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When the Mississippi Ran Backwards

Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes

About The Book

From Jay Feldmen comes an enlightening work about how the most powerful earthquakes in the history of America united the Indians in one last desperate rebellion, reversed the Mississippi River, revealed a seamy murder in the Jefferson family, and altered the course of the War of 1812.

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, DC; 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.


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, 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.

The upheaval that shook down every house in Tuckhabatchee was the first of the New Madrid earthquakes -- the most powerful series of quakes ever to hit the United States.

On December 15, the night of the first quake, Lilburne Lewis summoned his slaves to the kitchen cabin of his property, Rocky Hill, in the western Kentucky county of Livingston. The slaves came quickly, not wishing to anger their owner, who, together with his younger brother, Isham, had been drinking heavily all evening. The slaves knew only too well the rages to which Lilburne was prone when he was drunk.

When the six slaves entered the cabin, they saw the seventh of their number -- George, a seventeen-year-old who served as errand boy, house servant, and general handyman -- chained to the floor, face down in a spread-eagle position. The fearful slaves huddled together, not knowing what to expect. Whatever they might have been imagining, however, could not have been as ghastly as what was about to take place.

Like many thousands of the settlers who invaded aboriginal lands in Kentucky, the Lewis brothers were émigrés from Virginia. They were nephews of Thomas Jefferson and scions of a branch of one of the founding families of Virginia. Through a century and a half of exploitive farming practices, generations of Lewises, like so many other Virginia farmers, had laid waste to what had once been the fertile, productive soil of Virginia. Seeking a fresh start on the frontier, Lilburne Lewis, together with his brother Randolph, their father, Charles, and their three families, set out for Kentucky in late 1807.

Things did not go well for the Lewises in Kentucky; despite their hopes for a new life, their fortunes deteriorated rapidly. In 1809, when his wife died, leaving him, at age thirty-two, with five children, Lilburne was already deeply in debt. Early the following year, Lucy Jefferson Lewis -- mother of Lilburne, Isham, and Randolph, and sister of Thomas Jefferson -- passed away, and in January 1881, Randolph died, leaving Lilburne with the additional responsibility of caring for his brother's eight children. Lilburne's new marriage, to a daughter of one of western Kentucky's most powerful families, was not a happy one, and it became just one more disaster in an accumulated series.

The arrival of Lilburne's ne'er-do-well younger brother, Isham, in the fall of 1811 did nothing to help the situation. As he saw his own life and the Lewis dynasty unraveling, Lilburne, on a downward spiral of wrecked fortune, began drinking heavily. By the end of 1811, his slaves knew enough to steer clear of him when he was under the influence.

On the evening of December 15, Lilburne and Isham had already started their nightly bout of debauchery when Lilburne gave the seventeen-year-old George -- whose cheek was disfigured by a large and distinctive scar -- a pitcher and sent him to fetch water from a spring on the property. Somewhere along the way, George -- who had a history of talking back to Lilburne and had recently gone missing from the plantation for a short time -- broke the pitcher. By the time he returned to the house, the two brothers were roaring drunk, and when George showed them the broken piece of pottery, Lilburne flew into a wild rage. He and Isham dragged the unfortunate young man out to the kitchen cabin, threw him to the floor, and chained him.

Lilburne then summoned the rest of the slaves. When they were assembled in the cabin, he commanded them to build a blazing fire in the kitchen fireplace. After the fire was built up, Lilburne bolted the door and bellowed that he was going to teach them all a lesson about disobeying him.

He picked up an axe and began moving ominously about the crowded room, alternately muttering under his breath and shouting profane threats, finally coming to rest over the prone body of George. From his face-down position on the floor, George pleaded with Lilburne, as the other slaves joined him in a wailing chorus. But with Isham egging him on, Lilburne was past the point of reasoning. As the six slaves watched in horrified disbelief, he raised the axe above his head and swung it down on George's neck, severing the young man's spine and slicing his jugular vein and carotid artery with one chop.

