Saturday, February 07, 2009

Tecumseh's Temblors

Was an earthquake responsible for JFK's death?

On this date, the 7th of February, in 1812, the last in a series of four mega-quakes emanated from the New Madrid fault between Memphis and St. Louis. The first, estimated at an astounding 8.1 on the Richter Scale, struck on December 16, 1811 with its epicenter in northeast Arkansas. Six hours later, an aftershock estimated at 7.0 rocked the region. A third powerful earthquake, estimated at 7.8 and epicentered in the Missouri bootheel, jolted the region on January 23, 1812. The final act in this earthshaking play 197 years ago today was an 8.0 temblor that struck New Madrid, Missouri.

These four major earthquakes and the countless accompanying aftershocks occurred along a failed mid-continent rift (where tectonic plates began to pull apart eons ago and then ceased), had incredibly far-reaching effects, and left indelible geologic evidence still visible today. Amazingly, the four major quakes were felt as far away as the major cities on the eastern seaboard--the jolts rang church bells as far away as Boston! The course of the Mississippi River was dramatically changed in numerous locations along a 200 mile stretch. Whole islands in the Big Muddy simply disappeared. Thousands of square miles of adjacent forests were felled. During the final quake a large expanse of land in northwest Tennessee subsided suddenly, flooding to create Reelfoot Lake. Sandblows, mini-volcanoes of sediment under pressure, jetted into the atmosphere through fissures in the earth. One major such sandblow near New Madrid is still extant and is referred to by locals as The Beach. Eyewitness acounts of the final quake claim that its shaking could be felt lasting for nearly an hour!

The sparse settlement of the region at the time limited the death toll and property loss. Were such a quake to strike the region today (some geologist estimate that they do every 200 to 500 years) the loss of life and property would be staggering. St. Louis and Memphis would be reduced to rubble piles that would rival Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mid-August 1945. Infrastructure damage and destruction would virtually stop commercial traffic--all bridges across the Mississippi River from St. Louis to well below Memphis would likely either drop or be so badly damaged to be unusable. Several million people would be left homeless and several million whose homes still stood would be without power and potable water indefinitely. The nation's ability to respond and provide relief would be overwhelmed without question. But, let's not dwell on that scenario--it is too terrible to contemplate..., and the Colonel's long-awaited great American novel will be based on the aftermath of such a future event.

What is even more fascinating to consider are the historically significant men whose fortunes rose and fell attendant to the 1811/1812 quakes. One man in particular, seems to have actually predicted the quakes. His name was Tecumseh, a leader of the Shawnee in the Midwest. Tecumseh sought to stem the tide of white migration west into Indian lands and participated in armed resistance to the American settlers and the troops sent west to protect them. In 1811, Tecumseh, allied with the British who were also trying to prevent the young American nation's westward expansion, travelled to tribal councils from Canada to Alabama in an attempt to rally all of the disparate native American tribes into a great confederation to confront the United States. Encountering widespread skepticism, Tecumseh told each tribe that resisted his call to arms that he would return to his own council fire and stomp the ground so hard that all of the skeptics' houses would fall. He even went so far as to tell them that the earth's shaking would be the signal for all of the tribes throughout the region to rally behind him for war on the whites.

William Henry Harrison, governor of the newly-formed Indiana territory, spent considerable energy bilking the native American's of their land with broken treaties and other swindles. Fearing the threat of a pan-Indian confederacy led by Tecumseh and fueled by a religious movement behind Tecumseh's "prophet" brother, Harrison attacked and destroyed Tecumseh's village near what is now Greenville, Ohio while the Indian leader was still in the south. Harrison's action in early November 1811 became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe (which became Harrison's nickname) and combined with his actions in the War of 1812 against the British and their Indian allies, vaulted him to national prominence. He ran for president twice, losing in 1836 and winning with his vice presidential running mate John Tyler in 1840 under the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!" Harrison, the oldest president elected until Reagan (a moment of silence for the Gipper, please), died in office after serving only 32 days.

Tecumseh did not see the rally to his cause by the southern tribes for which he had hoped, even with the great earthquake signs he predicted. He warred against the United States on the side of the British in the War of 1812 and was killed fighting against an army led by Harrison at the October 5, 1813 Battle of the Thames near present-day Chatham, Ontario. Legend has it that Tecumseh's "prophet" brother put a curse on Harrison that took effect upon his election to the presidency in 1840 and extended to every president elected thereafter in a "zero-year." Harrison died in office, and so did every other "zero-year" president (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR, and JFK.) until Reagan (elected in 1980) survived an assassination attempt and apparently "broke the curse."

Even a Paul Harvey "Rest of the Story" couldn't top this one!
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