Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thunder, Darkness and Tecumseh

December 16 is the 200th anniversary of the most powerful earthquake in eastern North American history.
About 2 a.m. that day the earth convulsed in the Mississippi River town of New Madrid, in what is now the state of Missouri. There were no measuring systems back then but it is believed the earthquake likely had a magnitude of 7.5 to 8.0. The shaking caused church bells to ring hundreds of miles away, including in York, now Toronto.
The death toll was never tabulated but populations in middle America were small and not heavily concentrated.
There were a number of eye witness reports, including one written in a letter by Eliza Bryan:
“On the 16th of December, 1811, about two o'clock, a.m., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurious vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do —the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species —the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi — the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing as is supposed, to an irruption in its bed — formed a scene truly horrible.”

The New Madrid earthquake had an interesting connection to Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who spent much of his life fighting American advancement into Indian lands.
Tecumseh travelled extensively on horseback trying to recruit tribes into an alliance against American takeover of their lands. In October 1811 while he visited the Creeks in the south, a huge, bright comet appeared and Tecumseh, whose name meant Shooting Star, told the Creeks this boded ill for his enemies.
The New Madrid earthquake of Dec. 16 occurred while Tecumseh was returning home to the Ohio-Indiana region. Some tribes recalled that the great chief told them that he would stamp his feet or clap his hands and make the earth shake, and they took the earthquake as an awesome sign of his power.

Comets, thunder, lightning and earthquakes bode nothing for Tecumseh's enemies. He was killed fighting the Americans in southwestern Ontario during the War of 1812 - 14. He and his people were dispossessed but Tecumseh became a powerful symbol of people fighting to defend human rights.

More about all this can be found in my book Tecumseh: Shooting Star, Crouching Panther (Dundurn 2009).

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