When the Mississippi Ran Backwards : Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes
On December 15, 1811, two of Thomas Jefferson's nephews murdered a slave in cold blood and put his body parts into a roaring fire. The evidence would have been destroyed but for a rare act of God -- or, as some believed, of the Indian chief Tecumseh.
That same day, the Mississippi River's first steamboat, piloted by Nicholas Roosevelt, powered itself toward New Orleans on its maiden voyage. The sky grew hazy and red, and jolts of electricity flashed in the air. A prophecy by Tecumseh was about to be fulfilled.
He had warned reluctant warrior-tribes that he would stamp his feet and bring down their houses. Sure enough, between December 16, 1811, and late April 1812, a catastrophic series of earthquakes shook the Mississippi River Valley. Of the more than 2,000 tremors that rumbled across the land during this time, three would have measured nearly or greater than 8.0 on the not-yet-devised Richter Scale. Centered in what is now the bootheel region of Missouri, the New Madrid earthquakes were felt as far away as Canada; New York; New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; and the western part of the Missouri River. A million and a half square miles were affected as the earth's surface remained in a state of constant motion for nearly four months. Towns were destroyed, an eighteen-mile-long by five-mile-wide lake was created, and even the Mississippi River temporarily ran backwards.
The quakes uncovered Jefferson's nephews' cruelty and changed the course of the War of 1812 as well as the future of the new republic. In When the Mississippi Ran Backwards, Jay Feldman expertly weaves together the story of the slave murder, the steamboat, Tecumseh, and the war, and brings a forgotten period back to vivid life. Tecumseh's widely believed prophecy, seemingly fulfilled, hastened an unprecedented alliance among southern and northern tribes, who joined the British in a disastrous fight against the U.S. government. By the end of the war, the continental United States was secure against Britain, France, and Spain; the Indians had lost many lives and much land; and Jefferson's nephews were exposed as murderers. The steamboat, which survived the earthquake, was sunk.
When the Mississippi Ran Backwards sheds light on this now-obscure yet pivotal period between the Revolutionary and Civil wars, uncovering the era's dramatic geophysical, political, and military upheavals. Feldman paints a vivid picture of how these powerful earthquakes made an impact on every aspect of frontier life -- and why similar catastrophic quakes are guaranteed to recur. When the Mississippi Ran Backwards is popular history at its best.
The shocks that devastated the Mississippi River town of New Madrid, Mo., and environs in the winter of 1812 were among the strongest earthquakes in America's history. But in human terms they were fairly inconsequential (about 100 people died in the lightly populated area), hence the resort to empire, intrigue and murder to flesh out this engaging if haphazard survey of the Mississippi valley frontier. Journalist and scriptwriter Feldman gives a lucid rundown of the geology and seismology of the quakes and skillfully deploys sparse firsthand memoirs of the disaster to describe the titanic upheavals of earth and water that terrified onlookers. But that leaves most of the book still to write, so he brings in other developments tenuously related to the earthquake and the region. These include the brutal Indian wars of the early 19th century, the maiden voyage of the Mississippi's first steamboat and the murder of a Kentucky slave by his degenerate owner, which came to light after one of the titular quakes demolished the chimney where the victim's remains were hidden; a set piece of the Battle of New Orleans is tacked on as a coda. The author's attempts to tie these happenings together are perfunctory at best, but it's a diverting patchwork of events, with colorful characters, that Feldman's well-paced storytelling turns into a vivid historical panorama. Agent, Alex Smithline. History Book Club Alternate Selection.(Mar.)
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February 28, 2005
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Excerpt from When the Mississippi Ran Backwards by Jay Feldman
Chapter One: A Time of Extraordinaries
Accompanied by an entourage of Shawnee, Kickapoo, and Winnebago warriors, the Shawnee chief strode decisively through the Creek village of Tuckhabatchee. He was a striking figure: five-feet, ten-inches tall, handsome, straight-backed, with a slight limp. As he and his warriors made their way through the village, word spread quickly among the Creeks: Tecumseh has arrived.
The great Shawnee leader was on the last leg of a mission that had taken him three thousand miles in six months. Beginning in the summer of 1811, he traveled south from Indiana to spread his message of intertribal unity. Night after night, the powerful orator stood before the council fires, exhorting the southern nations to bury their various and long-standing grudges and divisions, and prepare for a collective war against the whites to defend what remained of tribal lands, which were being lost to the United States government at an alarming rate as the young republic pushed westward.
Twenty years earlier, a decade and a half after the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, the new nation was already bursting at the seams, and westward expansion had become a deeply embedded tenet of the republic. After the Revolution, the process of acquiring Indian land accelerated as settlers streamed beyond rapidly widening national boundaries. Waves of settlers poured over the Appalachian and Allegheny mountains into Kentucky (then part of Virginia), Tennessee (then part of North Carolina), and the Old Northwest Territory, which included the future states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio.
