When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12 (Paperback)

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12 By Jay Feldman Cover Image
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From Jay Feldmen comes an enlightening work about how the most powerful earthquakes in the history of America united the Indians in one last desperate rebellion, reversed the Mississippi River, revealed a seamy murder in the Jefferson family, and altered the course of the War of 1812.

On December 15, 1811, two of Thomas Jefferson's nephews murdered a slave in cold blood and put his body parts into a roaring fire. The evidence would have been destroyed but for a rare act of God—or, as some believed, of the Indian chief Tecumseh.

That same day, the Mississippi River's first steamboat, piloted by Nicholas Roosevelt, powered itself toward New Orleans on its maiden voyage. The sky grew hazy and red, and jolts of electricity flashed in the air. A prophecy by Tecumseh was about to be fulfilled.

He had warned reluctant warrior-tribes that he would stamp his feet and bring down their houses. Sure enough, between December 16, 1811, and late April 1812, a catastrophic series of earthquakes shook the Mississippi River Valley. Of the more than 2,000 tremors that rumbled across the land during this time, three would have measured nearly or greater than 8.0 on the not-yet-devised Richter Scale. Centered in what is now the bootheel region of Missouri, the New Madrid earthquakes were felt as far away as Canada; New York; New Orleans; Washington, DC; and the western part of the Missouri River. A million and a half square miles were affected as the earth's surface remained in a state of constant motion for nearly four months. Towns were destroyed, an eighteen-mile-long by five-mile-wide lake was created, and even the Mississippi River temporarily ran backwards.

The quakes uncovered Jefferson's nephews' cruelty and changed the course of the War of 1812 as well as the future of the new republic. In When the Mississippi Ran Backwards, Jay Feldman expertly weaves together the story of the slave murder, the steamboat, Tecumseh, and the war, and brings a forgotten period back to vivid life. Tecumseh's widely believed prophecy, seemingly fulfilled, hastened an unprecedented alliance among southern and northern tribes, who joined the British in a disastrous fight against the U.S. government. By the end of the war, the continental United States was secure against Britain, France, and Spain; the Indians had lost many lives and much land; and Jefferson's nephews were exposed as murderers. The steamboat, which survived the earthquake, was sunk.

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards sheds light on this now-obscure yet pivotal period between the Revolutionary and Civil wars, uncovering the era's dramatic geophysical, political, and military upheavals. Feldman paints a vivid picture of how these powerful earthquakes made an impact on every aspect of frontier life—and why similar catastrophic quakes are guaranteed to recur. When the Mississippi Ran Backwards is popular history at its best.

About the Author


Jay Feldman's writings have appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Gourmet, Whole Earth Review, and a wide variety of other national, regional, and local publications. A number of his pieces have been anthologized. He has also written for television, film, and the stage. He lives in Davis, California. For more information, visit www.jfeldman.com.

Praise For…


"Jay Feldman has produced a fascinating work of social history, meticulously researched, elegantly written, and awesomely original in its conception. He finds the convulsions of the natural world reverberating on slavery, war, and Indian resistance, and tells the story with verve and style."

-- Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States





"Jay Feldman has written a splendid re-creation of one of the stranges and little-known times in early U.S. history -- a time when an Indian leader was almost as powerful as the president, and everything including the earth itself conspired to make the frontier an even wilder place."

-- Jake Page, author of In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians and coauthor of The Big One: The Earthquake That Rocked Early America and Helped Create a Science



Product Details
ISBN: 9780743242790
ISBN-10: 0743242793
Publisher: Free Press
Publication Date: April 7th, 2012
Pages: 320
Language: English