THE ILLINOIS EARTHQUAKE OF 1811 AND 1812
As told by Daniel Berry
©Illinois Trails History and Genealogy
Typed and Donated by ©Susan Cook
When I came to Southern Illinois in the winter of 1857 and
1858, I found that the old people, with whom I became acquainted, had three
very interesting topics to talk about, when I asked them about the early
times. To mention these topics according to the order in which the
narrators were impressed by them, would be, first:
"When the stars fell," as they expressed it. This occurred in November, 1833 The most impressive incident I heard of, with respect to the falling stars, was told me by Mrs. Wilson, wife of Supreme Judge Wm. Wilson. Tumbling down moons might have frightened that woman, falling stars certainly did not scare her. I have heard her say that she washed her hands and face with the stars, as though they had been snow flakes. She carried her baby out to see the sight and saw the stars fall on the baby's face and wiped them off.
The event of next importance was the "Harraken" as they called it. This was a terrific cyclone that swept over Southern Illinois and Indiana clear into Ohio. It happened on the evening of the 18th day of June, 1815, the day of Waterloo. It left a track of broken, twisted, tangled, fallen timber nearly a mile wide through White County.
The talk about the "Prime" event, the old time earthquake, was mostly traditional. Very few of the narrators were living in Illinois then; in fact, few of them were born before the time of it's occurrence. At the time of the "great shakes", as the event was called, the Territory of Illinois did not have five thousand people, not counting the Indians.
I have met but two people who had had any personal experience with the earthquake. These were Mr. Yearby Land and his mother. Mr. Land, when I first knew him, was about fifty-seven years old, and his mother was nearly ninety. His father Robert Land came to the Territory from South Carolina, and found a home place in what was then, the northern half of Gallatin county, and his family was one of the only six families in that part of Gallatin, at that time, 1809. The 3d Principal Meridian had just been run. The government survey of the country, where Carmi and Hawthorne Townships now are, had just been done by Arthur Henrie under contract with Jared Mansfield, Surveyor General of the United States. The land office at Shawneetown was not established until 1812.
At the time of the earthquake, in November, 1811, Mr. Land was a boy past nine years old; but the happening of that four or five months shaking made an impression on his mind that was clear and bright when he was ninety years old. He said the ground would shake and then rock and roll in long waves. After a short quiet spell, there would be another shock and roll.
His father had a clearing in the woods and just on the south edge of what is known as Big Prairie. In this woodland, extending southward to the hills on the Little Wabash, were white oak trees of wondrous size. There was rarely any undergrowth. This primeval forest was like a well kept park. I remember those trees.
When I came to White county, nearly all the produce of the country went by flatboat to New Orleans. These flatboats were as long as a tree could be found to make them. The sides, or gunwales, "gunnels," they were called, single pieces of timber two feet or more, deep and six inches thick. Many a tree could be found that would yield a log ninety-five feet long, which would first be hewed into a stick two feet wide and a foot thick, throughout its entire length. This would be split with the old fashioned whip saw, making two "gunnels" ninety-five feet long, two feet wide and six inches thick.
I mention this timber to give point to Mr. Land's narrative. He said in these long continued rollings, the tall timber would weave their tops together, interlock their branches, then part and fly back the other way, and when they did this "the blossom ends of the limbs would pop like whip lashes; and the ground was covered with broken stuff."
In the prairie, about two miles east of his father's house, a big crack was made in the ground, and you could not see to the bottom of it. The ground on the south of the creek sunk down about two feet. "This crack" was on the land afterward owned by Mr. Jacob Parker on the N. W. Qr. of Sec. 35, T, 5, S. R. 10 E 3d p. m.
It was well defined when I first saw the place in 1858. Across a field that sloped slightly upward to the north, was a well marked line of uplift of downfall. The lower side to the south. This line extended east and west. It started on some high ground, west of the field, extended eastward through the woodland and was lost in some swampland further on. It could be traced about two miles. The field was in cultivation for wheat when I first saw it, and the slope of the uplift, or northern side, was about six feet long, as it had been worked down in cultivation.
South and eastward from this farm was a wide extent of low, flat, untimbered land, extending to the Marshall Hills, on the Big Wabash, eastward, and nearly to the Little Wabash southward. In those days this land was not overflowed by the Big Wabash. It was covered by a verdurous growth of grasses and was a splendid summer and winter range, or pasture for horses, cattle and swine.
There were many square miles of this level plain, and over it, in the earthquake time, piles and piles of pure, snow white sand were heaved up. In the words of Uncle Yearby Land, as we called him, those piles "were from the size of a bee-gum too three or four wagon loads."
To understand this, you will have to know what a "bee-gum" was. It was a section about twenty inches long, cut from a hollow gum log about fourteen or eighteen inches in diameter. It was placed, with many others of its kind, open end down on a raised platform of split logs. The top end was closed in with riven clapboards weighted down with stones; or pinned down with wooden pegs. In these, vast swarms of bees, unvexed by moth or other enemy of civilization, stored their honey, which was a splendid substitute for the sugar and molasses of later times.
This sand was so white and clean that, in the words of mr. Land, "it would not stain or soil the whitest linen." The se piles of sand showed us evidence of water. The sand remained in piles until washed down by succeeding rains.
In this shaking and rolling of the earth, from November until the following March, no buildings were damaged and only one person hurt.
In reply to my inquiry of old Mrs. Land, the widow of Mr. Robert Land, as to personal injury of the people, she "minded" of only ne. "That was a Williams girl, who had her feet badly burned by a skillet lid, loaded with hot embers, tumbling off the skillet and pouring the live coals on her bare feet. She was burnt scan'al-us."
