Few people in the Twenty-first Century have heard about the effect of the New Madrid earthquake on the early pioneers, and who settled Illinois and the Louisianna Territory. However, there are records from history books written in the late 1800s, which record the experiences of our pioneer ancestors.

From History of Alexander, Union, and Pulaski Counties, Illinois beginning at pages 16 through page 18:

December 18, 1811  -- The anniversary of this day the people of Cairo and its vicinity should never forget. It was the coming of the first steamboat to where Cairo now is, the New Orleans, Capt. Roosevelt, commanding. It was the severest day of the great throes of the New Madrid earthquake; at the same time, a fiery comet was rusing athwart the horizon. 

In the year 1809, Robert Fulton and Chancellor Livingston had commenced their immortal experiment to navigate by steam the Hudson River. As soon as this experiment was crowned with success, they turned their eyes toward these great Western water-ways. They say that here was the greatest inland sea in all the world, but did they, think you, prolong their vision to the present time, and realize a tithe of the possibilities they were giving to the world? They unrolled the map of this continent, and they sent Capt. Roosevelt to Pittsburgh, to go over the river from there to New Orleans, and report whether they could be navigated, or not. He made the inspection, and his favorable report resulted in the immediate construction of the steamer, New Orleans, which was launched in Pittsburgh in December, 1811

Could Capt. Roosevelt now come to us in his natural life, and call the good people of Cairo together, and relate his experiences of the day he passed where Cairo now stands, it would be a story transcending, in thrilling interest, anything ever listened to by any now living. All fiction ever conceived by busy brains would be tame by the side of his truthful narrative. His boat passed out of the Ohio River and into the Mississippi River in the very midst of that most remarkable convulsion of nature ever known, the great New Madrid earthquake. As the boat came down the Ohio River, it had moored opposite Yellow Banks to coal, this having been provided some time previously, and, while loading this on, the voyagers were approached by the squatters of the neighborhood, who inquired if they had not heard strange noises on the river and in the woods in the course of the preceeding day, and perceived the shores shake, insisting they had repeatedly felt the earth tremble. The weather was very hot, the air misty, still, and dull, and though the Sun was visible, the like an immense glowing ball of copper, his rays hardly shed more than a mournful twilight on the surface of the water. Evening drew nigh, and with it some indications of what was passing around them became evident, for ever and anon they hear a rushing sound, violent splash, and finally saw large portions of the shore tearing away from the land and lapsing into the watery abyss. An eye witness says: "It was a startling scene; one could have heard a pin drop on deck. The crew spoke but little; they noticed, too, that the comet, for some time visible in the heavens, had suddenly disappeared, and every one on board was thunderstruck."

The next day the portentous signs of this terrible natural convulsion increased. The trees that remained on shore were seen waving and nodding without a wind. The voyagers had no choice but to pursue their course down the stream, as all day this violence seemed only to increase. They had usually brought to, under the shore, but at all points they saw the high banks disappearing, overwhelming everything near or under them, particularly many of the small craft that were in use in those days, carrying down to death many, and many who had thus gone to shore in the hope of escaping. A large island in the mid-channel, which had been selected by the pilot as the better alternative, was sought for in vain, having totally disappeared, and thousands of acres, constituting the surrounding country, were found to have been swallowed up, with their gigantic growths of forest and cane. 

Thus, in doubt and terror, they proceeded hour after hour until dark, when they found a small island, and rounded to, mooring at the foot of it. Here they lay, keeping watch on deck during the long night, listening to the sound of waters which roared and whirled wildly around them, hearing also, from time to time, the rushing earth slide from the shore, and the commotion of the falling mass as it became engulfed in the river. Thus, this boat, during the intensity of the earthquake, was moored almost in sight of Cairo; practically, it was at Cairo during the worst of the three worst nights.

Yet the day that succeeded this awful night brought no solace in its dawn. Shock followed shock, a dense black cloud of vapor overshadowed the land, through which no sunbeam found its way to cheer the desponding heart of man. It seems incredible to us that the bed of the river could be so agitated as to lash the waters into yeasty foam, until the foam would gather in great bodies, said to be larger than flour barrels, and float away. Again, it is still more incredible to be told that the waters of the two rivers were turned back upon themselves in swift streams, but these and much more, are well-established facts. It is impossible now to depict all the wonderful phenomena of this world's wonder. There were wave motions, and perpendicular motions of the Earth's surface, and there were, judging from effects, as well as testimony of those who witnessed it, sudden risings and bursting of the Earth's crust, from whence would shoot into the air many feet jets of waters, sand, and black shale. 

