Daniel blew hot breath against his hands, watching it fog into the frigid night. He’d counted on a nice warm bed; instead, he shivered beneath the blanket of boughs he’d scavenged from the banks of the Wabash, wondering even now how he’d fared so poorly on today’s ride. He’d ponied horses many times between the farm and Vincennes, in worse weather than this December had to offer, but never ha he been forced to bunk down for the night. Something had these fillies agitated; even now, hobbled and free to graze, they pawed the earth as if some demon hid just under the frosted ground.
Well, one thing was certain, there was no point worrying; either Penfield would be waiting tomorrow or he wouldn’t. Best thing he could do was grab a few hours rest and start out at first light. Assuming he didn’t freeze first. He burrowed down, closed his eyes, and let Morpheus take over.
A crack of thunder jolted him upright, and he looked around befuddled, trying to make sense of the growing din around him. Thunder from a cloudless sky? No. This was wrong. He could hear water rushing and bubbling all around him, but it wasn’t rain.
A tree groaned behind him and only then did he realize the ground was alive, uncorking like a wild bronc. From habit, he reached for a fistful of mane, but only cold clay met his fingers.
No. Not a storm. Not anything he knew.
Time itself distorted while he took in the rippling ground, a veritable pond of rocks and earth, and the crescendo of wildlife giving voice to their confusion, his horses’ screams carried on the upsurge. “A great tempest rent the mountains and brake in pieces the rocks,” he said, a passage from the Bible memorized sometime in his youth, brought to mind by the brimstone burning his nostrils.
There was no safe place in this early morning Armageddon, so he huddled into himself and began to pray.
No ancestor captures my imagination quite like Daniel McDowell (and his wife, whom you haven’t yet met). Honestly, they talk to me so often that they star in their own novel*; some folks just insist on being heard.
But, this blog is for ancestral fact (or near fact, in the case of my imagined scenario above), and the truth is that the New Madrid earthquake that shook the Midwest on December 16, 1811, tipping the Richter Scale at 8.1, would certainly have impacted Daniel and his family.
Daniel was twenty-two, single, and living in Caldwell county, Kentucky with his father and siblings in 1811. Reports indicate that he and his brothers were known as horse-traders, trading on both sides of the Ohio River that separated his home from the newly opened expanse of the Indiana Territory. In fact, by 1814 he will have left Kentucky behind, making his home in what is now southern Indiana…
But that’s not part of today’s story… “No,” you say, “we’re talking earthquakes. Please try to stay on task.”
Effects of New Madrid Earthquakes
According to newspaper accounts of the day, the New Madrid quake, its’ epicenter located in New Madrid, Missouri, roused everyone within a 300-mile radius around 2:00 am on that cold Wednesday morning. However, seismology and communication being what they were, most people thought the world was coming to an end. After all, the book of Revelation is rife with the destruction one can expect for the end of days and “earthquake” is right up there at the top of the list.
Another interesting fact about this particular earthquake is its Native American connection. Living in the Indiana Territory during this time was a Shawnee brave named Tecumseh. (Hmmm, I wonder if he and Daniel ever crossed paths? Now, that would make an interesting novel.) He was none too happy that his tribal lands were being settled by Europeans. In fact, a treaty had been signed just a few years earlier making all the lands north and west of the Ohio River forever the property of the Indians. But since we’ve not been great with treaties especially those allocating land rights, we “bought” our way out when it suited us.
Tecumseh had enough of our Indian-giving ways (ironic terminology, since the pale faces were most often guilty of this particular trait) and, in October of 1811, he was assembling an Indian Confederacy to stand up against the land-grubbing Americans. Legend has it that, while visiting the Creeks (in Tuckhabatchee, present day Alabama) to garner support for his confederacy, he threatened the reluctant tribe. “Your blood is white!… You do not believe the Great Spirit has sent me. You shall know. I leave Tuckhabatchee directly and shall go… to Detroit. If you haven’t joined my cause by the time I arrive there, I will stamp on the ground with my foot, and shake your houses down.”
And shake they did, from north of Chicago to New Orleans and as far east as Washington, DC.
One can only speculate as to what Daniel was actually doing that cold December day, but given the fact that in just a few years he ends up living in Indiana territory and married to the daughter of one of the area’s prominent founding fathers, it’s certainly plausible he was en route to the territory’s capital, horses in tow, when the quake struck. One thing is certain, wherever he happened to be—on a trail heading north to Vincennes or hunkered down in the family cabin in Kentucky—you can be sure his world was rocked that early December morning.