Shaken Spirits: Cherokees, Moravian Missionaries, and the New Madrid Earthquakes
Abstract

Abstract:

From December 1811 through March 1812, a series of earthquakes rattled the eastern half of North America. This essay uses Cherokee and Moravian missionary interpretations of the earthquakes as windows into early nineteenth-century ideas about the links between natural and social disorder. It argues that in their mutual search for explanations of the disorder, Moravians and Cherokees came to emphasize their cultural and epistemological differences. Furthermore, as Cherokees gravitated to their own prophets’ calls for ritual and reform, Moravians increasingly seized on apocalyptic understandings of the tremors, disguising their concerns under a front of dismissal of Cherokee explanations. For the Cherokees, contemporary concerns, grounded in long-standing beliefs about the mechanisms responsible for natural disorder, framed a vigorous debate about how to respond not only to the earthquakes but to major geopolitical and cultural transformations. Cherokees embedded their debates within their efforts to check United States expansionism and determine the utility of white people and their goods in Cherokee country. Amid internal problems in mission governance and a lack of Cherokee receptiveness to their evangelism, Moravians grew uncertain about the tremors’ meaning over time. As the earth continued shaking, they began to ponder whether the end of the world was soon at hand. They masked their private fears about both the meaning of the earthquakes and the status of their mission by denouncing Cherokee prophets. Struggling to interpret the same disturbing phenomenon in mutually troubling times, Cherokees and Moravians rejected one another’s earthquake explanations and prescriptions for the future.