The New Madrid Earthquake

The New Madrid earthquake of 1811-12, commencing in the last of December, and the subterranean forces ceasing after three months’ duration, was of itself a noted era, but to the awful display of nature’s forces was added a far more important and lasting event, the result of the silent but mighty powers of the human mind. Simultaneously with the hour of the most violent convulsions of nature, the third day of the earthquake, there rode out at the mouth of the Ohio, into the lashed and foaming waters of the Mississippi, the first steamboat that ever ploughed the western waters – the steamer “Orleans,” Capt. Roosevelt. So awful was the display of nature’s energies, that the granitic earth, with a mighty sound, heaved and writhed like a storm-tossed ocean. The great river turned back in its flow, the waves of the ground burst, shooting high in the air, spouting sand and water; great forest-covered hills disappeared at the bottom of deep lakes into which they had sunk; and the “sunk lands” are to this day marked on the maps of Southeast Missouri and Northeast Arkansas. The sparse population along the river (New Madrid was a flourishing young town) fled the country in terror, leaving mostly their effects and domestic animals.

The wild riot of nature met in this wilderness the triumph of man’s genius. Where else on the globe so appropriately could have been this meeting of the opposing forces as at the mouth of the Ohio and on the convulsed bosom of the Father of Waters? How feeble, apparently, in this contest, were the powers of man; how grand and awful the play of nature’s forces! The mote struggling against the “wreck of worlds and crush of mat-ter.” But, “peace be still,” was spoken to the vexed earth, while the invention of Fulton will go on forever. The revolving paddle-wheels were the incipient drive-wheels, on which now ride in triumph the glories of this great age.

The movement of immigrants to Arkansas in the decade following the earthquake was retarded somewhat, whereas, barring this, it should and would have been stimulated into activity by the advent of steamboats upon the western rivers. The south half of the State was in the possession of the Quapaw Indians. The Spanish attempts at colonizing were practical failures. His Catholic majesty was moving in the old ruts of the feudal ages, in the deep-seated faith of the “divinity of kings,” and the maternal powers and duties of rulers. The Bastrop settlement of “thirty families,” by a seigniorial grant in 1797, had brought years of suffering, disappointment and failure. This was an attempt to found a colony on the Ouachita River, granting an entire river and a strip of land on each side thereof to Bastrop, the government to pay the passage of the people across the ocean and to feed and clothe them one year. To care for its vassals, and to provide human breeding grounds ; swell the multitudes for the use of church and State; to “glorify God” by repressing the growing instincts of liberty and the freedom of thought, and add subjects to the possession and powers of these gilded toads, were the essence of the oriental schemes for peopling the new world. Happily for mankind they failed, and the wild beasts, returned to care for their young in safety and await the coming of the real pioneers, they who came bringing little or nothing, save a manly spirit of self-reliance and independence. These were the successful founders and builders of empire in the wilderness.

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