I first touched on the subject of the New Madrid Earthquake (1811 – 1812,) New Madrid, Missouri) in a blog post not long ago. It’s a fascinating multi-layered story with the themes of personal trial, community dislocation, unprecedented geographic phenomenon couched with the backdrop of the War of 1812.
Today I will share with you a few reflections on a book that brings the story to life on a very personal level.
What Feldman presents to us in this book is a compelling, context-rich look at the state of the region, the people, and the events that were shaped by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812.
Feldman tells the story largely through the stories of a few notable people who were caught up in the events of the day, including:
• Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader who is said to have prophesied the earthquakes while seeking to form an alliance among the native groups to fight the United States.
• His brother Tenskwatawa, also known as the Prophet, who took up a role of religious leadership in the pan-tribal movement.
• Lilburne and Ishum Lewis (brothers and nephews to Thomas Jefferson), slave owners whose murder of one of their slaves was uncovered by the earthquake, causing a scandal and the dissolution of what had been one of Virginia’s foremost families.
• George Morgan, a Revolutionary War figure and land speculator, and also the founder of the settlement at New Madrid.
• James Wilkinson, a General in the US Army, a traitorous double agent in the pay of the Spanish crown, and a nemesis to Morgan.
• Nicholas and Lydia Roosevelt (relatives of Theodore Roosevelt), who took the steamboat New Orleans on the first voyage under steam power down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, surviving the earthquake and the reversal of the river’s flow while aboard.
• William Henry Harrison, the future president, and his involvement in the Battle of Tippecanoe.
The book is as much a history of the War of 1812 as it is of the earthquakes. While there are no doubt much more detailed accounts of the war to be found, Feldman’s encapsulation of the war within the context of this natural disaster lends an interesting angle to the familiar stories about the war.
Though this is not a book about genealogy, there are several reasons why genealogists may find this book interesting: Feldman places the event within the larger context of national and international events. His characterizations of the early 19th-century frontier provides a good idea of how this frontier was different from the “wild west” of the late 19th century, and may aid genealogists in tracing the movements of ancestors during this period, or at least give a better idea of the cultural and economic forces that motivated their movements.
Beyond its uses as a source of context or event-related information, When the Mississippi Ran Backwards is a page-turner. Feldman provides clever, surprising, and enlightening anecdotes from a wide variety of sources. While making my initial look through the book, I often found myself reading rather than skimming, as the mixture of historical context along with stark, yet believable depictions of the various larger-than-life historical figures continually caught me up in wanting to know what happened next, sometimes in cases where I already knew the broad outline of the events described.
When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes. Free Press, 2005. 307p. (Simon & Schuster imprint) Author: Jay Feldman
Internet Archive: No
Index: 7 pages.
Endnotes: Extensive. 31 pages.
Bibliography: Organized by type of publication – useful for amateur researchers. Extensive at 20 pages.