The Departments of History and Geosciences and the Humanities Center Stony Brook University
Vernacular Science of the New Madrid Earthquakes: Creating Knowledge in the Early United States
In the winter of 1811-12, a series of sizable tremors rippled out from the middle Mississippi Valley. What we now term the New Madrid earthquakes were of immediate and pressing concern to the North Americans displaced, shaken, or frightened by them. This presentation, from a forthcoming book on changing historical understandings of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, argues that the intense public interest and discussion surrounding the New Madrid earthquakes reveals a multi-faceted world of vernacular science in the early United States.
During the long sequence of earthquakes and in the months, years, and decades after, observers took weather measurements; recorded the effects of the shocks on their homes, livestock, and their own bodies; created devices for revealing the intensity and direction of the shocks; and investigated a multitude of effects from fouled wells to strange mineral deposits. They reported Native American accounts from near the epicenters and from further west. In ways both idiosyncratic and creative, early Americans attempted to convey and come to terms with these sudden and disruptive temblors. Accounts of the quakes demonstrate the blurred nature of expert and nonexpert discussions in the early nineteenth century. Because of the lack of clear consensus about the mechanisms or causes of earthquakes, people in borderland regions along the Ohio and Mississippi Valley became not simply witnesses but theorists of the dramatic seismicity they had experienced. Their attempts to record and explain events that overwhelmed them reveal a broadly-shared and vigorous culture of science in the early United States.
This earlier history also highlights the surprising forgetting of the quakes in the late nineteenth century, a forgetting that took place for social and environmental as well as scientific reasons. The New Madrid quakes represent an event once taken for granted that receded almost into tall tale for the better part of a century.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012. 1 p.m. Humanities 1008