observations with remarkable attention to bodily experience, timing, direction, and sound, demonstrating a “vernacular” scientific practice in the early republic that has been given short shrift by historians of science.

The final two chapters discuss how the earthquakes faded from popular memory and scientific attention over time, only to reemerge in the late twentieth century. After the War of 1812, dramatic demographic transformations in the Mississippi River Valley meant that fewer of the region’s inhabitants held their memories of the earthquakes in common. The Civil War, as well as the attendant racial tensions following the war, served as a “breakpoint in memory” about the quakes, since the more recent social upheaval occupied the bulk of popular memory (p. 222). Furthermore, industrial agriculture, flooding, logging, and railroads covered up evidence of earthquake damage. The combination of more regular seismic activity on the West Coast and the development of more precise instrumentation there also shifted scientists’ attention away from New Madrid. Only after researchers turned back to those long-discredited early accounts, and the bicentennial occasioned public interest in the possibility of future quakes, did the sustained study and discussion of the New Madrid earthquakes rightfully return.

Valencius’s contributions are manifold. First, the book’s crosscultural [End Page 111] approach surveys a broad cast of thinkers, pushing the reader to consider meaningful comparisons and to question categories of difference that are usually more rigid: Native and Anglo-American epistemologies, scientific and religious thinking about nature, and professional and folk knowledge. Tracing earthquake understandings from their immediate aftermath through the present day also allows Valencius to highlight the contingent, dynamic process of knowledge creation, as well as the instability of landscapes. Finally, she casts the earthquakes as important historical agents themselves. She contends that earthquake damage in the St. Francis River Valley of northeastern Arkansas transformed much of the area into an uninhabitable swamp. Cherokees living there were forced to migrate west, prompting waves of violent encounters with the Osage.

As they churned land and water to remake landscapes, the New Madrid earthquakes also entangled people’s spiritual, political, and scientific concerns, opening up a wide range of possibilities for boundary-crossing historical research. With a blend of verve and insight that promises to appeal to a wide readership, Valencius’s work captures these possibilities and introduces us to new historiographical landscapes.

Jonathan Hancock

JONATHAN HANCOCK teaches history at Hendrix College in Arkansas. He is the author of “Shaken Spirits: Cherokees, Moravian Missionaries, and the New Madrid Earthquakes” in the Journal of the Early Republic (Winter 2013...


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