As the cries and wailing of the slaves filled the night air of Rocky Hill, the Lewis brothers forced one of the men to take the axe, hack up George's body into pieces and throw the pieces onto the fire. Lilburne then told the terrified slaves that if they ever revealed the murder to anyone they would suffer the same treatment as George.

It was well past midnight when the slaves finished scrubbing the cabin clean of George's blood and bits of flesh and bone. Then, with another warning, they were sent back to their quarters. Before Lilburne and Isham retired, the brothers heaped wood into the fireplace, priming the fire to burn for the rest of the night and consume all evidence of the crime.

Less than an hour later, however, the first of the New Madrid earthquakes would cause the chimney to collapse, extinguishing the fire, preserving George's remains, and, in due course, bringing the murder to light.

Tecumseh's legendary prophecy and the Lewis brothers' barbaric act were not the only portents. From events both local and distant, a superstitious observer might almost have predicted the New Madrid earthquakes or some comparable set of catastrophes.

In 1811, the planet was in turmoil, and ominous signs were everywhere to be seen. International or civil wars were being fought throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America. Europe was locked in the grip of the Napoleonic wars, and in an extension of the broader hostilities, the British defeated the Dutch in Java and the French in Madagascar.

Internally, England was in convulsion, the war with France having taken a heavy toll on the nation's economy. In March, the Luddite rebellion began in the county of Nottinghamshire as angry workers smashed machinery in protest against the growing mechanization of the knitting industry.

In North America, 1811 was an annus mirabilis, a year of wonders filled with a daunting proliferation of natural phenomena and catastrophic disasters. The year was ushered in by a small earthquake that jostled the cities of Columbia, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia, on the 13th of January.

During the summer, the Ohio and Mississippi valleys were inundated by massive flooding, which led to widespread, unparalleled illness. "Between St. Louis and New Madrid," wrote Daniel Drake, a Cincinnati physician, "many parts of the valley were overflown extensively. This was followed, in autumn, by the bilious unremitting fever, which prevailed in that quarter to a great extent....[T]his was clearly referable to the vegetable putrefaction which was the consequence of that flood."

Where it was not raining, it was stifling. "In the summer months the heat was, in many places, the most intense that was ever known," reported one newspaper. "The crops in many parts of the United States were destroyed by drought."

In the fall, hurricanes and tornadoes slammed the eastern U.S. from Georgia to Maine. On the 10th of September, a devastating twister struck Charleston, South Carolina, killing more than a dozen people and causing extensive damage to structures.

Nashville, Tennessee, was hit by another tornado in late October, reported in the Lexington (Kentucky) American Statesman as having been "more violent and destructive than is often heard of....The damage sustained by the citizens of this town cannot...have been less than 10,000 dollars." Many longtime residents of the area stated that they had "never witnessed such a scene of destruction in this country before."

In early September the Great Comet appeared, with a head 15,000,000 miles wide and a tail 100,000,000 miles long, and it was visible to the naked eye for the remainder of the year. As in the case of other comets throughout history, many people took it as a foreshadowing of catastrophe. An article in the Kentucky Gazette tried to assuage people's fears. "Anciently these sideral erratics were held to be precursors of great calamities -- revolutions, pestilence and wars. But philosophers of later years have ascertained their nature to be like that of the planets, 'parts of one harmonious whole.'"

On September 17, there was a near-total eclipse of the sun. "The day was remarkably serene, and the skies entirely clear of clouds," read one account, "so that its appearance was the most solemn and impressive that we could conceive."

Animals exhibited strange behavior. "A spirit of change and a restlessness seemed to pervade the very inhabitants of the forest," wrote English tourist Charles J. Latrobe. "A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being, left their reckless and gambolling life, and their ancient places of retreat in the north, and were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and sober phalanx to the South. No obstacles seemed to check this extraordinary and concerted movement; the word had been given them to go forth, and they obeyed it, though multitudes perished in the broad Ohio, which lay in their path."

