52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Great

It was a beautiful fall day on Reelfoot Lake. I had gone there to see what it was like because my dad, Talmadge Lane (Tom), spoke about the lake when I was a child. The lake is beautiful with tall, stately trees, many of them bald cypress. My dad grew up in Lake County, Tennessee. Reelfoot Lake sits in northwest Tennessee on the boundary between Lake and Obion Counties.

It is hard to believe that this beautiful lake was formed by a series of three horrific earthquakes taking place in late 1811 and early 1812. Called the New Madrid earthquakes, they were some of the greatest earthquakes in American History. The first earthquake occurred in the middle of the night of December 15, 1811. There were three aftershocks over the next 48 hours. On the Mississippi River, the shaking caused the soil to calve and trees lining the river to fall into the water. This created large waves that capsized boats or threw them up onto the land. ¹ The rumblings and shaking of the earthquake caused chimneys to fall as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio. Church bells rang in Boston, Massachusetts.

An eye witness, John Bradbury, described the tremors: “After supper, we went to sleep as usual: about ten o’clock, and in the night I was awakened by the most tremendous noise, accompanied by an agitation of the boat so violent, that it appeared in danger of upsetting … I could distinctly see the river as if agitated by a storm; and although the noise was inconceivably loud and terrific, I could distinctly hear the crash of falling trees, and the screaming of the wild fowl on the river, but found that the boat was still safe at her moorings. By the time we could get to our fire, which was on a large flag in the stern of the boat, the shock had ceased; but immediately the perpendicular banks, both above and below us, began to fall into the river in such vast masses, as nearly to sink our boat by the swell they occasioned … At day-light we had counted twenty-seven shocks.” ²

There was very little damage when the second earthquake took place on January 23, 1812. Several days later, on February 7th, the last tremblor exceeded the damage caused by the December earthquake. It destroyed New Madrid, Missouri, the largest town between St. Louis and New Orleans. In St. Louis, population 1,200, homes received structural damage, and chimneys fell. ³ Regarding Reelfoot Lake, the quakes opened a great hole in the ground creating a basin. The Mississippi reversed course, backing up on itself, resulting in the filling of Reelfoot Lake.

Because that area of Tennessee and Missouri was frontier, very few people died. My great-great-great-great-grandmother, Christiana (Zumwalt) Ridenhour, lived on 500 arpens of land on what became known as Ridenour Creek, west of St. Louis. I can’t help but wonder what she felt and thought when the rumblings from so far away awoke her in the middle of the night. I’ve felt the earth shake from the New Madrid fault. It is very scary.

Garland and Harriett (Stokes) Smith lived to the east in Hopkins County, Kentucky. Here is a compilation of eye witness accounts of people who lived through the earthquake: “At a distance of 130 miles from the center of the quake, the shocks and tremors were distinctly felt in Hopkins County. The trees of the forest swayed, the houses rattled and shook, utensils were thrown down; and terror, as of the end of the world, was felt.” ⁴ What did Garland think when he felt the quivering of the earth? Was his chimney one that fell? Did trees around his home fall? We don’t know, but the thought of living through a natural calamity of this magnitude is hard to fathom. Unlike today, with our almost immediate access to news, it probably took several days before a dispatch reporting the earthquake reached the Smiths.

New Madrid fault and earthquake-prone region considered at high risk today⁵

My father spoke almost reverently of the New Madrid earthquakes. It is interesting to look back at that time and wonder how my and my husband’s ancestors were affected by the earthquakes. If another earthquake as large as those of 1811-1812 struck today, there would be mass casualties and untold millions, if not billions, of damage to structures. Many would no doubt die or be left homeless. 

On a personal note, what do a wrench and bottled water have in common with the New Madrid Fault? In 1990, Iben Browning predicted that a catastrophic earthquake would occur on the New Madrid Fault somewhere around December 2nd or 3rd. “David Steward, a seismologist at Southeast Missouri State University, told the press that the prediction needed to be taken seriously and before long many in the media took his advice.” ⁶

An earthquake of the magnitude of the 1811-12 earthquakes can severely impact the area in which I live. The news reported plans of people to stay home from work and keep their kids home from school. I tried not to let all the hype concern me, but deep down I wondered what if? Besides your house falling on you, earthquakes cause gas mains to break and houses to catch fire. I asked my husband to hang a wrench by our gas shut-off, just in case. I also bought bottled water and put them in strategic places around our house, just in case. My husband, Dave, is the man who stays in bed when the tornado sirens go off. I received a lot of razzing from him. Then came December 2nd…no earthquake. What a relief. Then came December 3rd…no earthquake. Alas, we dodged the widely predicted Great Earthquake of 1990.

As Californians and we know, an earthquake can strike anytime. But just in case, the wrench still hangs by the gas shut-off.


¹New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812, https://www.britannica.com/event/New-Madrid-earthquakes-of-1811-1812

²1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquakes, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1811%E2%80%931812_New_Madrid_earthquakes

³Mound City on the Mississippi a St. Louis History, https://www.britannica.com/event/New-Madrid-earthquakes-of-1811-1812

⁴The Horror of the New Madrid Earthquakes, https://www.wkdzradio.com/2017/04/02/the-horror-of-the-new-madrid-earthquakes/

⁵Sara Boore and Susan Mayfield, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

⁶Matthew S. Luckett, Ph.D., Historian of the American West, Professor, and Documentarian, https://lucketthistory.com/2020/12/02/hysteria-in-hindsight-remembering-iben-browning-the-new-madrid-fault-and-quake-day-30-years-later/

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