Empire! Intrigue! Murder!

Jay Feldman’s new book shakes up American frontier history with an exploration of the massive New Madrid earthquakes

All images reprinted from <i>When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes</i>. Map created for the book by Meg Hehner.

All images reprinted from When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes. Map created for the book by Meg Hehner.

Davis resident Jay Feldman is an accomplished author. He’s written for a variety of national magazines, including a gig with Sports Illustrated. His expertise with baseball, which includes a 2000 cover story about the Sacramento River Cats for SN&R, is widely known. So, how did he end up writing a history of the most massive series of earthquakes ever to hit the continental United States?

“I wanted to write about other things than sports,” Feldman said during an interview over coffee at a sidewalk cafe in Davis. Feldman, a quiet fellow who takes time to think carefully before he speaks, pointed out that he’s always used sports as a vehicle for addressing larger issues. Take, for example, the story he did for Sports Illustrated on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which later became the subject of the movie A League of Their Own. Many of the players credit him with drawing attention to their contribution to the sport; Feldman remembers it as not only “a chance to write about an interesting subject in baseball, but also to talk about attitudes toward women.”

It might seem as if the New Madrid earthquakes—there were a bunch of them, with three major earthquakes occurring between December 1811 and February 1812—are a large enough issue to address in a book, and several have been written about the geologic events. But Feldman takes a long view in his new book, When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes.

The book weaves together four separate strands of history in a narrative that demonstrates that historical events do not exist in isolation. Feldman documents Revolutionary War veteran George Morgan’s plan to settle west of the Mississippi in Spanish Louisiana and create a model community. Another former soldier, James Wilkinson, had a plot to speculate with that same land while betraying the United States to the Spanish. The Shawnee leader Tecumseh was struggling to create a pan-tribal confederacy of united American Indians to stop further land thefts by U.S. settlers and return to traditional ways of life; shortly before the quakes began, he made a prophecy to the Creeks that he would “stamp his feet,” and the earth would shake. At the same time, Nicholas Roosevelt was taking his prototype side-wheel steamboat, an innovation with the potential to dramatically increase commerce and westward expansion, on its maiden voyage down the Mississippi. And two drunken and dissolute nephews of Thomas Jefferson murdered their slave, a man named George, and hid his dismembered body in a chimney.

Taking each of these narratives, Feldman brings them to the eve of the first big jolt of the series of quakes that were centered near the settlement of New Madrid, located in the “bootheel” region of what is now Missouri—a settlement carefully planned by Morgan to be a showplace of commerce and industry. It is the perfect situation in which to examine the intersection of nature and culture; the earthquakes create upheaval in far more ways than the topographic.

“It’s about the interrelationships of events,” said Feldman. “All of this is happening at the same time.” He pointed out that, at the same time as Jefferson’s nephews, Kentuckians Lilburne and Isham Lewis, were murdering their slave and hiding his body in a chimney, there were American Indian uprisings in Kentucky, provoked by the push of westward settlement.

“At the same time,” he reiterated, “the steamboat technology was developing.” This would make it possible for that relentless westward push to pick up even more speed, increasing the pressure on American Indians and carrying slavery further into the West.

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards details each of these historical narratives so that it becomes clear exactly how great the tension had become in that region in the earliest part of the 19th century. Then, into this incredibly volatile situation, nature hurled a disaster that was simply unimaginable to most of the people caught up in it. Feldman’s book puts the earthquakes into the larger context of the development of the American frontier.

“Writing about specific people is the only way that history really comes alive,” Feldman said. “The earthquakes, in a way, became a metaphor for the turmoil, the upheaval of life on the frontier.”

Feldman has a barely concealed disdain for what he calls the “Disney-esque idea of frontier life.” He points out that life on the frontier was far from being a democracy. It was, for the most part, an oligarchy, in which a handful of citizens had money, land and power. “Everyone else was dirt-poor,” he said. Feldman noted that when most contemporary Americans think of the frontier, they think of the settlement of the Dakotas and the extermination of the tribes of the Great Plains, events that occurred 75 years after the initial settlements west of the Mississippi.

“The frontier was always changing,” Feldman explained. One of its main characteristics was that no single faction could claim sovereignty. Thus, the frontier was a site of “intercultural interactions—a place where different cultures and societies—Anglo-Americans, Spanish-Americans, French-Americans, Native Americans—are all vying for dominance.” In many ways, the frontier was every bit as uncertain as the terrain became during the earthquakes.

