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On Shaky Ground

The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812

Norma Hayes Bagnall

Publication Year: 1996

Although most Americans associate earthquakes with California, the tremors that shook the Mississippi valley in southeast Missouri from December 16, 1811, through February 7, 1812, are among the most violent quakes ever to hit the North American continent in recorded history. Collectively known as the New Madrid earthquakes, these quakes affected more than 1 million square miles. By comparison, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake affected only 60,000 square miles, less than one-sixteenth the area of the New Madrid earthquakes.

Scientists believe that each of the three greatest tremors would have measured more than 8.0 on the Richter scale, had that measuring device been in place in 1811. Vibrations were felt from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast and from Mexico to Canada. The quake zone was in constant movement during this period. Five towns in three states disappeared, islands vanished in the Mississippi River, lakes formed where there had been none before, and the river flowed backward for a brief period.

Providing eyewitness accounts from people both on the land and on the river, Bagnall captures the fears of the residents through their tales about the smells and dark vapors that filled the air, the cries of the people, the bawling of animals, and the constant roar of the river and its collapsing banks. On Shaky Ground also traces the history of the founding of New Madrid and considers the impact of the earthquakes on population and land in southeast Missouri. Predictions for future earthquakes along the New Madrid fault, as well as instructions on preparing for and surviving a quake, are also included.

Informative, clearly written, and well illustrated, On Shaky Ground will be of interest to all general readers, especially those interested in earthquakes or Missouri history.

Published by: University of Missouri Press


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pp. ix-11

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pp. xi-xii

I would also like to thank Kathleen Rohr, Co-Director of the Writing Project at St. Joseph, and Julia Brooke, Director of Pass the Power, a literacy center in St. Joseph. They read this work in an early stage and offered suggestions that I used in the final...

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pp. 1-4

New Madrid is located on the northern edge of the "Bootheel" section of Missouri, in the southeastern comer of the state. It lies on the Mississippi River and is much closer to some cities in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas than to St. Louis. The town...

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1. Early History of New Madrid

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pp. 5-20

Indians had lived in the area that is now southeast Missouri for thousands of years before European settlers began coming to the area. It was a good place to hunt. Black bear, elk, cougar, bison, and antelope lived there in great abundance in the late...

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2. The First Quakes

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pp. 21-40

On Sunday evenin& December 15, 1811, there was no reason for the people in New Madrid to think that their lives would be changed by morning. Crops were in, and the gathering of fruits and vegetables had been finished long before. British-American...

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3. The Earthquake's Reach

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pp. 41-53

The New Madrid earthquakes affected an area of about one million square miles. Some places were affected more severely than others. Tremors could be felt in two-thirds of what was then the United States and its territories, from the Atlantic on the east...

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4. After the Disaster

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pp. 54-60

Scientists believe that the epicenter of the first quake in December 1811 was about sixty miles south of New Madrid, close to what is now Blytheville, Arkansas. New Madrid was the most populated town in the area, a thriving market town, with stores,...

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5. Earthquake Predictions

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pp. 61-72

A geologic fault is a break in a rock formation caused by a shifting of the earth's crust. Primary faults, which lie far beneath the earth's surface, cannot be seen. They cause earthquakes by a sudden shift. Secondary, or surface, faults are caused by...

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6. Preparing for an Earthquake

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pp. 73-81

One of the duties of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), created in 1979, is to deal with the problem of earthquakes in the United States. The federal government was the first to show concern about earthquakes in the Mississippi Valley....

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7. Toward the Twentieth Century

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pp. 82-88

In spite of the dangers that the Mississippi River posed when it overflowed its bounds and changed its course, and in spite of the threat of future earthquakes, people did not stay away long from the river cities of southeast Missouri. From 1820 to 1830, the...

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8. New Madrid Today

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pp. 89-94

When Sikeston, Missouri, twenty miles north of New Madrid, became the site of a new Wal-Mart store twenty or more years ago, it changed the pace in both towns. Sikeston has attracted other stores and now boasts a discount mall; it became a thriving...

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Appendix 1: Mercalli Intensity Scale

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pp. 95-97

The Mercalli scale for measuring the intensity of earthquakes was developed in 1902 by an Italian priest and geologist, Giuseppe Mercalli. It was modified in 1931 to include descriptions of damage for modern structures. The Mercalli scale is a method...

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Appendix 2: Richter Magnitude Scale

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pp. 99-100

The Mercalli scale may be used to describe an earthquake either at its epicenter or at any point in the area into which the effects of the earthquake extend. The Richter scale, devised in 1935 by American seismologist Charles F. Richter, measures the...

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pp. 101-106

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pp. 107-123


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pp. 109-113

E-ISBN-13: 9780826273109
E-ISBN-10: 0826273106
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826210548
Print-ISBN-10: 0826210546

Page Count: 128
Illustrations: maps
Publication Year: 1996