The migrations inevitably led to confrontations with the indigenous tribes of these regions. Between 1790 and 1795, native resistance escalated on the "frontier" -- a fluid boundary that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries included the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, the future states of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, and the area around the Great Lakes. Much of this territory remained unstable throughout this period, as a result both of Indian conflicts and of great-power rivalries among Spain, Britain, and France, and the upstart United States of America. Beginning with the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, the U.S. government embarked upon an aggressive course of acquiring tribal lands in the Old Northwest, while simultaneously juggling its relationships with the European colonial powers.
In the decade that followed the Treaty of Greenville, the tribes of the Old Northwest Territory ceded a staggering amount of land to the federal government, giving up millions upon millions of acres. The devious methods used to obtain these cessions included bribing tribal leaders and/or plying them with liquor, exploiting tribal poverty with promises of annuities and/or threatening to cut off previously guaranteed annuities, striking deals with individuals who had no authority to represent their tribes, and accepting grants of one tribe's land from individuals of another tribe. By 1805, the entire north bank of the Ohio River had been cleared of Indian title.
Tecumseh saw the handwriting on the wall. Counting on the British to help him resist the U.S. land grab and defend what was left of the natives' ancestral homelands, he had set out to form a military confederation of northern and southern nations. The British, who obtained Canada from France in 1763 as part of the settlement that ended the French and Indian War, had been watching with alarm as the U.S. encroached on the Canadian border. The American government, on the other hand, was apprehensive about both the confederation of Indian tribes and the natives' alliance with the British.
Uniting the tribes against European and Euro-American invaders had been attempted before by leaders like the Ottawa warrior Pontiac, the Mohawk organizer Joseph Brant, and the Creek chief Alexander McGillivray. It was a daunting task, considering the fractured, tense relations among and within some of the nations. Yet by 1811, Tecumseh had met with a considerable degree of success in the north, claiming substantial support among the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Winnebago tribes, and a lesser degree among the Shawnees, Miamis, Wyandots, Weas, Piankeshaws, and others. In August 1811 he headed south, traveling with his retinue to the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nations.
The trip had not started well. The Chickasaws and Choctaws were not responsive to Tecumseh's call for unity against the whites. Frustrated, he and his followers continued on to the Creeks, his mother's people.
Tecumseh's band made their visit to Tuckhabatchee, in what is now Alabama, in late September, timing their appearance to coincide with the annual council of the Creek Confederacy, an amalgamation of about fifteen different Creek groups, at which Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Cherokees were also in attendance. The thousands of people who were gathered in Tuckhabatchee, the largest town of the Upper Creeks, included tribesmen, their families, white traders, and government officials. Arriving a few days after the conference had begun, Tecumseh and his entourage electrified the gathering by making a stunning entrance.
"Tecumseh, at the head of his...party, marched into the square," wrote one early chronicler. "They were entirely naked, except their flaps [breechcloths] and ornaments. Their faces were painted black, and their heads adorned with eagle plumes, while buffalo tails dragged from behind, suspended by bands which went around their waists. Buffalo tails were also attached to their arms, and made to stand out, by means of bands. Their appearance was hideous, and their bearing pompous and ceremonious." After marching around the square several times, they finally approached the assembled chiefs and presented them with tobacco, a common gesture of friendship.
As the council progressed, Tecumseh would come to the meetings in the square each day, but with U.S. Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins present, he refused to speak. "The sun has gone too far today," he would say every evening. "I will make my talk tomorrow." Finally, after more than a week, Hawkins concluded his business with the Creeks and left.
That night, before hundreds assembled in the council house, Tecumseh rose to deliver an impassioned recruitment talk, "full of fire and vengeance," urging the southerners to take up the cause of a pan-tribal confederation. No U.S. agents were allowed into the council house, so there is no direct transcription of the speech, but it was a talk Tecumseh had given before and would give again. A reasonable record of a version given a few months later suggests the power of his words on this night.
He stood for several minutes before beginning, surveying the assembled warriors "in a very dignified though respectfully complaisant and sympathizing manner." Then he began, his persuasive, evocative rhetoric punctuated by his manly, athletic gracefulness.
"Brothers -- We all belong to one family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path; slake our thirst at the same spring; and now affairs of the greatest concern lead us to smoke the pipe around the same council fire!
"Brothers -- We are friends; we must assist each other to bear our burdens. The blood of many of our fathers and brothers has run like water on the ground, to satisfy the avarice of the white men. We, ourselves, are threatened with a great evil; nothing will pacify them but the destruction of all the red men."
