In the winter of 1811-1812, three earthquakes struck the vast basin formed by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The epicenters of these...

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“When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes”

by Jay Feldman

Free Press, 320 pp., $27

In the winter of 1811-1812, three earthquakes struck the vast basin formed by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The epicenters of these 8-plus-on-the-Richter-scale quakes were located near the Mississippi River town of New Madrid, Mo., the only white settlement in thousands of square miles of verdant prairie, forest and swamp.

They’re known as the New Madrid earthquakes. Never heard of them? That’s because the country was young and the states in the quakes’ zone of severest shock — Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois — were the raw frontier. Few written records of these bone-rattling events survived, though witnesses who did testify to the chaos and wholesale rearranging of the landscape reported that the Mississippi River ran backwards, buildings were swallowed by the earth and frightened birds alighted on people’s shoulders, “as if to comfort themselves by contact with another creature, however alien.”

Several books have tried to re-create the New Madrid cataclysm, but because of the lack of primary sources, most have amounted to scholarly throat-clearing punctuated by a few hair-raising first-person accounts.

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In “When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes,” writer Jay Feldman attempts to overcome this dearth of written material by turning the quakes into a frame for a larger portrait of America’s bloody, early 19th-century frontier. Weaving together the stories of larger-than-life men whose fates were altered by the quake, Feldman largely succeeds in creating an engaging piece of mid-American popular history.

Among the main characters in Feldman’s story arc:

• Tecumseh, the 19th-century Native American leader whose prophecy that a quake would shake the ground beneath his adversaries’ feet scared the Creek Indians into a devastating war with white settlers. William Henry Harrison, future U.S. president, would lead troops against Tecumseh and develop a grudging admiration for him.

• Nicholas Roosevelt, the inventor who built the New Orleans, the first operational Mississippi River steamboat. The New Orleans and its successors would open the frontier to river traffic, white settlers would flood the country and Native Americans would lose the last vestige of control over their east-of-the-Mississippi home ground.

• Lilburne and Isham Lewis, two cousins of Thomas Jefferson. Economic disaster sent them packing from Virginia to a new life on the Kentucky frontier; further hard times led them to execute a slave in a horrific manner. In a plot line worthy of “Fall of the House of Usher,” earthquakes concealed, then revealed, the evidence.

Other heroes and scoundrels all illustrate Feldman’s theme: events in the early-19th century propelled Americans into an era of great opportunity and terrific suffering: “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.”

Feldman clearly explains the geological forces that created the quakes. Much of the Mississippi Valley is composed of unconsolidated sediments, deposited for eons by the Mississippi River and its tributaries, overlaying a great fault deep in the earth. These sediments liquefied during the quakes, with disastrous results. When the fault blew, the few surviving accounts testified to the-sky-is-falling quality of the cataclysm — crews of flatboats watched in horror as trees and riverbanks crashed into the river: “Everywhere there was a noise like thunder,” wrote one, “and the ground was shaking the trees down, and the air was thick with something like smoke. There was much lightning.”

Today the New Madrid fault zone underlies major cities — St. Louis, Memphis — with populations of millions of people. Chemical and nuclear plants squat near the river; barges and boats ferry tons of hazardous material up and down the Mississippi. Feldman concludes that “… there is only one thing certain about the New Madrid fault system, and that is that it will go off again. It could be in two hundred years. Or it could be tomorrow.”

Feldman’s account ends here. For a vivid reimagining of what that “tomorrow” could be like, quakeophiles should proceed to Walter Williams’ splendid speculative-fiction novel “The Rift.” It’s the tale of a contemporary Huck and Jim, set adrift on a sea of muddy water unleashed by a modern New Madrid shakedown, dodging water moccasins, religious fanatics and neo-Nazis as the quake makes rubble of society’s foundations.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. She has been the Seattle

Times book editor since 1998.