Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes

Article excerpt

The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes. By Conevery Bolton Valencius. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 460. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliographic essays, acknowledgments, index. $35.00.)

The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes will stand as the authoritative history of some of the most massive earthquakes in world history-those that shook what is now southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas in 1811-1812. Not only has Conevery Bolton Valencius mastered the secondary literature and mined the primary documents, she has accomplished what no scholar before had managed. By viewing the cataclysmic events of 1811 and 1812 through the lens of twenty-first century seismology, she has provided an informed characterization of what probably caused the quakes and what precisely happened on those fateful days. This may be what one would expect of an accomplished scholar trained in Harvard's history of science program, but Valencius has rendered the account at once more persuasive and enduring by also carefully incorporating social and religious history into the narrative.

The thoughtful and perceptive introduction poses four questions she intends to answer: (1) Why did the earthquakes matter at the time they occurred? (2) If they mattered so much at the time, how could they be nearly unknown to those living in the twenty-first century? (3) How and why were the earthquakes "suddenly" rediscovered by scientists? (4) What might be made of the threat of further activity along the New Madrid fault line? Valencius shapes the volume around these crucial questions. She addresses first how the quakes were understood at the time by using one of the American frontier's most iconic figures: Davy Crockett, who claimed to have slipped into an earthquake fissure while pursuing a bear. The tale has the advantage of responding, at least in an introductory way, to two of the author's questions: How the earthquakes were understood and experienced by early nineteenth century frontiers people and the manner in which they came to be the subject of folklore. Over time, chroniclers diminished the fissure as an aspect of the tale just as the public in general lost interest in the earthquakes. Technological and agricultural innovation eradicated most of the traces leftby the earthquakes and, as modern communication reduced folk tales themselves to romantic artifacts, the earthquakes faded from the national consciousness.

Even as the veracity of folk tales and oral accounts became suspect in terms of understanding both the scope and the cause of earthquakes, "two profound changes shaped the discipline of modern seismology: the instrumentalization of seismic observation in the decades surrounding the turn of the [nineteenth to twentieth] century and the reconceptualization of the earth's composition and movement" (p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.