The earthquakes that sculpted parts of Tennessee

Tennessee 225

A Brief History

More than 200 years ago, West Tennessee shook violently during a series of powerful earthquakes that were felt as far away as New York City, Boston, and even Montreal.

These earthquakes are referred to as The New Madrid Earthquakes – named after the city of New Madrid, Missouri, which was close to the epicenter of the quakes.

The results of the earthquakes that hit in 1811 and 1812 are visible today in the landscape of Tennessee.

According to Dr. Mitch Withers, not many people lived in the area at the time. “It was mostly frontier,” he explained, “But, it was still enough people around that it is reasonably well documented with some very nice personal accounts from people that were living in the area at the time.”

The houses, the trees, the whole earth shook. Some thought the end of the world was come and time would be no more.

Mary Morris smith’s written account of the 1811 earthquake

Dr. Withers is an Associate Research Professor at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information, or CERI, at the University of Memphis.

The New Madrid Earthquakes were powerful enough to create a new lake known as Reelfoot Lake. The earthquakes were estimated to be between a magnitude 7 and 8.

Will another set of earthquakes shape Tennessee again in the future? Dr. Withers believes that’s possible, “In addition to those three very large earthquakes, we can do estimates, based on the geology and the number of times they’ve happened in the past. And the USGS (United States Geological Survey) estimates that there’s about a 10% probability of a repeat of those 1811 style earthquakes in the next 50 years.”

Learn more about the Tennessee State Library and Archives here.

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