In retrospect, some of these portents appear to have been directly connected to the impending earthquakes. William Leigh Pierce, a traveler on the Mississippi, observed, "On the 30th of November, 1811 about one half hour before sun-rise, two vast electrical columns shot up from the eastern horizon, until their heads reached the zenith"; he went on to note that from then until the first earthquake on December 16, "there was a continued want of perfect transparency in the atmosphere, and wherever the sun was even partially visible, it exhibited a dull and fiery redness."

The onslaught of unsettling phenomena caused understandably widespread trepidation about what might be coming next. "These are no common events," said one newspaper article in a reflection of the general apprehension, "and without incurring the charge of superstition, they may be deemed portentous of still greater events.

"Surely so many occurrences in the course of a few months ought to excite something of meditation and reflection."

The moralists seized upon the occasion as an opportunity to issue remonstrances. "The great scale upon which Nature is operating," warned an editorial in the Lexington American Statesman, "should be a solemn admonition to men, (or those animals in the shape of men) to abandon their pitiful grovelling, schemes of venality and corruption in the prosecution of which they are so ardently engaged. An honest heart, alone, can view those great events, with composure. The political swindler the assassin of reputation, must feel severely, the visitations of conscience, at such momentous periods, when Nature appears, in spasmodic fury, no longer to tolerate the moral turpitude of man."

Others registered the amazing string of events without drawing conclusions. "Whether these things are ominous or not," wrote the Reverend John Carrigan, "one thing is certain, this is a time of extraordinaries."

This is the story of the greatest series of earthquakes in the history of this country, of the people caught up in them, of the extraordinary confluence of forces and events leading up to them, and of the upheaval they caused. The United States was at a turning point, one of those defining moments in history when forces converge so powerfully that something has to give. This was true geologically as well as historically -- it was almost as if the earthquakes were a symbol of the turmoil of the times.

This is the story of the New Madrid (pronounced new MAD-rid) earthquakes, but it is equally a story about America, and while it describes events that happened two hundred years ago, it is replete with themes and issues that reverberate down to the present day and continue to bedevil our nation: expansion, conquest, violence, corruption, greed, race relations, environmental degradation.

Between December 16, 1811, and late April 1812, the Mississippi River Valley was rocked by a chain of catastrophic earthquakes. Of the more than two thousand tremors that hit during this time, three would have measured near or over 8.0 on the later-devised magnitude scales, ranking them among the severest earthquakes to hit the contiguous United States in recorded history, about as powerful as the shock that devastated San Francisco in 1906. At least six others were in the 7.0-7.5 range. Yet today, curiously enough, the New Madrid earthquakes have been all but forgotten except by residents of the area and a handful of earthquake scientists.

The New Madrid quakes, centered in what is now the bootheel region of Missouri, were felt as far away as Mexico, Canada, Boston, New Orleans, and the Rocky Mountains. A million and a half square miles were affected, and the earth was in constant movement for nearly four months. Towns were destroyed, an eighteen-mile-long by five-mile-wide lake was created, and the Mississippi temporarily ran backwards. The quakes spawned an intense albeit short-lived religious revival, and the first federal disaster relief act in U.S. history was enacted by Congress to aid the victims of the quakes but unintentionally led to a colossal land fraud scandal.

The New Madrid earthquakes came on the eve of the War of 1812 and helped shape the direction of the war. When the dust cleared, the course of westward expansion was firmly set; the tribes of the Old Northwest and, with one exception, the south were decisively defeated; and British attempts to regain land south of the Canadian border were finally put to rest.

Because the surrounding area was sparsely populated at the time of the quakes, the death toll was not notably high, but the New Madrid Seismic Zone is still considered the area of greatest seismic risk east of the Rocky Mountains -- if a comparable series of quakes, or even one major quake, were to occur today, the death toll would be staggering -- tens, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of people would be killed. Two centuries after the 1811-12 sequence, minor earthquakes continue to occur on a frequent basis in the New Madrid fault zone, and while seismologists differ on many details about the 1811-12 earthquakes, they agree on one thing -- it is only a matter of time until the New Madrid fault once again asserts itself in a catastrophic way.