Looking around at his audience, Tecumseh no doubt reminded the assembly of his familial connection with Tuckhabatchee -- his mother and father had lived in the village, and he still had relatives there. He continued:
"Brothers -- When the white men first set foot on our grounds, they were hungry; they had no place on which to spread their blankets, or to kindle their fires. They were feeble; they could do nothing for themselves. Our fathers commiserated their distress, and shared freely with them whatever the Great Spirit had given his red children. They gave them food when hungry, medicine when sick, spread skins for them to sleep on, and gave them grounds, that they might hunt and raise corn.
"Brothers -- The white people are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death. The white people came to us feeble; and now we have made them strong, they wish to kill us, or drive us back, as they would wolves and panthers.
"Brothers -- The white men are not friends to the Indians: at first they only asked for land sufficient for a wigwam; now, nothing will satisfy them but the whole of our hunting grounds, from the rising to the setting sun.
"Brothers -- The white men want more than our hunting grounds; they wish to kill our warriors; they would even kill our old men, women, and little ones."
Tecumseh spoke for hours, delivering a "vehement narration of the wrongs imposed by the white people on the Indians, and an exhortation for the latter to resist them."
But it was not only military resistance that the Shawnee chief counseled. He also implored his listeners to return to their traditional ways, and to abandon the farming and weaving that had been put on them by white men. He warned them that after the whites had turned all the forests and hunting grounds into farms they would enslave the red man, just as they had the black man. He urged them to employ none of the white man's weapons, but to use instead only the tomahawk, knife, and bow. He pressed them to likewise spurn all the white man's clothing, and to dress themselves in the skins of the animals the Great Spirit had provided for them. His message was, in short, one of religious fundamentalism, which gave his rhetoric that much more power even as it made his plan far less practical.
Tecumseh further beseeched the assembled warriors to stand firm against any more land cessions, to replace weak-willed chiefs who would give away the land, and to prepare for battle. He advised them to be outwardly friendly toward whites, to neither steal from them nor fight with them, but to mask their real intentions until the right moment arrived for an all-out war, which he promised would be supported by the British and, more important, by the Great Spirit, who had sent him on this journey.
The Great Spirit, Tecumseh told the warriors, had shown his approval of this plan by sending a sign. After all, had his arrival in Tuckhabatchee not been accompanied by the great comet that now blazed in the northern sky each night? (The Great Comet of 1811, with its 15,000,000-mile-wide head and 100,000,000-mile-long tail, was visible for 260 days.) And had that comet not increased in brightness during his stay here? And was his name not Tecumseh -- Shooting Star? This was clearly a sign sent by the Great Spirit to bestow his blessing on Tecumseh's mission.
He finished up his talk with a fervent call for unity:
"Brothers -- My people are brave and numerous; but the white people are too strong for them alone. I wish you to take up the tomahawk with them. If we all unite, we will cause the rivers to stain the great waters with their blood.
"Brothers -- If you do not unite with us, they will first destroy us, and then you will fall an easy prey to them. They have destroyed many nations of red men because they were not united, because they were not friends to each other.
"Brothers -- We must be united; we must smoke the same pipe; we must fight each other's battles; and more than all, we must love the Great Spirit; he is for us; he will destroy our enemies, and make all his red children happy."
For all its passion and power, Tecumseh's talk met with only mixed success. Certain Creeks, like the well-regarded warrior Menawa and the medicine man Josiah Francis, were swayed, but others, like Big Warrior, the head civil chief of Tuckhabatchee, remained aloof. Tecumseh needed Big Warrior's support to offset the weak response he had received from the Chickasaws and Choctaws. If he could get a commitment from Big Warrior, it might persuade some of the fence-sitters to join the confederation.
In the Creek chief's lodge, with others present, the Shawnee leader offered gifts and once again gave his talk, but Big Warrior, a mixed-blood, remained noncommittal. Frustrated by the indifferent reaction, Tecumseh stood up to leave. He gave Big Warrior a withering look, and then, according to a legend that would soon spread across the frontier like wildfire and convince many Creeks to join him, Tecumseh uttered a prophetic pronouncement.
"Your blood is white," he disdainfully told Big Warrior. "You have taken my talk and the sticks and the wampum and the hatchet, but you do not mean to fight. I know the reason. You do not believe the Great Spirit has sent me. You shall know. I leave Tuckhabatchee directly and shall go straight to Detroit. When I arrive there, I will stamp my foot on the ground and shake down every house in Tuckhabatchee." Then he turned and left.
As the legend has it the Creeks began counting the days, reckoning the time it should take the Shawnee chief to reach Detroit. Early on the morning of December 16, the day of his calculated arrival, Tecumseh's prophecy was fulfilled. The earth began to tremble violently. The Creek village was leveled.