I asked about the houses; if they did not fall down. "I never heard of any that was hurt, " replied Mr. Land. It took me a long time to make these contradictory stories of the instability of the ground and the stability of the house fit each other.
It appears simple enough when we understand the "sort" of houses they were, mere pens about fifteen feet square and seven feet high, built of small logs, that one or two men could handle. The pen was built up in such fashion that the logs were fitted in dove-tailed joints at the corners. The gable ends were raised in the same fashion, except that each log was held in place by a "long log" that was to support the roof. These "long logs" were long enough to project over the end of the cabin, so as to have the stick and mud chimney under the roof. To cover the cabin, riven clapboards, long enough to "reach and lap" from one log to another, were laid double, so as to "break jints," and held in place by weight poles placed directly over and parallel with the "long logs". The weight poles were also long enough to reach beyond the clapboards, so as to be tied down to the "long logs" with hickory withes.
When the cabin was so raised and "kivered", an opening was made on one side for a door and in one end for a "chimbley," as a chimney was called then. This opening was about six feet wide; and in it was built, on the ground, a six feet square pen, about a foot deep, one-half in the cabin for the hearth, the other half outside for the base of the chimney. This pen was filled with wet clay, pounded down hard. The chimney was built up with a network of split white oak sticks and clay. The sticks lapped at the corners, and as it was built up the sticks were forced down into the soft mortar-like clay and another layer of clay placed upon them, the layers not being more than two inches apart. The walls of the chimney were more than a foot thick. The over-hang of the cabin roof protected the chimney from the weather. The floor of the cabin was of split logs, called puncheons.
In the building of this old time mansion, not a bit of iron entered into its construction; not a nail was used. From this you will see that it was an ideal structure to endure and resist the shock, shake or twist of an earthquake. Built like a basket, it was just as flexible and yielding to all the whims of the unlooked for visitor.
The house of Mr. Robert Land was of a different pattern. This was a block house, or fort, built to resist attack from the Indians. And, by the way, it was in this house that the first Methodist church in Illinois was established in 1812. John C. Slocumb was the preacher; and he was also the first county judge in 1816, with Willis Hargrave and Joseph Pomeroy, associates. The old house was standing when I came to the county. Nothing marks the spot now but the old well. It was built on the northeast corner of the south half of the northwest quarter of section 33, town 5 south, range 10 east of the third principal meridian. The place is now a wheat field.
The houses of Mr. Land's neighbors were of the kind I have mentioned. But this was "in the country." In the towns it was different. There were some pretentious buildings in Shawneetown, but not many. Fearon, in his sketches says there were only about thirty in 1817. Some of them had stone chimneys. These were tumbled down.
My friend, Mr. Charles Carroll of Shawneetown, tells me that he remembers Mrs. Eddy the wife of Judge Eddy, relating what she heard her mother say about the terror stricken people of Shawneetown; "how they ran out of their homes into the road, and how the chimneys fell down."
Mr. Harvey Crozier of Carmi has a scrap of family history relating to the earthquake. His great grandfather, Mr. John Cochran, was a friend of Daniel Boone, and started from Kentucky to join his friend Boone in Missouri. Near Kaskaskia he found a country that suited him and determined to settle there. This was in 1811. He opened up a clearing, and the day before the earthquake he had a house raising, where men and women for miles around gathered in to raise the house and partake of the feast and enjoy the dancing frolic that succeeded. The house was to be a double log cabin; that is, two square pens, separated by a wide entry way, and all covered by one roof. To support the roof, two square logs long enough to extend over the two pens and entry way, and over the outer ends of the pens so as to cover in the two chimneys that were to be built at the outer end of each pen were in place when the workmen quit at sundown, November 16, 1811.
The earthquake came that night. In the morning the roof plates of the new house had been shaken down and part of the top logs of the pens were on the ground. In the camp near the new cabin was a line, to hang things on, stretched between two trees; and on this line hung a cow bell, which rang at intervals for many days.
Mr. Wesley McCallister's story. He says: "My grandfather, Edward McCallister, came from Ireland when a small boy; grew up in Virginia and served as a soldier through the Revolutionary War; was in the battle of Cowpens with General Morgan. After the war he married Miss DeHart, a French Huguenot, and settled in Kentucky. In 1810 he came to Illinois territory. At this time he had eight children, my father being one of the youngest. He came down the Green and Ohio rivers and up the Wabash river in a pirouque, landing at Cadd's ferry, where Marshall's ferry is now. He built a cabin and was living there at the time of the earthquake. My father was a chile about 4 years old, and remembers his mother gathering up the children and taking them to the pirouque; saying that if the earth sank, they would be safe as the land and came ashore. All the stock was very much disturbed and frightened; horses nickering, cattle lowing, hogs squealing, and all the stock on the range running to the house.
All the stories agree in this particular, about the fright of the domestic animals, and how they came running home for protection and comfort.
These shakings and wave-like movements of the ground continued from November until the following March. But, according to Mr. Land's statement, the first shocks and rollings were the most sever. These finally subsided into one continuous tremble of the earth. He said the water in his father's well was never still for more than two years.
These Illinois phenomena were only outlying symptoms of the grand convulsion near New Madrid, Missouri, where hundreds of square miles of land sank in the St. Francis river country, in Missouri and Arkansas; and where many square miles of heavily timbered highland sank in western Tennessee where Obion and Reelfoot lakes are now.
All these stories have only a sort of curious traditional value to the dwellers in the land today. At that time there were very few people in the country. But suppose another visitation of the same sort should come today, tomorrow or next year. Do you not know that it would be an untold horror?
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©2000 Susan Cook and Carol Dean