The stories of Tecumseh and the Lewis brothers touch on two of the driving engines of early U.S. history: Indian relations and slavery. Along with the country's shifting and dangerous relations with Britain and Spain, these two issues combined, on the Mississippi and Ohio valleys' frontier, to create an exceedingly combustible era. The period between the end of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 has been generally overlooked, but in the west, those years were a perilous time that would determine the future direction of the nation.

But slavery, Indians, and great-power politics were not the only driving forces. There was also the relentless, very American push for technological development.

Two months before the dreadful events of the night of December 15, an extraordinary boat left Pittsburgh bound for New Orleans, the city for which she was named. It was a historic sailing, for not only was this the maiden voyage of the New Orleans, it was also the first steamboat trip ever on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The New Orleans represented the wave of the future -- the strength of steam power would make upriver traffic practical. The boat would also prove to be one of the only structures on land or water strong enough to survive the earthquakes.

On board the New Orleans as she set out on October 20, 1811, were the boat's builder and one-third owner Nicholas Roosevelt, his eight-months-pregnant wife, Lydia, their two-year-old daughter, Rosetta, the family's huge Newfoundland dog, Tiger, and the boat's crew. The big boat -- 148 feet long and 32 feet wide -- had cost $38,000 to build and had been two years in the making. Roosevelt had set out to prove to his partners, Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, that a steamboat could handle the Ohio and the Mississippi, which were much wilder and far more hazardous than the placid Hudson with its easier current, where Fulton's Clermont had been so successful four years earlier.

Hundreds of cheering though skeptical spectators lined the east bank of the Monongahela River to see the New Orleans off on a voyage that would radically accelerate the development of the west. The success of the voyage would be a singular moment in westward expansion, opening up transportation and commerce, and creating a major impetus for settlement, which would in turn encroach yet further on the lands of the native tribes.

At first glance, Nicholas and Lydia Roosevelt (great-grand-uncle and great-grand-aunt of Theodore) were an unlikely couple. She was twenty, he forty-four. They had met eleven years earlier, when Roosevelt had been a business associate of Lydia's father, the renowned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Over the objections of Latrobe, they were engaged when Lydia was thirteen and married four years later. Modern sensibilities will recoil at such a match, yet all the evidence indicates they were extremely well suited for each other and a very devoted couple. In fact, as marriage partners, they enjoyed a degree of companionship and equality rarely seen in the early nineteenth century.

Nicholas Roosevelt was a maverick and a man of many skills -- mechanic, metallurgist, machinist, civil engineer, and builder of steam engines. At age thirty, he had been recognized as the only engine maker of any importance in the United States. Lydia Roosevelt was an adventurous iconoclast at a time when a lady of her class was expected to act with a stupefying degree of decorum. A woman of remarkably advanced attitudes, she was bright, assertive, artistic, and, above all, fearless.

This was not the Roosevelts' first trip down the Ohio and Mississippi. Two years earlier, while Lydia was pregnant with Rosetta, they had made a six-month voyage by flatboat in order to survey the western rivers and ascertain the feasibility of steamboat travel on them, a prospect about which there was great skepticism. Lydia had undertaken the flatboat voyage against all advice, and now, two years later, once more pregnant, Lydia was again strongly counseled not to make the steamboat trip. The perils of such a voyage were numerous enough -- the Falls of the Ohio, which had claimed many a fine boat; the possibility of the steam engine's exploding; the increasingly hostile Indians -- not to mention that she was eight months along. Not only did she disdain this advice, she took her two-year-old daughter along with her.

