Michael Palmer: Historically, earthquakes signified a portent of things to come

EarthquakeAt 4:14 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 12, a 4.4 magnitude earthquake struck southeast Tennessee. According to the United States Geological Survey, the earthquake struck five miles below the earth’s surface at Decatur, Tenn. There were no reports of injuries. The temblor was felt as far south as Atlanta, Ga.
The quake was a result of seismic activity along the East Tennessee fault line which runs from Chattanooga up through Knoxville and up to North Carolina.  Hundreds of earthquakes strike the numerous fault lines that run deep below the earth’s surface, but most are too small to be felt.
Perhaps the most famous earthquake to strike Tennessee was the New Madrid earthquake that struck on Dec. 16, 1811. The 7.9 magnitude quake struck at 2:15 a.m. followed by a 7.4 magnitude earthquake six hours later. For weeks and months after the initial quake, aftershocks shook the region.
Many white Americans thought the earthquakes signified the end of the world and the return of Jesus, but many Native American people thought the quakes signified the strength of their prophet, Tecumseh.
In a Native American village, in what is now Alabama, Tecumseh had prophesied the land would shake after he stomped his foot upon the earth.
During the summer of 1811, the half-Creek and Shawnee warrior was touring the Southeast during a visit from Detroit, Mich. Tecumseh and a band of 30 Shawnee warriors were trying to unite the Southern tribes in a war against the Americans.
Tecumseh met first with Chickasaw chief Levi Colbert, for whom Colbert County, Ala., is named. Colbert would hear no talk of war against the Americans. From there Tecumseh went south to the Choctaw Nation, where he visited various towns, arguing for war. Choctaw chief Pushmataha followed Tecumseh from town to town, countering him word for word.
Tecumseh and his small band of warriors were given the choice to leave the Choctaw Nation or be killed. They were escorted to the Tombigbee River, where they crossed at present-day Memphis Landing in Pickens County.
Tecumseh moved east into Creek territory, where he was met by the more sympathetic, but dubious, Creek chief Big Warrior in September 1811.
At the Creek capitol of Tuckabatchee, Big Warrior accepted Tecumseh’s gift of a war ax and a bundle of red sticks. The red sticks symbolized Tecumseh’s desire for war. Tecumseh’s converts later became  known as the Red Sticks.
However, Big Warrior, a friend to the Americans, did not accept Tecumseh’s war talk or his claim to be a prophet. Tecumseh became furious. Tecumseh reportedly pointed his finger in Big Warrior’s face and screamed, “Your blood is white. You do not believe the Great Spirit has sent me. You shall believe it. I will leave directly and go straight to Detroit. When I get there, I will stamp my foot upon the ground and shake down every house in Tuckabatchee.”
On Dec. 16, 1811, the magnitude 7.4 New Madrid earthquake, with its epicenter in present-day Missouri, was felt as far away as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Pensacola. It is said that in Tuckabatchee, people ran out of their houses yelling, “Tecumseh has got to Detroit. We feel the shake of his foot!”
This event must have resonated in the minds of Tecumseh’s Red Stick converts. On Aug. 30, 1813, the Red Sticks attacked Fort Mims on the Alabama River and massacred about 500 men, women and children, triggering what would become known as the Creek War of 1813-1814.
Regardless of the quake’s cause, one thing is for sure: The quake struck fear into the hearts of many people, including a Tennessean named Joseph Burleson, who had moved to the Missouri Territory from Tennessee to be close to family.
In an interview with Anne Newport Royall, who is considered to be America’s first female journalist and newspaper editor, Burleson revealed his earthquake experience. Royall interviewed Burleson in Moulton in 1819 in an interview published in the book, “Letters From Alabama, 1817-1822.”
Burleson and his family were asleep when the rumbling began at 2 a.m. Royall said Burleson sprang out of bed half-asleep. “He never thought of an earthquake; but concluded that… the end of the world was at hand,” Royall wrote. Another earthquake hit at 8 a.m. and Burleson became afraid, he told Royall.
“[I] was wicked and [my] children were very wicked and the neighborhood was very wicked.” Burleson concluded they were about to receive the wrath of God.
Burleson had heard of a nearby neighborhood where the people were professors of religion. He packed up his wife and nine children and moved there. “I thought if I could live to get there, they would teach me how to prepare for my death,” Burleson said.
He told Royall, “All I wanted, or cared for, was to be around godly people.” Burleson said that in his fear, he lost all desire for worldly objects. “But such was not the case with my religious friends. Some admired my fine wagon; some admired my horses; and others admired my fine new saddles and bridles; and some one thing and some another, and they must have this and they must have that.”
After a while, Burleson became used to the rumblings and aftershocks that continued into 1812.
“But in the meantime these religious people had cheated me out of all my property,” he said, “and I thought it high time to quit the country; and from that day to this, I put no faith in religious people.”
Burleson tallied his losses. “My fine wagon and team; all my horses and all my money, 1,500 dollars in silver, and a fine drove of cattle, gone.”
Destitute, Burleson returned to Tennessee with his wife and children and began life anew. He joined the military under an upstart Tennessee militia colonel named Andrew Jackson who was preparing a campaign against the Red Stick Creeks. Burleson was at Horseshoe Bend where he helped Jackson win the final battle of the Creek War, a war that began when Tecumseh stomped his foot to create an earthquake—the same earthquake that rendered Burleson penniless.
After the war, Burleson moved into what would become Marion County in northwest Alabama. Here, he speculated in land and built roads. He convinced his cousins from Tennessee to move here. Those Burleson descendants still live here around the Burleson Church of Christ, where, by all accounts, they are good, upstanding, God-fearing people.
From Marion County, Joseph Burleson moved to Texas where his family Bible is on display in the Alamo.