FORMATION OF REELFOOT LAKE
Benton Co. Tennessee Genealogical Quarterly, Vol. 4, No 2, April-May-June 1992
Reelfoot Lake, Lorenzo Dow’s Journal, page 344
The earthquake here made awful distress among the inhabitants, as may be seen by the following letter. New Madrid, Territory of Missouri, March 22, 1816
In compliance with your request, I will now give you a history as full in detail as the limits of a letter will permit of the late awful visitation of Providence in this place and its vicinity. On the 16th day of December 1811 about 2 o’clock a.m. we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere with sulphurous vapor, causing darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go or what to do, the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species, the crackling of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi, the current of which was retrograded for a few minutes owing as it supposed to an eruption in its bed, formed a scene truly horrible.
From that time until about sunrise a number of lighter shocks occurred, at which time one still more violent than the first took place with the same accompaniments as the first, and the terror which had been excited in every one and indeed in all nature was if possible doubled. The inhabitants fled in every direction to the country supposing (if it can be admitted that their minds were exercised at all) that there was less danger at a distance from, than near the river. In one person, a female, the alarm was so great that she fainted and could not be recovered. There were several shocks of a day but lighter than those already mentioned until the 23rd of January, 1812 when one occurred as violent as the severest of the former ones, accompanied by the same phenomena as the former. From this time until the 4th of February the earth was in continual agitation, visibly waving as a gentle sea.
On that day there was another shock nearly as hard as the preceding ones. Next day four such and on the 7th about 4 o’clock a.m. a concussion took place so much more violent than those which preceded it, that it was denominated the hard shock. The awful darkness of the atmosphere, which as formerly was saturated with sulphurous vapor and the violence of the tempestuous thundering noise that accompanied it together with all the other phenomena mentioned as attending the former ones, formed a scene the description of which would require the most sublimely fanciful imagination. At first the Mississippi seemed to recede from its banks and its waters gathering up like a mountain, boats which were here on their way to New Orleans on the bare sand in which time the poor sailors made their escape from them. It then rising fifteen or twenty feet perpendicularly, and expanding as it were at the same moment. The banks were overflowed with a retrograde current, rapid as a torrent, the boats which before had been left on the sand were now torn from their moorings and suddenly driven up a little creek at the mouth which they laid to the distance in some instances of nearly a quarter of a mile.
The river falling again with as rapid as it had risen receded within its banks again with much violence that it took with it whole groves of young cottonwood trees which edged its borders. They were broken off with such regularity in some instances that persons who had not witnessed the fact, would be difficulty persuaded that it had been the work of art. A great many fish were left on the banks, being unable to keep pace with the water. The river was literally covered with the wreckage of boats, and it is said that one was wrecked in which there was a lady and six children, all of whom were lost. In all the hard shocks mentioned, the earth was horribly torn to pieces, the surface of hundreds of acres was from time to time covered over of various depths, by the sand which issued from the fissures which were made in great numbers all over the country, some of which were closed up immediately after they had vomited forth their sand and water, which it must be remarked was the matter generally thrown up. In some places, however there was a substance somewhat resembling coal and impure stone coal, thrown up with the same. It is impossible to say what depths of the fissures or irregular breaks were. We have reason to believe that some of them are very deep.
The site of this town was evidently settled down at least fifteen feet and not more than half a mile below the town there does not appear to be any alteration of the bank of the river, but back from this river a small distance the numerous large ponds and lakes as they were called, which covered a great part of the country were nearly dried up. The beds of some of them are elevated above their former banks several feet, producing an alteration of ten, fifteen, to twenty feet, from their original state and lately it has been discovered that a lake was formed on the opposite side of the Mississippi in the Indian country, upwards of one hundred miles in length and from one to six miles in width of the depth of from ten to fifty feet. It has communication with the river at both ends and it is conjectured that it will not be many years before the principal part, if not the whole of the Mississippi will pass that way.
We were constrained by the fear of our houses falling, so for twelve or eighteen months, we lived in light camps made of boards, but we gradually became callous and returned to our houses again. Most of those who fled from the country in the time of the hard shocks have since returned home. We have, since their commencement in 1811 and still continue to feel slight shocks occasionally. It’s seldom indeed that we are more than a week without feeling one and sometimes three or four in a day. There were two this winter past much harder than we have felt them for two years before but since then they appear to be lighter than they have ever been. We begin to hope that before long they will entirely cease.
I have now, sir, finished my promised description of the earthquake, imperfect it is true but just as it occurred to my memory, many of and most of the truly awful scenes, having occurred three or four years ago. They of course are related with that precision which would entitle such as it is, is given with pleasure, in the full confidence that it is given to a friend and now sire, wishing you all good. I must bid adieu.
Your humble servant, Eliza Byron
To The Rev. Lorenzo Dow
PS: There is one circumstance which I think worthy of remark. This country was formerly subjected to very hard thunder, but for more than a twelve months before the commencement of the earthquake there was none at all and but very little since, a great part of which resembles subterraneous thunder. The shocks continue, but are growing more light and less frequent. E. B.
Benton Co. Tennessee Genealogical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3, July-September 1995
The following was furnished by the Reelfoot Lake History Department. In as much as we ran an article on the Legend of Reelfoot Lake that M. C. Todd gave us in Vol. 4, No 2, we thought this would be of interest.
REELFOOT LAKE HISTORY AND TRADITION
The northwestern corner of Tennessee where Reelfoot Lake lies, although the youngest section of the state in regards to settlement and development, is nevertheless very rich in history and tradition.
