When Tecumseh made the Mississippi flow backwards

Here the Earth, river, &c torn with furious convulsions, opens in huge trenches, whose deep jaws are instantaneously closed; there throws a thousand vents sulfurous streams gushed from its very bowels, leaving a vast and almost unfathomable caverns. – William Leigh Pierce, eyewitness

1812 was a year of science.  The discovery of dinosaurs, the electric battery, iodine and many other marvels firmly placed the year within the “Age of Reason.”

Portrait of Tecumseh
Tecumseh, from John Frost's Illustrated Historical Sketches of the Indians

At the same time, new “superstitions” were developing.  One of these was helped by three of the most powerful earthquakes America had ever known.  Some scientists fear such earthquakes could come again, and this time, the devastation could be much greater.

Recent Earthquakes are merely aftershocks of the New Madrid (Missouri) quakes from December 1811 to February 1812.

Were the quakes prophesied by Tecumseh?

The quakes were said to be predicted by the great Indian chief Tecumseh. Tecumseh and his brother were around that time gathering the Indian tribes in America.  The British had armed Tecumseh’s followers and encouraged them to attack American settlers, with the hopes of containing and perhaps repossessing the American colonies. [see The Jefferson from a Canadian Point of View.]

While the British instigated and encouraged the Rebellion, it was Tecumseh’s skills as a leader and speaker that made the rebels a threat to the United States.

“You do not believe the great spirit has sent me.” Tecumseh was reported to have said to Indians who were reluctant to follow him, “You shall know.  I leave Tuckabatchee directly, and shall go straight to Detroit.  When I arrive there, I will stamp on the ground with my foot and shake down every house in Tuckabatchee.”

Then, his half skeptical audience counted the days for him to get to Detroit.  The predicted he would arrive there on 16th December, 1811.  And when his “prophecy” proved wrong, they’d know Tecumseh was a liar.

However, on just that date, a massive earthquake hit the Mississippi river and its surrounding area.  “Every house  in Tuckabatchee” indeed fell.

Tecumseh, suspicious of “whites”, (or more accurately non-Indians, including free blacks and those of Indian descent who adopted Western culture), did not give the speech until there were only Indians in the audience.

Some historians doubt that Tecumseh made such a speech at all, because no white men were present to record the events.   I find such an argument ridiculous.  Furthermore, there were American citizens who did hear Tecumseh speak about those Earthquakes (and lived to tell about it.)

John Dunn Hunter was one such man.  “Brothers, the Great Spirit is angry with our enemies.” he later recalled Tecumseh as saying,  “He speaks in thunder, and the earth swallows up villages, and drinks up the Mississippi.  The great waters cover the lowlands.  Their corn cannot grow, and the Great spirit will sweep those who escape to the hills from the earth with his terrible breath.”

Now, I find no evidence that the Great Spirit has bad breath, but most of the other events did happen.  The earthquake was so great that the Mississippi flowed backwards.

The recorded loss of life among American citizens was relatively low, at a few thousand, but with illiteracy rampant, and the fact that the area was sparsely populated by “Westerners” who have passed their records to us, means we don’t know the full death count.

If anything, Tecumseh’s speech under-states the full destructive power of the Earthquake.  William Leigh Pierce was in his boat when one of the earthquakes struck. “One of the spouts which we had seen rising under the boat would inevitably sunk it, and probably have blown it into a thousand fragments[…]”

Yesterday, with the benefit of hindsight and two centuries of scientific research behind it, the skeptical News Tribune reported that the February 1812 earthquake caused “a portion of the Mississippi River to reverse course for several hours.”

Still, many Indian tribes did not want war, and individual Indians did not see Tecumseh as their leader or his brother as a prophet.  “Great Spirit, Whiskey too much, heap drunk,” one Indian was reported as saying about Tecumseh.

(Unfortunately, many settlers did not know, and often did not care to learn, the difference between a peace loving Indian and a warlike one.  As late as 1890, history records massacres of America’s indigenous population, where civilians were treated like warriors and no mercy was given.  Tecumseh, in contrast, treated his prisoners well, and prevented the more bloodthirsty of his followers from hurting the defenseless.)

So, did Tecumseh predict the earthquakes?  Some speculate that he knew the signs to look for.   He may have listened to old tales from his people, developing a science of predicting the future from memory of the distant past.

Note: Tecumseh himself was never seen as “the” prophet.  It was his brother who held this title.  However, many predictions were attributed to Tecumseh.

His name signifies “flying panther” which is sometimes translated to “meteor.”  Tecumseh was also said to have predicted the coming of a comet, among other natural phenomena.



After the Earth Quakes: Elastic Rebound on an Urban Planet
by Susan Elizabeth Hough and Roger G. Bilham.

The Half-way Pacifist: Thomas Jefferson’s View of War, by Reginald C. Stuart, 1979

Larousse Dictionary of North American History

Illustrated historical sketches of the Indians, by John frost(1837)

Journals and other sources

“Tecumseh” by James Mooney; in The Indian Advocate, (Oklahoma), 1st of August, 1903

Anonymous email and Facebook communications, during January 2012.

British and American historic newspapers.

Contemporary news articles including: the above linked “Geologists see fault in Earthquake fears” from the News Tribune in Illinois, Historic Earthquakes from the USGS website, The New Madrid Earthquake: 200 years later by Ladon Jones, and Earthquakes cause small stir in Lake County from The Pacer in Tennessee.

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