Saturday, January 21, 2012

Just Finished Reading

I've been lucky with my reading selections the past few weeks. This was yet another book I have had on the shelf for quite a while. Naturally, I had heard of the New Madrid earthquakes many times in past readings of this time period, but I certainly didn't understand the power of those tremors that hit there between December 1811 and February 1812.

The New Madrid fault is located near where the Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri borders meet. The author, Jay Feldman, suggests that the quakes that hit would be rated from 7.0 to 8.0 on the modern Richter scale, which had not been invented at that time. The quakes were felt as far away as the Rocky Mountains, New York City and Washington D.C. The level of natural damage was tremendous. Fortunately, there were not that may built communities in the immediate area at that time. However, the town of New Madrid (in what would become Missouri) was destroyed. And, as the title suggests, the quake was so powerful that the Mississippi River ran backward for a short time. In fact, so much earth was moved that Reelfoot Lake was created in northwest Tennessee.

The author wraps the earthquake story around several sub-stories; each very interesting and obviously happening at the same time as the quakes. I especially liked the story of the first voyage of a steamboat, the New Orleans, from Pittsburgh to the Crescent City. The New Orleans was on the Ohio River when initial quake hit, but fortunately braved the rough waters. The story of how this boat came into existence is quite a tale.

Also intriguing was the story of Thomas Jefferson's nephews, Isham and Lilburne Lewis, who had moved to Livingston County, Kentucky, but had met with misfortune in their new home state. The brothers, in a night of drinking, took out their frustrations on one of their slaves. They tortured and finally decapitated the man with the other slaves watching. The brothers tried to hide their victim by burning him, but the quake toppled the chimney and neighbors eventually discovered the grisly scene. Afraid of being convicted of murder, the brothers chose to commit suicide by killing each other. Something went wrong in the act and only Lilburne ended up dead. Isham would not escape either, although his death came a little later. He was one of a handful of Americans killed at the Battle of New Orleans three years later.

Another key story in the book is Tecumseh's attempt to confederate Indian tribes against white encroachment. He had earlier spoken to Creek Indians in Alabama and prophesied that if they would not lend support, he would stomp his foot and create an enormous earthquake and tumble their village. One can only image what the Creeks thought when the quakes hit.

One error that I noticed in the book was that the author claimed that Lexington was the capital of Kentucky at one point. The capital has been in Frankfort since statehood was granted in 1792.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.

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