If we begin with history, we find that it was not until 1785 that the white man spent any time in West Tennessee. It was then that Henry Rutherford and two companions from North Carolina arrived in the wilds to make some surveys, having traveled in keel boats down the Cumberland, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to the mouth of a small river entering the Mississippi from the west, called by the Chickasaws the Okeena. As they ascended this river the next morning, they were so much impressed with the native deer, whose queerly marked antlers were unlike any they had seen before, that they re-christened it the Forked Deer River.
The explorers halted at the first bluffs and began their surveys. Here the initials H. R. cut in a sycamore tree established what is still known today as Key Corner, a point from which West Tennessee surveys have been started through the years. (In June 1931 the Lauderdale County Court placed a bronze marker 60 feet east of the original site). Three years later, in 1788, Henry Rutherford and James Carleton came into the section now known as Lake County. Here James Carleton made a survey called the “I. C. Line” because of the appearance of his initials as written in Old English. This line today marks the main (Church) street of Tiptonville.
Tennessee became a state in 1796, but West Tennessee was not then a part of the state, being still Indian country. It was not until 1818 that Andrew Jackson and Isaac Shelby inveigled the Chickasaws into signing a treaty by which this beautiful country was added to the domain of Tennessee. The price paid was $15,000 a year for 20 years, making the six million acres involved cost five cents per acre. The area bought was all that west of the Tennessee River from the Mississippi-Alabama line to the Ohio River. This was the “Jackson Purchase.”
Henry Carleton and James Rutherford came into northwest Tennessee on the Reelfoot River. That river now is included in the lake where it can clearly be seen because of the fact that no trees nor stumps lie in its channel. According to the Indian legend, Reelfoot, a chieftan of the Chickasaws, in the course of his wanderings, met and fell violently in live with Starlight, princess of the Choctaws. Forbidden by her father to marry her, he and his braves stole her. After the return home, as they celebrated the success of the venture, the earth opened up and swallowed the whole tribe as an indication of the wrath of the gods.
This legend, as in the way of legends, has its weak points. Students of the Chickasaw language tell us that Reelfoot is not an Indian name. We find also that very few Indians lived in this section at that time. History is more reliable. It states that Reelfoot Lake was formed during the earthquakes of 1811-12. Although these earthquakes occurred at a period in the nation’s history when the whole Mississippi valley north of Louisiana was virgin forest, and when only a few settlements of white men existed in this region, including the Spanish and French village of New Madrid now in Missouri, fortunately there were a number of scientists and men of education in and near the region during the period of disturbance who have given vivid pictures of their experiences.
Firmin La Roche, master of a fleet of flat boats operating between St. Louis and New Orleans, recorded that on the evening of November 15, 1811 he tied up his boats eight miles above New Madrid. Awakened in the night by a crash, he found his boats carried more than a mile upstream by a great wave which came up the river. The water rose so rapidly that trees on the thirty foot bank were covered.
Mrs. Eliza Bryan of New Madrid, in a letter to Rev. Lorenzo Dow, an itinerant Methodist preacher who was anxious to learn what had occurred, said that beginning December 16, 1811 there were violent earthquakes in that section throughout the winter months. On some days the atmosphere was as completely saturated with sulphurous vapors as to cause total darkness; trees cracked and fell into the roaring Mississippi, and on some occasions the current was retrograde for a few minutes supposedly due to an eruption in the river bed. The climax came on February 7, 1812 with the hardest shock of all when the waters of the river gathered up like a mountain, rising fifteen to twenty feet perpendicularly and then receding within its banks with such violence that it took with it whole groves of young cottonwoods which edged its borders. Fissures in the earth vomited forth sand and water, some closing again immediately.
Mrs. Bryan’s most noteworthy statement was in the effect that she heard it reported that a lake had been formed on the opposite of the river in the Indian country; that this lake communicated with the river at both ends, making current the conjecture that within a few years the whole of the Mississippi would pass that way. Vincent Nolte, a merchant on his way from New York to New Orleans, as he rode horseback over the Allegheny mountains to Pittsburgh fell in with another traveler who happened to be the distinguished naturalist, Audobon. They purchased two flat boats on which they started down the Ohio River in January 1812. The weather was so cold that the river froze over, forcing them to leave their boats in the ice, and to ride through the vast forest. They passed through Lexington and Frankfort. When near Louisville, they felt the first earthquake shocks which broke the ice in the river, allowing their boats to come down. Boarding their boats again at Louisville, they reached New Madrid by February 6 on a clear moonlight night. Awakened by fearful crashes, they saw the Mississippi boiling up like water in a boiling cauldron.
The stream flowed rushing back, while the forest trees came crashing and thundering down. As they traveled on to Natchez and New Orleans, they learned that this earthquake had shaken all Louisiana and the whole region around the Gulf of Mexico as far south as Caracas where forty thousand inhabitants were swallowed up.
Today Reelfoot Lake is a magnet which draws tourists from every section of the nation to Lake County, the county which had the highest percentage of tillable land of any county in the state, whose farm lands are assessed higher than any other farm lands in the state; the only county in the state which grows alfalfa in any appreciable quantity, the county which produces more cotton per capita than any other county in the United States, turning out approximately three bales for every man, woman and child. This is the county which differs from all others in that there cannot be found within its borders a native rock, a hill, nor a running rill.
Here lies the beauty spot, Reelfoot Lake which has attracted nationwide admiration, a land of delight for the naturalist, the angler and the hunter.
Taken largely from the Historical Scrap Book of R. C. Donaldson, Tiptonville, Tennessee
Reba’s note: The rich farmland land in Missouri was partly due to the flooding which occurred at the same time as the earthquakes, but after about a hundred years, drained and tillable land. Three main floodways have been created to help insure the land from floods. Flood gates can be opened when needed. These floodways extend south from Cairo, Illinois, to New Madrid through Missouri and Arkansas and rejoin the Mississippi River north of Helena, Arkansas.