Introduction: Eyewitness Accounts

The series of New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 was one of the most dramatic natural disasters to strike the North American continent. These eyewitness accounts give a glimpse at what was seen and experienced by people as the earthuquakes occurred. The accompanying biographies help the reader to understand the background of these individuals who experienced an extraordinary event. They were compiled by Dr. Nathan K. Moran of CERI as part of continuing research on historic references regarding the New Madrid earthquakes.

The Accounts

Eliza Bryan - Letter to Lorenzo Dow (1816)
Eliza Bryan (1780-1866)
One of the most important eyewitnesses to the New Madrid earthquakes related her experiences in 1816 to the prominent Methodist evangelist Lorenzo Dow. Bryan's letter was published in Dow's biographical book History of Cosmopolite. Bryan was a long time resident of New Madrid who was born in Pennsylvania in 1780 and moved with her family to New Madrid in 1791. Her father Azor Rees was a farmer and landowner in the New Madrid area. He was part of a wave of colonists who moved to New Madrid while it was under the control of Spain as a part of the Spanish Louisiana. He died sometime after 1796 and her mother briefly remarried David Grey and then divorced in 1804. At the time of the earthquakes Eliza was 31 years old and living with her mother who was maintaining a boarding house at New Madrid. Eliza was married to a man with the last name of Bryan. Little is known about him except that he might have been a surgeon working for the United States Army. They had one child, Fredrick, who died in 1870. Eliza died in 1866 at New Madrid being a lifelong resident of the town.

Lorenzo Dow. (1777-1834)
Although not an eyewitness, Dow's importance was in making Eliza Bryan's account well known. Dow was a Methodist minister who made evangelical tours of the United States that gave him wide recognition. Dow was in the region of North and South Carolina at the time of the quakes and probably witnessed their effects. While touring the Mississippi river valley in 1816 Dow received the Bryan account of the New Madrid earthquakes.

Daniel Bedinger - Extract from the Journal of Daniel Bedinger (1812)
Daniel Bedinger(?-?)
His account was published in the National Intelligencer in March 1812. This was later confirmed by finding the original copy of the journal in an archives. His newspaper account is a verbatim copy of his personal journal. Bedinger was traveling down the river in company of a Dr. Foster whose account confirms and amplifies what Bedinger saw.

Dillard's Account in Foster (1869)
A. N. Dillard (?-?)
Dillard's account appeared in J. W. Foster's The Mississippi Valley, It's Physical Geography(1869) Dillard was a child at the time of the earthquakes and described his memories of the events. His father was possibly Lewis Dillard who appears as a head of household in the 1830 Federal Census for New Madrid County. He is mentioned in his son's account as losing a shipment of castings in the quakes.

Dr. Foster - More of the Earthquakes (1812)
Dr. Foster (?- ?)
His account serves to confirm and amplify that of Daniel Bedinger as they were companions on the trip down the Mississippi river who witnessed the effects of the New Madrid earthquakes together. Foster might be Dr. Josiah Foster, an army surgeon under General William Henry Harrison. He was later with the army of Gen. William Hull and died at Detroit, the summer of 1812.

William Leigh Pierce - An Account of the Earthquakes (1812)
William Leigh Pierce (?-?)
Pierce published his through account of the New Madrid earthquakes in the New York Evening Post in March 1812. Pierce was either a Georgia politician born 1740 and died 1789, and involved in the American Revolution, or his son, born 1790 and died 1814. After going down the river he sent a sequel letter from New Orleans and deposited material thrown up from sand blows in both the library at Savannah, Georgia and a museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Mathias Speed - From the Bardstown Repository (1812)
Mathias Speed (?-?)
Little is known about Speed except for his account published in the Bardstown (Ky.) Repository. The newspaper had a small circulation and a copy with the original account has not been found.

William Shaler - Letter to Samuel L. Mitchell (1814)
William Shaler (?-?)
Shaler might have been a New Orleans resident, or from somewhere on the Mississippi river. His account is a retelling of information from a captain (patron) of a Kentucky flatboat or keelboat, who experienced the earthquakes. He might also be William Shaler (1778-1838), a diplomat for the United States, until his death in 1838 at Havana, Cuba. Shaler was sent to the New Orleans area to observe turmoil in Spanish Texas and to influence events there if possible. He was to report to President Madison on events.

