The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes by Conevery Bolton Valencius (review)
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New Madrid earthquakes, Earthquakes, History of science, Vernacular science, Environmental history

The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes. By Conevery Bolton Valencius. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 460. Cloth, $35.00.)

Toward the end of The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes, Conevery Bolton Valencius remarks that her book “has sought to remember how knowledge changes, to trace a process of submerged and re-emerging certainty” (327). This is an apt summary of the book. At its heart it is an examination of the history of American science as viewed through a case study of the New Madrid earthquakes, a series of cataclysmic tremors that remade the environment of the Mississippi Valley and then were curiously banished from scientific knowledge until the twentieth century.

The earthquakes in and around the town of New Madrid, Missouri, in the winter of 1811–12 loomed large in American public consciousness at the time, through eyewitness accounts published in newspapers, information traded up and down the bustling social and commercial Mississippi River waterway, and in local memory and folklore of both Native American and white communities. The temblors temporarily reversed the course of the Mississippi River, opened great fissures in the ground, and dramatically rearranged the physical geography of the central Mississippi Valley. Despite leaving an extensive documentary record and unmistakable physical traces—some of which remain visible today—the New Madrid earthquakes were largely forgotten by the time of the Civil [End Page 507] War, and were regarded even by some twentieth-century scientists as more mythical than real. Valencius attempts to explain how this happened, and how the New Madrid quakes were rediscovered more recently both in scientific discourse and in popular understanding.

Valencius’s departure point is to consider how the New Madrid disaster matters historically. She makes a convincing case for the earthquakes as a significant event in both the environmental situation of the Mississippi Valley and its social and economic construction. Valencius frames the quakes as a dividing line between Native American and white control of the area, a transition driven at least in part by environmental factors—for instance, the increase in white fur-trapping around New Madrid, which resulted from ecological responses to the earthquakes. The events of the quakes themselves were incorporated into narratives undergirding Native American resistance movements before and during the War of 1812, most famously those of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, but also found their way into the spiritual discourse of both Native and white communities. A lesser book might have made the case for the earthquakes’ historical significance and stopped there, but Valencius goes further. The bulk of the book focuses on how the facts, science, and folklore came to be interpreted, reworked, rejected, and ultimately rediscovered within changing frameworks of popular and professional understanding of Earth phenomena.

The greatest strength of Valencius’s book is her exploration of what she terms “vernacular science”: the early-nineteenth-century pastiche of knowledge that synthesized scholarly scientific expertise, popular folklore, and practical on-the-ground understanding generated by farmers, settlers, townspeople, and the readers of newspapers. She argues that knowledge of the New Madrid earthquakes, well understood within vernacular science, was a casualty of the transition to professional and institutional science, which began to replace vernacular science in the late nineteenth century as the source for understanding the physical world. The modern implications of this shift in understanding go beyond the cautionary warning that the central Mississippi Valley is a seismically active zone and that destructive earthquakes might occur there again at any time. In discussing the modern rediscovery of the New Madrid quakes—whose contemporary stories are necessarily written only in the language of vernacular science—Valencius demonstrates the need for synthesis among history, modern seismology, and other disciplines. The New Madrid earthquakes, therefore, are a cautionary tale of how the [End Page 508] compartmentalization and prioritization so characteristic of modern institutional science tend to obscure both scientific and historical fact.

Valencius also relishes the opportunity to exercise her forte: the decoding of people’s physical bodies as bellwethers and vessels of environmental conditions and change, which she did so well in her previous...