All along the banks of the Ohio, people turned out to watch the New Orleans steam deafeningly by. With the slow communications of the age, particularly on the frontier, many people in the west had not yet heard of the Clermont. "The novel appearance of the vessel," according to Englishman Charles J. Latrobe (a cousin to Lydia), "and the fearful rapidity with which it made its passage over the broad reaches of the river, excited a mixture of terror and surprise among many of the settlers on the banks, whom the rumour of such an invention had never reached."

In Wheeling, a huge crowd awaited the arrival of the New Orleans, and Roosevelt invited the public to board the boat for a 25-cent tour. The multitudes -- including hundreds who had made a special trip in from the surrounding countryside -- willingly paid their quarter and came aboard, where they saw the lavish living cabins, the crew's quarters, and the massive engine with its thirty-four-inch cylinder.

A week out of Pittsburgh, Lydia felt close to delivery. Forgoing the opportunity to make a similar promotional stop at Cincinnati, the New Orleans forged ahead for Louisville, where Lydia knew a midwife. As a disappointed crowd of well-wishers stood by on the bank, the boat cruised by Cincinnati at somewhere around twelve miles per hour.

The 1,500 residents of Louisville were safely asleep in their warm beds when the New Orleans steamed into the town's harbor at about midnight on October 28, having made the seven-hundred-plus river miles from Pittsburgh in eight days. The ship's earsplitting din was like nothing ever heard in those parts before. Awakened from their peaceful slumber, many of the inhabitants went running out into the streets in their nightclothes. In the dark, one panic-stricken person opined that such a fearsome racket could only be caused by one thing -- the Great Comet had fallen into the river.

The following day, Roosevelt donned the uniform -- complete with ceremonial sword -- that he had brought along for "official" occasions, and opened the boat up for tours. The people of Louisville flocked aboard. On October 30, Lydia gave birth to a boy, named Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, after his grandfather.

It was more than a month before the New Orleans could continue downriver because the Falls of the Ohio, a treacherous, two-mile stretch of rapids just below Louisville, was not yet swelled enough by seasonal rains to allow the boat, with its twelve-foot hull, to proceed safely. To make good use of the time, Roosevelt, ever the promoter, began offering upriver boat trips for one dollar, the novelty of which turned out to be so lucrative that he ordered the boat to return to Cincinnati, where he put the scheme into operation and once again cleared a handsome profit.

Finally, on December 8, the river had risen to where the New Orleans could proceed. A week later, the boat stopped at Yellow Bank, where it was stocked up with coal, a good load of which would mean fewer delays on the four-hundred-mile haul between the town of New Madrid, just below the mouth of the Ohio, and Natchez, a stretch of the Mississippi with no sizable settlements.

Yellow Bank was over three hundred river miles from New Madrid but less than two hundred miles as the crow flies. On the evening of December 15, the passengers and crew of the New Orleans retired early, planning to start out promptly at dawn the following morning. They would be up earlier than they expected.

In the popular imagination, the American frontier is commonly associated with the territory around present-day Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas and the time period of the mid- to late nineteenth century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the Mississippi River was the western edge of the frontier, and that frontier was every bit as wild and woolly as the later frontier that we know as the Wild West.

In American mythology, the frontier is glorified as a magnificent adventure, but our pop culture concept of the frontier is a distilled and sanitized version that we view through the filter of entertaining movies and books. The reality of frontier life was something very different.

New Madrid was a favorite stopping-off place for river boatmen bound in both directions, and on any given day, the boats would arrive by the dozen. Timothy Flint, a frontier missionary who once counted a hundred vessels in New Madrid's harbor, recorded his impressions of "the boisterous gaiety of the hands, the congratulations, the moving picture of life on board the boats, in the numerous animals, large and small, which they carry, their different loads, the evidence of the increasing agriculture of the country above, and more than all, the immense distances which they have already come....You can name no point from the numerous rivers of the Ohio and Mississippi, from which some of these boats have not come."

