In the early hours of December 16, 1811, the residents of New Madrid, a Mississippi River town once part of the Louisiana Territory, rushed from their homes as the ground rolled beneath their feet. Trees were uprooted and thrown to the ground. Huge chasms opened in the earth, swallowing whatever had been perched above. The powerful river ran backward.
“The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do; the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species; the cracking of trees falling … formed a scene truly horrible,” eyewitness Eliza Bryan wrote in a letter later published in the book History of a Cosmopolite.
The earth had slipped somewhere deep beneath New Madrid, resulting in powerful earthquakes that killed many dozens of people, destroyed thousands of acres of virgin forest, and was felt across one million square miles. At the White House, nearly 900 miles away, President James Madison claimed he felt the earth quiver several times during the winter of 1811-1812. Alarmed, on February 7, 1812, he wrote to his political ally and lifelong friend, Thomas Jefferson: “The re-iteration of earthquakes continues … There was one here this morning at 5 or 6 minutes after 4 o’clock. It was rather stronger than any preceding one, and lasted several minutes …”
Madison had a reason to be concerned. From December 16, 1811 through March of 1812, thousands of earthquakes and aftershocks hit America’s Midwest and the Missouri Bootheel. Three are among the largest tremors ever recorded in the United States. While contemporary estimates place these quakes around 7 on the Richter scale, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has their magnitudes recorded slightly higher: December 16, 1811, 7.5; January 23, 1812, 7.3; and February 7, 1812, 7.5. Each of the three largest quakes lasted between one and three minutes, and the tremors continued for decades.
New Madrid bore the brunt of the destruction, with most of the town’s homes left in apocalyptic ruin. “The quake on February 7th would prove to be the worst in terms of the damage wrought on New Madrid,” says Jeff Grunwald, director of the New Madrid Historical Museum. "That quake virtually destroyed the town, with the spring floods finishing the job.”
The Midwest was still on edge in June of 1812, when Congress pulled land from the Louisiana Purchase and formed the Missouri Territory. Then the War of 1812 began. With the new country caught up in fighting Britain, it wasn’t until January of 1814 that territorial governor William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, had an opportunity to address the cumulative damage from the earthquakes.
The famous explorer, along with George Bullitt and Samuel Hammond, penned “A Resolution for the relief of the Inhabitants of the County of New Madrid.” They implored Congress that “provisions ought to be made by law, for granting to the Said Inhabitants relief, either out of the public land, or in Such other way as may seem meet to the wisdom & Liberality of the general government.”
Clark obviously had some pull at the White House, because, on February 17, 1815, Congress approved $50,000 for the New Madrid Relief Act—making it the first disaster relief of its kind in the United States. “The act provided that anyone who lost land during the earthquake could receive a land certificate redeemable for between 160 and 640 ‘like acres’ of public land elsewhere in Missouri,” says Christopher Gordon, director of the library and collections at the Missouri Historical Society.
At the time, passage of this bill was an unprecedented move for the federal government. Prior to New Madrid, the government had only lent a hand once before, in the impromptu form of “temporarily suspending duties owed to the federal government by merchants,” after a fire in 1802 destroyed the town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
“The federal government was not assumed to be the court of first resort for disaster victims,” says Andrew Morris, a professor of history at Union College, whose research focuses on disaster relief.
During the 1800s, responsibility for disaster relief fell mainly on local and state governments, and, toward the end of the century, private charities, including the American Red Cross. Still, public sentiment at the time discouraged people, including those in charge, from seeking aid. Private donations were often the first and only means of assistance.
“Giving people a boost by means of public funds wasn’t viewed by many as fair. Populist beliefs held by farmers and laborers generally held that everyone should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” says Gordon.
Even so, there were plenty of bootstraps present after Congress granted aid for those who survived the 1811-1812 earthquakes. Typical of the Old West, corruption upended the relief effort for New Madrid. “Residents didn’t learn of congressional relief for many months after it was passed, but land speculators in St. Louis and other areas learned of it quickly,” says Gordon.
Land agents arrived in the area to buy up the acreage and conned many New Madrid residents, offering them pennies on the dollar. The speculators then claimed the new lands, but they disregarded the existing rectangular survey system. Edward Hempstead, the principal deputy surveyor at the St. Louis land office complained to a correspondent that the "claimants consider themselves authorized to locate their claims in any Shape, or form, in several places by virtue of one claim." Amid the chaos, speculators made a fortune.
Even Governor Clark wasn’t above trying to profit. He sent his own agents to make deals with unknowing victims. According to Jay Feldman, author of When the Mississippi Ran Backwards, the term “New Madrid claim” soon became synonymous with fraud.
Of the 516 certificates issued by Congress, only 20 went to actual New Madrid residents. Most were held by people in St. Louis. The Bank of Missouri failed shortly thereafter, and all the money used to buy the land became worthless. Lawsuits challenged claims for decades, with the last case settled in 1862.
After getting involved only twice in the early 1800s, “the federal government did provide disaster relief on various occasions through the 19th and early 20th centuries—sometimes through congressional appropriations, sometimes through military channels, sometimes through both—but it was definitely ad hoc,” says Morris.
As the country’s population grew and industrialization took hold, more and more Americans began living in areas that were prone to natural disasters, including along the coast, flood plains and near fault lines. The costs of reconstruction after natural disasters began to soar in the 20th century—often beyond the scope of what local and state governments could bear—requiring the federal government to step in.
From 1803 to 1950, Congress passed 128 separate laws relating to disaster relief. “A lack of comprehensive legislation led to a cumbersome system that required Congress to pass a law following each disaster to provide support,” says a spokesperson with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In 1950, Congress passed the Federal Disaster Relief Act to streamline and speed up emergency response and assistance, and, in 1979, FEMA was created to unify federal disaster activity and build a comprehensive approach to emergency management.
Today, according to Grunwald, New Madrid is a typical small town in rural Missouri. Farming dominates the economy, and the population sits at about 3,000, around the same it was at the time of the earthquakes. Throughout the New Madrid Seismic Zone, especially along the fault line which runs 150 miles from Marked Tree, Arkansas, to Cairo, Illinois, and passing through southeast Missouri, the ground still quivers every now and then. It’s a stark reminder that Mother Nature remains in charge.