New Madrid Earthquakes

A Sequence of Three Main Shocks in 1811-1812

This sequence of three very large earthquakes is usually referred to as the New Madrid earthquakes, after the Missouri town that was the largest settlement on the Mississippi River between St. Louis, Missouri and Natchez, Mississippi. On the basis of the large area of damage (600,000 square kilometers), the widespread area of perceptibility (5,000,000 square kilometers), and the complex physiographic changes that occurred, the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 rank as some of the largest in the United States since its settlement by Europeans. They were by far the largest east of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. and Canada. The area of strong shaking associated with these shocks is two to three times as large as that of the 1964 Alaska earthquake and 10 times as large as that of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Because there were no seismographs in North America at that time, and very few people in the New Madrid region, the estimated magnitudes of this series of earthquakes vary considerably and depend on modern researchers' interpretations of journals, newspaper reports, and other accounts of the ground shaking and damage. - USGS



Y/M/D Description Place
1811/12/16 The Livingston-Fulton steamboat, New Orleans, takes shelter behind an island (S of present day Owensboro, KY) on the Mississippi River. The great river had been reversed by the New Madrid Earthquake.
1811/12/16 First earthquake, M7.7, strikes at about 2:15 am (local time) in northeast Arkansas, creating St Francis Sunken Lands St Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area, Arkansas
1812/00/00 New Madrid earthquakes caused severe damage to Fort Massac, 1811-1812. Fort Massac State Park, Metropolis
1812/01/23 Magnitude 7.5 quake hits Missouri. New Madrid, which sat on a bluff bank 15 to 20 feet above summer flood levels, drops down to 5 feet below flood levels. New Madrid, Missouri
1812/02/07 Reelfoot fault in Missouri and Tennessee ruptures, lowering the east side of the Reelfoot scarp to create the Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee

History »

A Robust Aftershock Sequence for each Main Shock

The first principal earthquake, M7.7, occurred at about 2:15 am (local time) in northeast Arkansas on December 16, 1811. The second principal shock, M7.5, occurred in Missouri on January 23, 1812, and the third, M7.7, on February 7, 1812, along the Reelfoot fault in Missouri and Tennessee. The earthquake ground shaking was not limited to these principal main shocks, as there is evidence for a fairly robust aftershock sequence. The first and largest aftershock occurred on December 16, 1811 at about 7:15 am. At least three other large aftershocks are inferred from historical accounts on December 16 and 17. These three events are believed to range between M6.0 and 6.5 in size and to be located in Arkansas and Missouri. This would make a total of seven earthquakes of magnitude M6.0-7.7 occurring in the period December 16, 1811 through February 7, 1812. In total, Otto Nuttli reported more than 200 moderate to large aftershocks in the New Madrid region between December 16, 1811, and March 15, 1812: ten of these were greater than about 6.0; about one hundred were between M5.0 and 5.9; and eighty-nine were in the magnitude 4 range. Nuttli also noted that about eighteen hundred earthquakes of about M3.0 to 4.0 during the same period.

Large Area of Damaging Shaking

The first earthquake of December 16, 1811 caused only slight damage to man-made structures, mainly because of the sparse population in the epicentral area. The extent of the area that experienced damaging earth motion, which produced Modified Mercalli Intensity greater than or equal to VII, is estimated to be 600,000 square kilometers. However, shaking strong enough to alarm the general population (intensity greater than or equal to V) occurred over an area of 2.5 million square kilometers.

Shaking Caused Sand Blows, River Bank Failures, Landslides, and Sunken Land

The earthquakes caused the ground to rise and fall - bending the trees until their branches intertwined and opening deep cracks in the ground. Deep seated landslides occurred along the steeper bluffs and hillslides; large areas of land were uplifted permanently; and still larger areas sank and were covered with water that erupted through fissures or craterlets. Huge waves on the Mississippi River overwhelmed many boats and washed others high onto the shore. High banks caved and collapsed into the river; sand bars and points of islands gave way; whole islands disappeared. Surface fault rupturing from these earthquakes has not been detected and was not reported, however. The region most seriously affected was characterized by raised or sunken lands, fissures, sinks, sand blows, and large landslides that covered an area of 78,000 - 129,000 square kilometers, extending from Cairo, Illinois, to Memphis, Tennessee, and from Crowley's Ridge in northeastern Arkansas to Chickasaw Bluffs, Tennessee. Only one life was lost in falling buildings at New Madrid, but chimneys were toppled and log cabins were thrown down as far distant as Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, and in many places in Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee.

A notable area of subsidence that formed during the February 7, 1812, earthquake is Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, just east of Tiptonville dome on the downdropped side of the Reelfoot scarp. Subsidence there ranged from 1.5 to 6 meters, although larger amounts were reported.

Other areas subsided by as much as 5 meters, although 1.5 to 2.5 meters was more common. Lake St. Francis, in eastern Arkansas, which was formed by subsidence during both prehistoric and the 1811-1812 earthquakes, is 64 kilometers long by 1 kilometer wide. Coal and sand were ejected from fissures in the swamp land adjacent to the St. Francis River, and the water level is reported to have risen there by 8 to 9 meters.

Large waves (seiches) were generated on the Mississippi River by seismically-induced ground motions deforming the riverbed. Local uplifts of the ground and water waves moving upstream gave the illusion that the river was flowing upstream. Ponds of water also were agitated noticeably. - USGS

Data »

Seismic Event: Earthquake
Tectonic plate: North American Plate

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