I’m making an exception to this blog’s focus on Northwest earthquakes because I recently did an email discussion with Jay Feldman, who in 2005 wrote When the Mississippi Ran Backwards, a book about the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812, and the Anglo and Indian cultures impacted by the quakes. With the 200th anniversary of the first of the quakes upon us, I wanted to mark the occasion by posting the exchange. With no further ado, here it is:
What was the impetus for writing the book? Were you more interested in the New Madrid earthquakes, or in Chief Tecumseh, the Indian tribes, and the culture in which the quakes happened?
I was most interested in the social and political context in which the earthquakes took place. I was initially struck by the confluence of forces and events around the quakes and the historical threads they represented. What I found most compelling was that events of 200 years ago were infused with issues that still resonate today – expansion, conquest, violence, corruption, greed, race relations, environmental degradation.
It sounds like the mindset about earthquakes back then was primitive: no one had any real idea of what was happening, and so they grasped for any explanation that seemed to make sense. Are we, in the masses, much more sophisticated now? I think of the radiation scare after Japan’s March 11 earthquake, when people in the U.S. didn’t seem to grasp how diluted any radiation cloud would be by the time it crossed the Pacific.
Earthquakes were a known factor at that time, though, of course, not everybody knew about them. As far as the level of sophistication compared to today, even among the general population, I’d have to say we’re much more informed. We may not know everything, but we certainly know more than most people did in the early 19th century.
Do you think that many people who live around, say Memphis or St. Louis or Little Rock, know about the earthquakes that happened 200 years ago, and are aware of the risk of another large quake? For example, do locals know where the sand blows in Arkansas and Missouri came from?
Many people in the area know about both the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes and the likelihood of future quakes, especially after Iben Browning’s prediction that another NM earthquake would strike on Dec. 3, 1990. Locals who know about the sand blows also know of their origin.
Your account of the New Orleans steamboat’s journey through the post-quake destruction along the Mississippi has the feel of reportage, almost like soldiers walking through Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August 1945. How did you find out about that journey and go about describing it?
I started with a book called “Mr. Roosevelt’s Steamboat,” by Mary Ellen Dohan, which was somewhat helpful, especially in pointing me toward other sources. One of the most valuable of those was J. H. B. Latrobe’s “The First Steamboat Voyage on the Western Waters,” a short but detailed 1871 account. I also managed to get ahold of a reproduction copy of Zadok Cramer’s “The Navigator,” which was an indispensable contemporary guidebook to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It was the volume that everybody who was planning a trip bought before embarking.
The book describes many dramas surrounding the New Madrid quakes-the slave murder by two of Jefferson’s nephews, the war of 1812, Tecumseh predicting an impending disaster-as well as the terrors associated with the quakes themselves. What do you think was the most memorable and/or important story that emerged from the quakes?
I think they’re all memorable and significant in their own way, but to me, the most profound story in the book is Tecumseh’s because it is emblematic of the whole struggle of Native Americans for survival. I think Tecumseh is one of the great leaders in American history, and I believe his story should be taught in history classes right along with those of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Finally, how much of an impact did the New Madrid earthquakes have on the history of the U.S.?
Directly, not a great deal. But indirectly, it affected the course of the War of 1812 and arguably hastened the end of Native American resistance in the Southeast.