The first major earthquake, in the early-morning hours of December 16, 1811, was horrible enough. Aftershocks and major tremors continued for months, with a total of three large earthquakes, before the network of faults that underlie the Mississippi Valley finally began to settle down.

Because they occurred in the days before seismographs and the Richter scale, it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of the New Madrid quakes. Seismologists used an adaptation of the Mercalli intensity scale to estimate the three principle events in the New Madrid sequence as having magnitudes of around 8.0 on the Richter scale. Considering the damage described by survivors—including visible waves moving across the land, chasms opening underfoot, and people and buildings sinking into liquefied soil—it’s a reasonable estimate. The tremors from the New Madrid quakes were felt as far away as Boston and New York. By comparison, the tremors from the great San Francisco earthquake in 1906 weren’t even felt in Nevada.

The most famous description of the effects of the earthquakes is the report that the Mississippi ran backwards—a description that may be difficult to fully understand for people who’ve never spent any time on that massive river. “The best analogy we have right now is the recent tsunami,” said Feldman. “Of course, not nearly as much water was displaced, but in terms of the cataclysmic event, the water was completely redirected from its normal course.” And, he pointed out, under normal circumstances, the current on the Mississippi is “awesome.”

Towns were leveled, islands disappeared, and the course of the river was altered, which led to the disappearance of the original city of New Madrid. Watermen lost their lives as boats capsized, but Roosevelt’s prototype steamboat weathered the quakes with only minor damage.

Why was an earthquake of that size in the central part of the continent so devastating over a much larger area than a similar-sized quake in the West was? Feldman pointed out that the rock in the western United States is more recent, softer and warmer; the reverberations of an earthquake are dissipated more easily through cracks in the rock. Mid-continent, the rock is older, harder and colder, allowing the shock waves to travel farther. The analogy that Feldman used is the difference between hitting a piece of soft wood and hitting a piece of steel with a hammer. “If you hit a piece of steel, the shock is transmitted throughout—and back through you—and you’ll feel it in your arm,” he said. “Whereas when you hit wood, it’s not nearly as severe.”

In March 1812, an earthquake of roughly the same size as the major New Madrid events struck Caracas, Venezuela. It killed approximately 20,000 people.

Among the many aftershocks from the New Madrid earthquakes were U.S. wars on the American Indians, who took the quakes as a fulfillment of Tecumseh’s prophecy and renewed their assaults on U.S. settlements. This led to a “war of extirpation” that included Andrew Jackson’s massacre of the Creeks. The earthquakes tumbled the chimney in which Jefferson’s nephews had hidden the body of their murdered slave; the discovery of the corpse led to their eventual arrest. The successful navigation of the Mississippi by Roosevelt’s steamboat under the extreme conditions caused by the earthquakes was the beginning of the ships’ supremacy on the river. This made faster westward expansion possible, with the consequent spread of slavery into new territories and further conflicts with American Indian nations.

“It was definitely one of those times in history,” said Feldman, “where it’s a pivotal moment when everything—forces and events—comes together in a confluence that then turns the tide of history one way or another.”

Perhaps the most profound thing to be learned from When the Mississippi Ran Backwards is just how deeply entrenched our nation remains in its history. “This is a great country,” said Feldman. “Let’s not fool ourselves about that. There are many things about the United States that are remarkable and praiseworthy.” However, Feldman expressed a concern that Americans will fall victim to a whitewashed version of history, one that mythologizes the American past and deprives us of the whole picture.

With this book, Feldman has created a complex and detailed picture of our history at a particularly difficult, stressful and pivotal moment in time. Feldman said that he tried to make the book “like a mural that would take up the entire side of a large building, with as much detail as is relevant to the understanding of the historical moment.”

Ultimately, understanding the historical moment in which the New Madrid earthquakes occurred may show us a great deal about who we’ve become. “Violence, greed, corruption in government, conquest and expansion, race relations, environmental degradation—all these things we’re still dealing with were all right there at the beginning,” Feldman noted. “The seeds were sown very early on for a lot of the issues that are still facing us in our society.”

There was an earthquake of magnitude 4.2 along the New Madrid fault just a few weeks ago.