WASHINGTON – Jay Feldman could not write a historical novel about the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 because no one would have believed it. Instead,he wrote a non-fiction account.
His book,“When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire,Intrigue,Murder and the New Madrid Earthquakes,” tells five separate stories surrounding the seismic events.
“It was just way too far-fetched to be a novel,” he said Thursday at a book signing at the Library of Congress. “The instances were just too far of a stretch to be credible.”
The series of earthquakes help set in motion the War of 1812 with the Creek Indians,led to the arrest of two of Thomas Jefferson's nephews and restructured the frontier in Missouri,Tennessee,Mississippi and Louisiana.
Feldman,a journalist,began researching an1812 earthquake in St. Louis as a potential setting for a historical novel after a friend in California mentioned it. What he uncovered was a series of stories connected to more than 2,000 seismic events over four months.
“They rattled china in New York,they rang church bells in Boston,” Feldman said. “The ground was in constant motion.”
By today's measuring scale,there were at least three magnitude 8.0 quakes,he said. Twice the Mississippi River ran backward.
The geologic explanations of the quakes were only one part of the frontier story. The book explains events leading to the War of 1812,which solidified the unity established in the American Revolution,Feldman said.
“The frontier was always changing,and it was always moving,” Feldman said.
An earthquake on Dec. 16,1811,helped to solidify Indian support against the U.S. government. Tecumseh,a Shawnee chief,was unable to persuade the Creek Indians to unite with him. As he left Mississippi,he promised a hostile Creek chief that he was sent from the Great Spirit and would stamp his foot when he returned to his home in Michigan. When the earthquake came,the Creeks believed it was a sign to join Tecumseh.
“It set them on the road to war,” Feldman said.
The earthquakes also affected Aaron Burr,William Henry Harrison,Tecumseh,the Roosevelt family and the Jefferson family,Feldman wrote.
Jefferson's two nephews murdered a slave in Kentucky and attempted to burn the body parts,but the first earthquake destroyed their chimney. They used the charred remains to build a second chimney,which was destroyed in the third earthquake,exposing the crime,Feldman said.
Encounters between then-governor of the Indiana Territory William Henry Harrison and Tecumseh showed conflict between the United States and Native Americans.
Earthquakes are common in the Mississippi Valley region. Scientists estimate that the probability of a magnitude 6 or 7 earthquake within the next 50 years is higher than 90 percent,according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey.