When The Mississippi Ran Backwards

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Hi, Winnie Griggs here. I’ve always been intrigued by the snippets I heard here and there about the time the Mississippi ran backwards, but I never followed up to learn more.  The other day I heard another reference to it and decided it was time to do a bit of research.  I thought I’d relay a little of what I learned to you here.

Here in America, wNew Madrid 01hen the subject of earthquakes comes up, most of us immediately think of California.  But there is an earthquake-prone area in the Central Mississippi Valley known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone.  It’s also been called the Reelfoot Rift and the New Madrid Fault Line.  The fault runs from southern Illinois to Arkansas, cutting through sections of Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee in between.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, a series of earthquakes which occurred over a four month period, shook the area.  These started on December 16, 1811 and the first two, only six hours apart, had an epicenter in northeast Arkansas.  I was surprised to learn that these quakes have been billed as the most powerful in US history.

They had magnitudes of 8.1 and 7.0 respectively.  Because of the scarcity of settlements in the area at this time, there was little damage to man-made structures.  The natural environment, however, was violently affected, with the opening and closing of fissures on the earth’s surface, landslides and violent waves on waterways, most notably the Mississippi.

On January 23, 1812, a quake with a 7.8 magnitude struck, this time with an epicenter in southeastern Missouri, an area known as the ‘bootheel’.  Again there was landslides, land warping and rerouting of rivers and streams.New Madrid 03

Then, on February 7, 1812 an earthquake of magnitude 7.4 struck at New Madrid, Missouri.  The entire town was destroyed and this time there were numerous first person accounts of the damage.  Witnesses spoke of the ground breaking open, of the sinking and rising of large lands masses, of the ground rolling fluidly like the waves of the ocean.   Water poured into the sunken landmasses from ground fissures and entire hillsides were flattened while lowlands became ridges and bluffs.  In Arkansas, swampy places along the St Francis River suddenly spewed out sand and coal.  The level of the river itself rose by some twenty-four feet.  Below are a few eyewitness accounts:

In more open country the surface of the earth could be seen to undulate in regularly advancing waves proceeding at about the pace of a trotting horse

“…the earth was rocked about like a cradle & its surface rolling like waves a few feet high & in places causing fissures in the earth from which large volumes of warm water, sand & charcoal was blown up…”

“…at that instant all the shrubs and trees began to move from their roots, the ground rose and fell in successive furrows, like the ruffled waters of a lake…”

Along the Mississippi River, banks caved in, islands disappeared, boats were overturned or washed New Madrid 04away.   The very course of the mighty river was permanently altered.  And for a time, it appeared that the Mississippi did indeed flow backwards.  What actually happened, according to scientists is the following:

A thrust fault created a sudden waterfall and two dams on the Mississippi River’s Kentucky Bend.  Additional falls may have also been created in other areas.  These geographical uplifts caused a severe disruption of the river, generating a major upstream wave and retrograde current as the river adjusted to these changes.

One eye-witness account put it this way:

“… we tied up eight miles north of New Madrid near the house of my cousin… In a moment, so great a wave come up the river that I never seen one like it at sea. It carried us back north, up-stream, for more than a mile. The water spread out upon the banks — covering three or four miles inland.  It was the current going backward. Then this wave stopped, and slowly the river went right again.”

The writer in me is fascinated by these accounts.  Can you picture these scenes, can you imagine the untold stories of loss and courage, tragedy and sacrifice that must have occurred during these events?   What part of this story speaks to you the most?

Winnie Griggs
Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.
Updated: July 2, 2016 — 12:28 am

28 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. Learn some things that I didn’t know about. I can picture these scenes taking place though and the untold stories of those times would of been very interesting to hear about. The part of this story that speaks out to me the most is the destruction that take place but in some places beautiful places can be created like the waterfalls created along the Mississippi river.

  2. Fantastic post, Winnie. I had vaguely heard of these quakes over the years and was totally shocked because, yes, we hear mostly about Pacific Rim earthquakes.

    As residents of California, our lives are so guided by retrofitting and safety regulations in building and construction (e.g. brickwork) that my heart breaks when I learn of earthquakes elsewhere without these safeguards. My mom as a little girl went to the movies in a brick theatre that was destroyed just a day or two later in an earthquake. Yowza. I can’t even imagine the terror and destruction two hundred years ago.

    Good job. oxoxoxoxox

  3. Hi Becky – glad you enjoyed the post. And I agree, the sudden creation of dams and waterfalls on the river must have been an awesome sight to behold

  4. Tanya, I believe we didn’t hear much about these quakes in the past because the area was so sparsely populated at this time. But more attention has been placed on them recently because of the concern that it could happen again – with much more disastrous results!

  5. I’m also fascinated by this event, Winnie. I grew up not far from New Madrid and the changes in the river’s course are still evident if you look for them. What were once bluffs along the riverbank are now several miles inland, with very fertile bottom land between there and the new river bed.

    This part of So. Illinois has often been reshaped by the mighty river. The town of Kaskaskia, a large French colony in the 1800s, was reshaped when the river changed course in 1881. What was a peninsula extending into the river ended up as an island instead.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Fascinating! I grew up in California and am no stranger to earthquakes. I remember things shaking and falling, but it’s hard to imagine looking out over the land and see something that had always felt so solid undulate like ocean waves. How frightening that must be!

    Thanks for the interesting post, Winnie.

  7. Winnie,
    What an interesting post. Too bad they didn’t have an Earthquake lady like we have here in California. Kate Hutton is staff seismologist at the California Institute of Technology. No sooner does a earthquake hit when Kate’s on TV explaining whose fault it was. I can’t imagine an earthquake without Kate.

