By Barbara Lewellen


        Following is a short summary of the New Madrid Earthquakes that occurred between December 16, 1811 to February 7, 1812.  Since the area was sparsely populated there are few eye-witness accounts.  Of greater importance is the resulting legislation, Bill No. 69,  passed by the 13th Session of Congress on February 25, 1814, assisting those citizens in the New Madrid area whose land was destroyed permitting Certain Locations of Land to certain inhabitants of the county of  New Madrid, in the Territory of Missouri.  (See below).   This bill resulted in the early inhabitants who primarily came from Virginia and the Carolinas, relocating to other areas of Missouri.

The Great Earthquake of 1811

         Steamboats replaced keelboats as primary transportation of the Ohio and Mississippi River during the early 1800s.  The first steamboat name the New Orleans traveled from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to New Orleans in the autumn of 1811.  The fall weather had stayed hot and still with little rain.  A thick heat haze almost hid the sun.  The New Orleans was forced to dock at Louisville, Kentucky due to low river levels.


            The bright Great Comet of 1811 illuminated the autumn night sky.  First becoming visible April 11,1811 the comet remained visible to the unaided eye for nine months. The Great Comet had twin tails, one straight and one slightly curved.  It was believed that comets were a bad omen-a warning of disaster.

            The New Orleans delayed in Louisville, Kentucky commenced travel in late November on the Ohio River.  The first of four major earthquakes struck northeast
Arkansas at 2:15 a.m. December 16, 1811.  The quake actually began along the Saint Francis River in Arkansas sixty-five miles southwest of New Madrid.  The Saint Francis River rose twenty-five to thirty feet.  Uplifts of land and large waves generated by fissures opening and closing below the surface of the Mississippi River gave the illusion that the river was flowing upstream.

            Huge waves of fifteen to twenty feet on the Mississippi River overwhelmed many boats and washed others high on shore. Reelfoot Lake formed on the opposite side of the Mississippi in the Indian country (northwest corner of Tennessee), upwards of 100 miles in length and from one to six miles in width of the depth of 10 to 50 feet.

Despite the 8.0 magnitude level of the earthquake only slight damage to man-made structures occurred because the area was sparsely populated. Earth motion was felt in a 2.5 million square kilometer area covering the entire eastern United States.


Six hours later, New Madrid, Missouri felt two aftershocks at about 8:15 a.m.  These shocks were felt as far as Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri and many places in Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee.  New Madrid was originally one of the Old Spanish forts and lies about seventy miles below the mouth of the Ohio River.  Families from Virginia and the Carolinas settled it immediately after the close of the Revolutionary War.


Mr. Godfrey Lesieur, who was an eyewitness to the scene states:  A rumbling noise was heard in the west and in an instant the earth began to totter and shake so that no persons were able to stand or walk.  This lasted a minute; then the earth was observed to rolling in waves of a few feet in height, with a visible depression between.  These swells burst, throwing up large volumes of water, sand and a species of charcoal, some of which was partly covered with a substance, which by its peculiar odor, was thought to be sulphur. Where these swells burst, large, wide and long fissures were left, running north and south parallel with each other for miles.  I have seen some four or five miles in length, four and one-half feet deep on an average about ten feet wide. (Source: Footnote No. 3)


            The atmosphere was so choked with dust and smoke that for weeks afterward the sun shone reddish-bronze through an ugly haze.  Two women died in Madrid, a Mr. Darrin and on the Mississippi River a woman and her six children plus countless unknown river men.


            Five weeks later on January 23, 1812 a third earthquake of equal or stronger 8.0 magnitude intensity struck the same area of New Madrid.  When the steamboat New Orleans left the Ohio River and entered the Mississippi River in January scenes of ruin were all along the riverbanks.  Landslides, felled trees, sand blows 12-50 feet in diameter, sunken islands and towns destroyed.  The New Orleans arrived safely in New Orleans on January 12, 1812.   The fourth and most severe earthquake occurred February 7, 1812.


 The town of New Madrid was destroyed having sunk thirteen feet.  Houses in St. Louis were severely damaged. 


Congress passed an act for the relief of the New Madrid sufferers in 1817 resulting in the New Madrid Claims.   


13th Congress, 1813-1815. February 25, 1814

Bill No. 69

  A Bill Permitting Certain Locations of Land
to certain inhabitants of the county of  New Madrid, in the Territory of Missouri

 Section 1:

      Be it enacted that every person, or the legal representatives of every person, or the legal representatives of every person, claiming lands in the late district, now county of New Madrid, in the territory of Missouri, which have been or shall be confirmed by law, and which tract of land has been injured or destroyed by earthquakes, shall be permitted to locate the like quantity of land thus confirmed on any of the public lands in the said territory. 

      Provided, that no claimant shall be permitted to locate a greater quantity of land than that thus confirmed as aforesaid; nor in any one instance more than 640 acres; nor shall any such location include therein any lead mine or salt spring,

      And provided also, That immediately upon such location being made, according to the provisions of this act, the title of the proprietor, to the lands thus injured or destroyed, shall cease, and revert absolutely to the United States.

Section 2:

      And be it further enacted,

     That whenever it shall appear to the recorder of land titles, for the territory of Missouri, by the oath or affidavit of a competent witness or witnesses, that any person or persons are entitled to a tract of land under the provisions of this act, it shall be the duty of the said recorder to issue a certificate thereof accordingly, to the claimant or claimants. 

     And upon such certificate being issued, and the location made by the principal deputy surveyor for said territory, or under his direction, the claimant shall make known to the said recorder his location, by delivering to him a notice in writing, designating the tract thus located; which notice the said recorder shall file in his office, and shall receive from the claimant for his services on each claim, issuing the certificate, and recording the notice, the sum of $1.50 cents. 

     And the surveyor shall be entitled to the same compensation, from the party applying as is allowed for surveying the public lands of the United States: 

      Provided, that all applications under this act shall be made to the recorder, and certificates shall be issued on or before the 1st day of May, in the year 1815

Section 3:

      And be it further enacted, that to every head of a family, and to every free white male person of the age of 21 years, or upwards, who, on the 15th of February, 1812, were residing in the said district of New Madrid, whose claims for land in said district shall be rejected, or whose claim, if confirmed, does not exceed 10 acres of land, or who claims no land in said district, there shall be granted one quarter section of land from any of the public lands in said territory: 

      which shall be ascertained in every respect in the same manner, and under the same conditions, and restrictions, applied for within the same time, surveyed as aforesaid, and on paying the same fees, as is required by the preceding section. 

      And it shall be the duty of the said recorder to make a report of the claims allowed, and the locations  under this act to the commissioner of the general land office.






For more information and accounts of the New Madrid Earthquake

1.      St. Louis University Earthquake Center:

2.       USGS Earthquake Hazards Program:
 USGS Earthquake Information by State:

3.      The New Madrid Earthquake. The Virtual Times:

4.      Woodcut Picture of 1811/12 Earthquake.


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