Just below New Madrid, a flat-boat belonging to Richard Stump was swamped, and six men were drowned. Large trees disappeared under the ground, or were cast with frightful violence into the river. At times, the waters of the river were seen to rise like a wall in the middle of the stream, and then suddenly rolling back, would beat against either bank with terrific force. Boats of considerable size were "high and dry" upon the shores of the river. Frequently a loud roaring and hissing were heard, like the escape of steam from a boiler. The air was impregnated with sulphurous effluvium, and a taste of sulphur was observed in the water of the river and the neighboring springs. Each shock was accompanied by what seemed to be the reports of heavy artillery. A man who was on the river in a boat at the time of one of the shocks declared that he say the mighty Mississippi cut in twain, while the water poured down a vast chasm into the bowels of the Earth. A moment more and the chasm was filled, but the boat which contained this witness was crushed in the tumultuous effort of the flood to regain its former level. The town of New Madrid, that had stood upon the bluff fifteen or twenty feet above the highest water, sank so low, that the next rise of the water covered it to the depth of five feet.

So far as can now be ascertained, but one person has put upon record his observations who saw it upon land. This was Mr. Bringier, an engineer, who related what he saw to Sir Charles Lyell, in 1846. This account represents that he was on horseback near New Madrid, when some of the severest shocks occurred, and that, as the waves advanced, he saw the trees bend down, and often, the instant afterward, when in the act of recovering their position, meet the boughs of other trees similarly inclined, so as to become interlocked, being prevented from righting themselves again. The transit of the waves through the woods was marked by the crashing noise of countless branches, first heard on one side and then the other; at the same time, powerful jets of water, mixed with sand, loam, and bituminous shale, were cast up with such impetuousity that both horse and rider might have perished had the swelling and upheaving ground happened to burst immediately beneath them. Some of the shocks were perpendicular, while others, much more desolating, were horizontal, or moved along like great waves; and where the principal fountains of mud and water were thrown up, circular cavities, called "sink holes," were formed. One of the lakes thus formed is over sixty miles long and from three to twenty miles wide, and in places fifty to one hundred feet deep. In sailing over the surface of this lake, one is struck with astonishment at beholding the gigantic trees of the forest standing partially exposed amid the waste of waters, like gaunt, mysterious monsters; but this mystery is still increased on easing the eye into the depths, to witness cane-brakes covering its bottom, over which a mammoth species of tortoise is sometimes seen dragging its slow length along, while millions of fish sport through the aquatic thickets, the whole constituting one of the remarkable features of American scenery.

In that part of the country that borders upon what is called the "sunk country," that is, depressions upon which lakes did not form, all the trees prior to the date of the great earthquake are dead. Their leafless, barkless, and finally, branchless bodies stood for many years as noticeable objects and monuments of the Earth's agitation, that was to that terrific extent as to break them and wholly loosen from them the supporting soil. 

As before stated, the severest shocks were the first three days, but they lasted for three months. In many section, the people discoverd the opening seams ran generally in a parallel course, and they took advantage of this by felling trees at right angles, and in severe shocks even the children learned to cling upon these, and thus many were saved.

Were we wrong in stating that the coming steamboat to Cairo was a most memorable event?

From Pioneer History of Illinois:

On Dec. 16, 1811, an earthquake visited Illinois. A convulsion of nature of this character was never before experienced in Illinois. The first occurred in the night and many of the inhabitants on the frontiers supposed it was the indians throwing the houses down. On the Kaskaskia river below Athens, the water and white sand were thrown up through a fissure of the Earth. The violence of the earthquake was so great that it threw down chimneys and injured houses. 

More accounts of the New Madrid earthquake:

The following links are hosted on other websites.

  1. Account from a man on a barge at about the same time and place as the steamer in the main article above.
  2. J. W. Foster, L.L.D. account
  3. This account seems to be plagiarized from other accounts, as the spelling and typesetting in the document varies considerably. 
  4. A seemingly authentic account by another boatman, Matthias M. Speed.
  5. James Flether's account describes the sinking of two buildings completely underground.
  6. A family was suddenly inundated with waist high water and had to wade eight miles to find dry ground. Seven Indians were killed, and an eighth was swallowed by the ground, but spit back out to tell the tale. Their story is here.
  7. John Bradbury's account of the earthquake was printed in his book, and is good reading material. 
  8. An account by Firmin La Roche, a Frenchman, tells of deaths on the Mississippi and several burning homes.
  9. Vincent Nolte's account, which was included in his book, Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres. The story is interesting, but the earthquake part is only near the bottom of the file.
  10. The account of James McBride, who rode a flat boat down the river a couple months after the first major shocks.
  11. This account mentions that the Native Americans had no traditions of earthquakes in their lore, and that before the earthquakes, there were no signs of blow holes or cracks in the ground. 
  12. Timothy Dudley's historical account of the earthquake is worth reading.
  13. Here is another interesting story of the earthquake from someone who lived through it, only this time on land and near a lake in modern Tennessee.