Reprise of 'When The Mississippi Ran Backwards'

Hi!  Winnie Griggs here.  When we decided to run our favorite posts here this week, I knew exactly which one I”d chose.  This story has always fascinated me from the very first time I heard it.  If you saw it the first time, I hope you”ll enjoy reading it again.  Oh, and read on to learn how to get entered for a nifty giveaway sponsored by our own Phyliss Miranda.

I’ve always been intrigued by the snippets I heard here and there about the time the Mississippi ran backwards, but I never New Madrid 01followed 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, when 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 manmade 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?


I”m excited to announce that The Bride Next Door, the second book in my Texas Grooms Series, is now available for pre-order at Amazon.

Love Thy Neighbor?

After years of wandering, Daisy Johnson hopes to settle in Turnabout, Texas where she hopes to open a restaurant.  And perhaps find her a husband while she”s at it. Of course, she”d envisioned marry a man who actually likes her.  Not someone who offers a her marriage of convenience in order to avoid scandal.

Turnabout is just a temporary stop for newspaper reporter Everett Fulton. Thanks to one pesky connecting door and a local gossip, however, he”s suddenly married, but his dreams of leaving haven”t changed, no matter what his new wife longs for.  What Daisy wants – home, family, tenderness – is something he can”t provide. Yet his big-city plans are starting to pale beside small-town warmth….


 And now for the giveaway. 

Our wonderfully generous Phyliss Miranda is offering to reward one lucky person who posts on this blog today a $25 gift certificate to Bath & Body Works.  Just right for scooping up some decadent bubble bath so you can indulge yourself by relaxing in the tub with a wonderful book!

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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 or email her at

54 thoughts on “Reprise of 'When The Mississippi Ran Backwards'”

  1. How frightening that must have been! The ground undulating would be frightening enough but to have a river flow backwards would be a real nightmare!

  2. Living in California, it is something to keep in the back of you mind. I live south of Mammoth Lakes and there are tremblers daily. Some larger than others, but we know that it is inevitable we will get a large one. Having the river run backwards would definately be frightening. Thanks for the post. A reminder that April is Earthquake Awareness month!

  3. Living in California, it is something to keep in the back of you mind. I live south of Mammoth Lakes and there are tremblers daily. Some larger than others, but we know that it is inevitable we will get a large one. Having the river run backwards would definately be frightening. Thanks for the post. A reminder that April is Earthquake Awareness month!

  4. I’ve never heard of the stories about these earthquakes near the Mississippi, so thanks for sharing your research! I imagine there are several stories that could be told of the heartache and destruction these earthquakes caused.

  5. Wow, Winnie, that’s very cool research! When I was a young nurse, back in 1983 there was an earthquake with the epicenter in Kentucky. We felt it all the way up in Columbus. I was on the 6th floor of the hospital and felt the floor move and the chart rack wobble! Then poof it was over. They said it was a 6.0 on the Richter scale. I’d never felt one before and I’d lived in Columbus all my life at that time.

  6. Luckily I’ve never experienced an earthquake. I can’t imagine how scary it must be to have the earth move under your feet. This series of four earthquakes in Missouri is new information for me. I can’t imagine being on a boat and seeing this huge wave coming up the river. I’m sure people were wondering if this was the beginning of the end of the world.

  7. Wow! Such a cool story. I had never heard about the earthquakes in that area of the USA before. I thought it was so interesting that because of the scarcity of settlements in the area at that time, there was little damage to manmade structures. I doubt that would happen in 2013 … I mean, to have an area in the USA that would have little damage from an earthquake of that size. So interesting!!!

  8. Hi Connie – I agree it must have been terrifying! I grew up on the Mississippi – lived right across the river from New Orleans – and I can’t imagine the sight it must have been to see it flowing backwards

  9. Hi Mary. I wasn’t aware that April is earthquake awareness month so can’t claim any deliberateness in the scheduling of this post. But I can’t imagine living in an area that experiences tremors daily – Bless your heart!

  10. I had never heard of this piece of history about the US or the Mississippi River.. Thanks for sharing…

  11. Laurie – you’re exactly right. According to my research, many who witnessed this saw it as a sign of the end times. And like you, I’ve never experienced an earthquake. Hurricanes are bad enough, but at least you gett plenty of warning that they’re coming!

  12. Hi Tammy! Thanks for dropping by. And yes, these days the area around the Mighty Mississippi is so densely populated that an earthquake such as this would be catastrophic in terms of lives lost

  13. I love visiting California, but could never live there or anywhere else that has frequent earthquakes, too scary! It’s incredible to know that they also occur in that part of the country, too. I’ve experienced a few on vacations, which was enough for me. We had one here in the North East not too long ago; my husband was home &, not having ever been present during one, didn’t know what was going on, but I sure did! I give people in those areas alot of credit. Mississippi, wow, who would’ve thunk?!

  14. How interesting! We had an earthquake here in VA year and half ago. (First time 100 year old grandma ever experienced one). When it happened, I thought my two year old was tearing up the house. LOL.

  15. I had no idea but this was enlightening and scary. So much damage that can be done so quickly is frightening. We live in an area which receives no harsh weather at all.

  16. Maria, I’ve never experienced one myself and figure I’d be terrified if I ever did. I like my terra firma very firma!

    Diane, glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for stopping by!

  17. Amy – earthquake in VA – wow. I gues no place is completely safe 🙂 And LOL on thinking it was your toddler – I can so relate to that!

    Anne, how lucky to live in such a stable area. Unfortunately in this neck of the woods we deal with the threat of hurricanes and tornados on a regular basis.

