Thursday, April 23, 2009

New Madrid fault earthquake risk downgraded

The Tennessee Conference's listserv email included an entry this morning on the discovery that the New Madrid fault (pronounced MAD-rid, not muh-DRID) does not pose near the risk of catastrophe that scientists heretofore believed. This is good news, for in 1811 and 1812, massive earthquakes along the New Madrid fault literally changed American history. Centered in southeast Missouri, these quakes were near the top of the most violent in historical times in North America. They created Tennessee's Reelfoot Lake and in some places caused the mighty Mississippi River to reverse course.

The earthquake of December 1811 served as the signal to American Indian tribes from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border to send war parties to Ohio to unite in battle against white settlers and US troops under the great Shawnee war leader, Tecumseh.

Tecumseh, accompanied by his brother Lowawluwaysica, had been forming his battle coalition and alliances for many years. Lowawluwaysica had a reputation for prophecy and finally changed his name to Tenskwatawa, "One With Open [speaking] Mouth," better to reflect it. Under his and Tecumseh's urging, many Indian tribes became staunch rejectionists of Euro ways and accommodation with whites. In their long-range travels, they told the tribes that they would receive a signal all at the same time, both in the heavens and under the earth.

In March 1811, a bright comet appeared. Tecumseh interpreted it as a sign that his time to lead the combined tribes against the whites was near. Tecumseh had actually been born the same night that a large shooting star streaked through the sky. "Tecumseh" is of Algonquin origin and means, "Goes from place to place" (I have also seen it translated as "panther across the sky").

Then in December of the same year a mighty earthquake shook the eastern half of North America. So powerful it rang church bells in Philadelphia, it was the signal Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa had promised.

With nothing moving faster than a horse in those days, the battle alliance among the tribes did not form exactly quickly. In 1812, the United States became embroiled in its second war with the British, who initially worked well with Tecumseh. Their relationship soured, however, when Maj. Gen Henry Proctor took command in the west. Proctor was not nearly as an astute tactician or strategist as Tecumseh. The result was the Battle of the Thames in October 1813, in Ontario, Canada, in which Tecumseh was killed.

Tecumseh is the most highly-regarded and historically respected person ever to have been an enemy of the United States. During times of peace, he enjoyed excellent relations with white military and civilians alike. He was fluent in English and was regarded universally as a true gentleman, a man of his word and entirely civilized in manner and demeanor. He was fierce and relentless in war, but never cruel, and he never took vengeance against captives. For many decades after his death, the United States heaped honors upon his memory and name. The US Navy named a warship Tecumseh in 1863; three more would follow. The Canadians have also given his memory many honors.

Tecumseh's body was never recovered. There are reliable reports that he had predicted he would fall in the battle and that, knowing what the US troops would do to his body, he shed all the trappings of generalship and went to battle dressed as an ordinary warrior. He told his close guard that if he fell, one of them would have to come immediately to prod his body with a charmed implement, after which he would return to life and lead the Indians to victory. However, the warrior who was running to Tecumseh's body to do so was shot to death en route. At that, the Indian army immediately dissipated.

Just after the battle, the American troops made a concerted effort to find Tecumseh's body, but almost no one knew what he looked like. They also expected his body to be clad in the symbols of a supreme war leader. Reports are that frontiersman Simon Kenton, employed by the US troops as a guide, was tasked to identify the body since Kenton had personally known Tecumseh for many years. Kenton did locate Tecumseh's remains but deliberately passed the corpse by, then found a body dressed as a lesser war leader and said it was Tecumseh. Immediately, US troops set upon this body and abused it in a sickening manner, stripping flesh to cure into leather and confiscating weapons and regalia. Today, only the elders of the Shawnee tribe know where Tecumseh's body was finally interred.

Now back to the New Madrid fault.
Scientists have spent long hours and many years attempting to predict the next big earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, but a study published in the March edition of the journal Science suggests that all the hype may be for nothing. ...

Utilizing data acquired over an eight year period from GPS antennas mounted in strategic locations throughout the earthquake zone, research teams from both Purdue and Northwestern found that the fault system was moving about 0.2 millimeters, the width of a fishing wire, per year. Calais said that sizeable earthquakes could only be expected when there was at least 2 millimeters of movement or more.

“There must be enough movement to accumulate strain for a big earthquake to take place and that just isn’t happening here,” Calais said.
As Clarksville is definitely inside the danger zone of a large earthquake from the fault, this is good news.

Endnote: Most references to Tecumseh refer to him as a "chief." However, Tecumseh, a Shawnee, was never a chief. Chiefs were elected by the Shawnee. Although the Shawnees held Tecumseh's skills as a war leader in high regard, most Shawnees rejected his program of strict rejection of accommodation with the encroaching whites. Tecumseh himself never claimed the title of chief.

The minority of Shawnees who allied with Tecumseh completely broke with him after the disastrous result of Battle of Tippecanoe in November 1811. Tecumseh was not present for this battle; it was initiated by Tenskwatawa, who led Shawnee warriors to attack US troops who were trying to recruit neighboring Indian tribes to ally with them. The battle's failure caused Tecumseh to lose faith in his brother, whose influence as a prophetic figure was permanently diminished thereafter.

The best biography of Tecumseh is, in my opinion, Allan W. Eckert's volume, A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh. I also recommend his earlier book on the life of Simon Kenton, The Frontiersmen: A Narrative, a history of the opening of the Ohio River valley. 

The latter book includes the untrue story that Tecumseh became enamored with a settler girl named Rebecca Galloway, promising that if she married him he would adopt the ways of the whites and live as a white for the  rest of his life. Ultimately, they parted by mutual agreement. However, Eckert explains in Sorrow why this story is untrue, even though he had accepted it as historical in Frontiersman. Even so, the legend still has wide currency.

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