James Fletcher - Letter to the Pittsburg Gazette (1812)
James Fletcher (?-?) The Nashville Examiner placed the "utmost reliance" on Fletcher's account. He was either a resident of Little Prairie or Nashville, where his story was first published in January 1812.

Anonymous - from the Lexington Reporter (1812)

John Bradbury - Travels in the Interior of America (1812)
John Bradbury (1726-1823)
Bradbury, a British naturalist traveling down the Mississippi River during the December 16, 1811 earthquake, incorporated his account in his book Travels in the Interior of America in the Years 1809, 1810 and 1811, which appeared in 1817. He publicized the discoveries of the Lewis and Clark expedition and gave Europe a description of America's western frontier and its inhabitants.

John Shaw - Shaw's Narrative (1856)
John Shaw (1783-)
His story was first printed in the Second Annual Report and Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (1855). Shaw, was an early pioneer of the Louisiana territory, and traveled in the New Madrid area prior to the quakes. He was at a residence of a local settler a few miles north of New Madrid when the earthquakes occurred. He later moved to Wisconsin, where his narrative was collected by Lyman Draper, a noted historian of the early western frontier.

Firmin LaRoche - A Sailors Record of the New Madrid Earthquake (1812)
Little is know about LaRoche except from his account. He was either a crewman or boat captain who probably wrote his account as an affidavit for lost or damaged goods being shipped down the Mississippi River.

Vincent Nolte - Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres (1854)
Vincent Nolte (1779-1856)
Merchant, banker, and resident of New Orleans, during the New Madrid earthquakes. His account is from his 1854 autobiography Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres. Nolte was on a flatboat on the river at New Madrid when the February 7, 1812 earthquake occurred. He gives a vivid account of feeling an earthquake on horseback in Kentucky earlier in his journey. After the quakes Nolte served in the United States army at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. After his business interests collapsed, he moved to Europe, and died there in 1856.

James McBride - Brief Account of Journies in the Western Country (1910)
James McBride (?-?) was a merchant hauling a load of flour from Ohio to New Orleans. His account is of landing at Little Prairie and describing the damage there and of the river banks to the north and south of the town.

Louis Bringier - Notes on the Geology and Minerology... (1821)
Louis Bringier ( ?-?) wrote his account in Notes on the Geology and Mineralogy Topography, Productions and Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Regions Around the Mississippi and its Confluent Waters.(1821) that appeared in The American Journal of Science and Arts. Bringier also served for a time as the U. S. surveyor for the Louisiana territory. He was probably a resident of Louisiana.

Godfrey LeSieur - Letters to the Missouri State Geologist (1872)
Godfrey LeSieur (?-?)
A local inhabitant of the New Madrid region wrote his reminiscences of the quakes in response to the inquiries of the Missouri State Geologist in 1872. LeSieur also wrote accounts of the earthquakes for contemporary (1870's) St. Louis newspapers.

James Richie - Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution (1858)
James Richie (?-?)
Richie is mentioned as a resident of Jerseyville, Illinois who supplied information to Timothy Dudley of Jacksonville, Illinois. Richie was described as a resident with his family in the zone of the earthquakes at the time they occurred. His account is a compilation of earthquake facts from other witnesses and other various sources. This account was published in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1858.

John Weisman - Accounts of the Earthquakes (n. d.)
John Weisman (1790-1851), from Nelson County Kentucky, was a flatboat pilot descending the river when the earthquakes hit. His vantage point was on the river south of New Madrid. His account was written several years after the quakes.

Walker The Navigator (1847)
The Navigator (1847)
This account was from a local Little Prairie resident who was a youth when the quakes occurred. His vantage point on land describes in great detail the effect of the quakes on the river and surrounding area. His account was contained in a later edition of the river guide book The Navigator originated by Zadok Cramer of Cincinnati, Ohio. The Navigator was responsible for the Mississippi River's island numbering system which aided travelers in their location.