  18. An interesting article. I have a friend who lives in New Madrid and I have heard a lot about this.
    Your book sounds really good.

  19. Cher, I’m with you on earthquakes sounding scary, but I’m afraid tornados do faze me – very much so!

    Joye – thanks for the kind words about my book! And thanks for dropping by.

  20. I’m in Louisiana. I would freak out if I experienced an earthquake here. We deal with floods and tornadoes. I don’t want to deal with earthquakes too 🙂

  21. Interesting and totally unaware of this mishap. Thanks for this background about the area and the devastation.

  22. Sheila, Hi! And this Louisiana girl is totally with you on freking out during an earthquake!

    Pearl – glad you enjoyed the post! Always fun to learn something new isn’t it.

  23. That was fascinating. I had no idea about most of that. I live in Pittsburgh and although the rivers flood, I don’t believe we’ve ever really had an earthquake.

  24. I can only remember feeling an earthquake one time in my life. It was back in the early 80’s. Since I live in KY it must have been the one Suzanne was talking about. I was out doing something in the yard and I will have to say it scared me. I think we have had a few trimmers since then but nothing like that. I will never forget it that is for sure.

  25. Wow I had no idea that those earth quakes occurred. I feel such a pain for those who had their whole lives into what they had and the quake took it away in a matter of seconds. I’m sure this was a time for people then to really rely on one another. Or maybe for some it was a blessing they didn’t see coming because it gave them a chance to start over. Thanks for the post!

  26. Very informative post. I have learned alot. It is amazing what earthquakes can do. Your book sounds great. I like the cover.

  27. Hi Catslady. Pittsburg does sound like it would be out of the danger zzone, but this story makes me wonder if there’s any place that’s truly out of the danger zone for natural disasters such as this!

    Colleen – glad you enjoyed the post. And I agree – it must have been truly awe-inspiring – not to mention terrifying – to be an eye witness to this.

  28. I’ve been in lots of earthquake prone areas without experiencing one, until the Virginia quake mentioned by Amy. That’s the quake that damaged the Washington Monument and National Cathedral. Would definitely not want to go through a bigger one.

    Best wishes for The Bride Next Door.

  29. That was very intersting to read. Thank you for sharing that information. I learned alot from reading this post and didn’t know before about those earthquakes.

  30. QuiltLady – I can only image how frightening that must have been. I’d find it strange if it DIDN’T scare you.

    Cori – What a positive way to look at this! And yes, being forced to start over can be a blessing in disguise.

  31. Hi Liz. In some ways, I imagine that must have been more frightening than experiencing a quake in the more tremor-prone areas since it would be so absolutely out of the blue.

    Katie – thanks for stopping by and I’m glad you enjoyed the little history lesson 🙂

  32. Yours is the best summary of the events that I have read. I was in Manila for a meeting while in the Peace Corps when a strong earthquake hit. There had been several 3’s that had hit over the couple of years I was there, but nothing like that one. I don’t remember exactly, but it was a 6 at least and maybe a bit higher. I was in the downtown district with high rise buildings all around. People inside the building came running out and I stepped into a nearby building’s door archway. Glass from the windows and concrete from the facade were falling down on the sidewalks and road. Like the descriptions in your post, the road was rolling in waves, bouncing the cars around like toys on a blanket. There were several buildings that collapsed in other parts of town.
    I couldn’t get out of town for several days. I can remember many, many aftershocks. You would be sitting there and the shaking would start, slowly at first then building. You could do nothing but sit there and wonder how strong this one would be and how long it would last. Rather nerve wracking to be powerless to do anything but sit there and hope for the best.

  33. Just read Mary J’s reminder that April is Earthquake Awareness Month. I am a Red Cross Disaster volunteer in TN and the state has been preparing for a major earthquake disaster on the New Madrid Fault. Luckily I live on the eastern border of the state, but we would feel it here too. Our area is an evacuation and shelter zone. There have been joint planning sessions and drills with EMS, Homeland Security, TEMA, Red Cross, and the Public Health Agencies. When you think of Memphis and the other populated areas along the fault zone, it is frightening to think of all the loss of life and damage that will be caused by a major quake.

    Again, thanks for the informative post.

  34. I’ve never experienced an earthquake but the backyard renovation project I’ve been working on this week has reminded me all too much of going through the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.(I’ve been digging up ash while trying to level the area I need to re-seed with grass.) As miserable as it was that summer living with the ash it was nothing like the devastation earthquakes bring.

  35. Winnie, what a great post! I remember a long time ago when I was a child, my mom talking about hearing about that day. Her grandparents came from Tennessee, and it must have been a topic of conversation with their parents and grandparents that got “handed down” and talked about. How I wish I had paid more attention. This is a wonderful post. I really enjoyed learning more about this.

  36. Patricia – Oh my! That sounds like such a scary experience. So glad you didn’t suffer any injuries. And kudos to you for being a Red Cross Disaster volunteer. You folks do an amazing job of bring relief to folks and communities in need.

  37. Hilltop Farm Wife – I remember that Mt. St. Helens eruption. It seemed so surreal to me to have an active volcano right here in the continental US – before that it had always seemed like something that happened in more exotic locations.

  38. Wow, Winnie, I can’t imagine going through an earthquake of magnitudes you describe in this post! I’ve been through a much smaller one, and even then the buildings looked like they were made of rubber. To have whole islands disappear would be incredible (and not in a good way).

    Thanks for re-sharing this!


  39. Thanks Cheryl! And I can see where this would be a story that would be passed on from one generation to the next. And it certainly wouldn’t require much embellishment!

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