  8. Fascinating post, Winnie. I couldn’t help comparing the New Madrid quakes to the 1906 San Francisco Quake I wrote about about in HIS SUBSTIUTE BRIDE. The New Madrid quakes were much more severe–I can just imagine what kind of damage they’d have done to a large population center like SF, or what they’d do today. Yikes.

  9. Tracy – so you grew up in the area. Do they still tell stories about that time? Do the folks there worry about a reoccurance?

  10. Karen, the last time I was in an earthquake (in Detroit, no less) the concrete floor under me undulated like that. Very unsettling!

  11. Karen and Margaret, when I was younger I used to wonder why anyone would chose to live in earthquake prone areas of the country. But then I realized that folks probably felt the same about the hurrican-prone area of south Louisiana where I grew up and the tornado-prone part of north Louisiana where I live now. Guess it’s all in what you are used to – the devil you know as opposed to the one you don’t

  12. The way God takes care of us in all different dangers. I have heard this before but can’t remember where or when. Time gets to our brains and as we get older I think somthing has to be pushed out so new can sink in. Like we do when we defrag out computers, everything we have learned has to be compacted and sometimes it gets lost in the process. LOL I just said this in fun,
    May God bless

    mamat2730(at)charter(dot(net)

  13. Elizabeth – isn’t it strange how such natural disasters make such excellent fodder for our books? I often feel a bit ghoulish when I hear of something like this and my mind turns to creating ‘what-if’ scenarios

  14. Winnie, how interesting! Like you, I’ve heard tales about the mighty Mississippi flowing upstream but didn’t know the specifics. That must’ve been a scary time for folks who lived on the river. I’ve heard about the fault lines in Missouri and Arkansas. They predict a big earthquake will erupt there before too much longer. There’s also a fault line in Oklahoma that new people know about. They had one hit there about eight or nine years ago. Made headlines in my Wichita Falls newspaper.

    Thanks for delving into these interesting subjects and bringing the facts to light. I’m always astounded by the things I learn on here.

  15. Winnie,
    The stories of that time are local legend now. Like the gigantic tornado in 1925 (one of the most destructive ever), if the area is hit by an earthquake, talk usually works around to the 1812 earthquake. In my Illinois History class in high school, one of our field trips was to Fort Kaskaskia.

  16. (hit enter too soon!)
    The area is always expecting a recurrence. Fifteen years ago, geologists recommended packing away your breakables because a quake was “imminent”. Of course, they’re still waiting on the big one.

  17. I remember a report of an earthquake in the middle
    of the country (can’t remember where the epicenter
    was located) during the 70s-80s. We heard about it
    here in Houston the next day due to the fact it registered on the seismographs at Rice Univ. We ourselves are so hurricane-oriented because we have a family connection with the 1900 Hurricane in Galveston and have experienced a lifetime of hurricane/tornado activity. Remember Hurricane Ike two years ago which also came in through
    Galveston? It was truly an experience I won’t ever forget!

    Pat Cochran

  18. Edna – Yes! Isn’t our God marvelous

    Linda – Oh, I hadn’t heard about the quakes in Oklahoma. And it was only 7-8 years ago? How did I miss this?

  19. Pat, oh yes, I know just how scary hurricans can be. When I was a kid back in the 60s and 70s my New Orleans-area family rode out several of them – Betsy and Camille to name a couple. I’ve moved farther north since then – just glad none of the fam still down there tried to ride out Katrina!

  20. I really enjoyed learning about this bit of history I had never heard before. I live in Central Illinois and an earthquake hit that fault line a year or two ago. It wasn’t too bad from what I hear, but the shockwaves were felt where I live–two hours south of Chicago!

  21. Wow, had never heard of this part of history and shall be researching for more info, soo. Thanks for the information!

  22. Kaitlin and Connie, glad you enjoyed the post and learned something new in the process.

  23. Wow! Winnie! This is incredible research information. Wow! Have never run across this in all my research. : )

  24. Avatar

    Having experienced a 6.5 or so quake while in Manila, Philippines, I can picture those scenes very easily. The ground does roll in waves. The streets in the city were undulating in waves, and the cars were bouncing around on them. The buildings were swaying and facing blocks falling off. Those who were on upper floors said tables, chairs and even pianos were sliding across the floor, back and forth as the building swayed. Was rather unnerving.
    We live in East Tennessee now, and even here there is concern about another major quake along the New Madrid Fault.

  25. Hi Karen – thanks for the note. It always tickles me when I can teach folks something new with my posts.

    Pat – that must have been so frightening! Glad you came out of it ok

  26. …WHEN I WAS BUT A CHILD … THE EASTERN PART OF OUR ESTATE ( IMMANUEL ARKANSAS – ARKANSAS COUNTY ) WOULD FLOOD FROM TIME TO TIME ( BUT THE ALMIGHTY WAS SO FAIR & SO JUST – TO THE JUST AS WELL AS TO THE UNJUST – NEVER WERE WE CAUGHT BY THE FLOOD WATERS – WE COULD PLANT OUR CROPS & HARVEST THEM – WITHOUT THE FLOOD WATERS CATCHING US UNAWARE – SEE HOW GOOD GOD CAN BE ) THERE WAS A BRANCH THAT CROSSED OUR COMMUNITY – WHICH HELD BRANCH WATER ( FOR OUR CASH CROPS & OUR MEAT CROPS ) BUT WHEN THE FLOODS WOULD APPEAR ( PHENOMENAL OCCURRENCES ) THESE EXCESS WATERS WOULD CAUSE THE WATERS IN OUR OLD BRANCH – TO FLOW BACKWARDS – CONSIDER THIS TO BE A PART OF MY PERSONAL LIFE TIME EXPERIENCE … CC:EMG/WL

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