There were boats loaded with planks from New York; dry goods from Ohio; pork, flour, whiskey, hemp, tobacco, bagging, and bale rope from Kentucky; similar items plus cotton from Tennessee; peltry and lead from Missouri; and cattle and horses from Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio. There were boats carrying corn, apples, potatoes, cider, dried fruit, and various kinds of spirits -- "in short, the products of the ingenuity and agriculture of the whole upper country of the west." Some boats were floating mercantile establishments, among which was a vessel whose crew crafted, sold, and mended tinware, another that featured manufactured iron tools and included a blacksmith's shop, and another that carried a complete dry goods store "with its articles very handsomely arranged on shelves."

When the boatmen pulled into port, fiddle music filled the air, accompanied by a veritable barnyard symphony of roosters, pigs, cattle, horses, and turkeys, as the boatmen leaped from one boat to the next, meeting and greeting, renewing old acquaintances, forging new ones, dancing, gambling, and drinking. As a class, the boatmen were a rough-hewn lot -- tough, wild, profane, and prone to violence. Each barge carried between thirty and forty men and, as one contemporary writer noted, "The arrival of such a squadron at a small town was the certain forerunner of riot. The boatmen, proverbially lawless and dissolute, were often more numerous than the citizens, and indulged, without restraint, in every species of debauchery, outrage, and mischief."

Before long this cauldron of testosterone would inevitably boil over. One western traveler witnessed such an incident when an argument over a woman broke out between two drunken boatmen. They began trading boasts, and the dispute escalated. "I am a man; I am a horse; I am a team," declared one of the belligerents. "I can whip any man in all Kentucky, by God."

The other was uncowed, replying, "I am an alligator; half man, half horse; can whip any on the Mississippi by God."

By now, a good-sized crowd had gathered, and the spectators began egging on the contestants. The first one shot back: "I am a man; have the best horse, best dog, best gun, and handsomest wife in all Kentucky, by God."

The second boatman hissed, "I am a Mississippi snapping turtle: have bear's claws, alligator's teeth, and the devil's tail; can whip any man, by God."

Soon they were at it, pummeling each other, butting heads, biting, scratching, kicking, tearing each other's hair out, as the crowd cheered and yelled encouragement. The fight went on for a good half-hour, until the Mississippi snapping turtle had no bite left in him, and the man-horse team was proclaimed the winner.

One of the boatmen's favorite amusements was called "sweeping." Taking a rope from one of the boats, a gang of rowdies would go ashore. One half of the bunch took one side of the street and the other half went across. With the rope stretched taut between them, the two groups advanced up the road, bringing down whoever and whatever was unfortunate enough to be in their path. Men, women, children, carts, horses, and cattle went sprawling to the ground, while the boatmen laughed uproariously at the chaos they had created.

After enough of these incidents, townspeople began to fight back, unwilling to just stand quietly by and let their villages be left in a shambles. As an English traveler wrote, "the citizens, roused to indignation, attempted to enforce the laws; the attempt was regarded as a declaration of war, which arrayed the offenders and their allies in hostility; the inhabitants were obliged to unite in the defence of each other."

Faced with this hooliganism, the residents of towns like New Madrid fought for their settlements, for they were only too aware that if the boatmen prevailed, their victory would be accompanied by the destruction of furniture, fences, signs, and sheds. Beating the invaders back, the townspeople felt well within their rights in meting out a good dose of frontier justice, not hesitating to administer a vigilante-type drubbing in putting an end to the carousing and street brawling.

The month of December 1811 was rainy in New Madrid. Sunday the 15th was a peaceful enough sabbath, with no man-made disturbances recorded. In the evening, the ethnic French population enjoyed their customary Sunday night dance. Christmas was just ten days away.

Copyright © 2005 by Jay Feldman

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Jay Feldman's writings have appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Gourmet, Whole Earth Review, and a wide variety of other national, regional, and local publications. A number of his pieces have been anthologized. He has also written for television, film, and the stage. He lives in Davis, California. For more information, visit

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (March 1, 2005)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416583103

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