Guest blog post by Jonathan Todd Hancock, author of Convulsed States: Earthquakes, Prophecy, and the Remaking of Early America
In December 1811, a volcano erupted in Asheville. An eyewitness named John Edwards reported the disturbing details to the Raleigh newspaper The Star. After an unusual earthquake, a mountain burned “with great violence,” and cooling lava had dammed up the French Broad River. The din of the collapsing crater echoed across the Appalachian Mountains, and locals cowered at a preacher’s claim that the coursing lava turned into spirits and devils at night. Readers beyond North Carolina soon read about the volcano as newspapers across the early United States reprinted Edwards’ account. It fit in well among other stories about environmental and geopolitical instability at the end of 1811: the New Madrid earthquakes, the Great Comet of 1811, U.S.-Indian conflict at the Battle of Tippecanoe, and the threat of war with Great Britain.
Unlike the other stories, Edwards’ volcano account had a major problem: it was a hoax. While some newspaper editors found it suspicious, it remained plausible because volcanoes were a popular explanation for the cause of earthquakes in the early nineteenth century. Then, a North Carolina postmaster reported that a “John Edwards” did not exist in Asheville. Washington City’s National Intelligencer lamented, “It is to be regretted, that this personage, whoever he may be, has no better employment.”
Then and now, tall tales about volcanoes cloud the real seismological risks faced by people living in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which encompasses eight U.S. states and cities like St. Louis, Memphis, and Little Rock. But flows of earthquake misinformation offer insight into an early U.S. information landscape which, despite its distance from the present in terms of time and technology, seems eerily familiar to us as we scroll through waves of conflicting information, and sometimes outright fabrications, about broadly experienced events.
In early U.S. newspapers during the New Madrid earthquakes, the observations of experts and elites mingled with those of commoners. Newspaper editors managed a flood of strange stories and competed with one another for readers. Stories reflected American commitments to carve out a unique brand of inquiry into the natural world that favored empirical observations over what Americans perceived as European tendencies to theorize. These print venues hosted an early version of “citizen science,” a more democratic form of inquiry in which people across social stations and education levels contribute their observations and ideas about the natural environment. This practice was especially important for the early study of the earthquakes, whose mid-continent epicenters were far from sites of formal learning and major publishing in the early United States.
But the earthquakes tested the limits of this information landscape, as sifting fact from fiction about the shaking was no easy task. If multiple accounts corroborated the fact that the Mississippi River flowed backwards during the earthquakes, why not entertain the possibility of a volcanic eruption in the southern Appalachians? And purveyors of earthquake misinformation were not simply attention seekers. Numerous Anglo Americans mentioned Native Americans as their sources of stories about distant volcanoes accompanying the shaking. In an era of waning Native military opposition to U.S. expansion between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, Indigenous people still exerted geopolitical influence in a range of ways, including portraying western lands as dangerous and unpredictable.
In politics and pulpits, U.S. authority figures worried about the threat that earthquake misinformation posed to early national order. Former President John Adams suspected “something very wicked at the bottom of those stories that falsis terroribus implet [falsely alarm] our good Ladies and innocent Children.” Compounding his fears were the pronouncements of prophets like Nimrod Hughes, a Virginian who foretold the destruction of one-third of humanity on June 4, 1812, and Tenskwatawa, a Shawnee leader of inter-tribal militancy who actually predicted the earthquakes. The earthquakes renewed national attention in their prophecies, which Adams cast as “unphilosophical and inconsistent with the political Safety of States and Nations.” Adams and other established political and religious leaders in the United States sought to counter earthquake misinformation and fears generated by prophets with earthquake studies sanctioned by scholarly societies, published sermons, and denunciations of these rogue figures.
The pace of misinformation has accelerated, but the circulation of John Edwards’ Asheville volcano story, among other observations and predictions in the momentous months of the New Madrid earthquakes, shows how readers in the early United States faced some of the same challenges that we confront when we scroll through screens for news and commentary. Especially when disasters strike, whose observations and analysis do we trust?
Jonathan Todd Hancock is associate professor of history at Hendrix College.