Friday, October 17, 2014

Conevery Bolton Valencius's "The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes"

Conevery Bolton Valencius is associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she teaches environmental history, history of science and medicine, and the American Civil War. She is the author of The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her 2013 book, The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes, the Cherokees are in trouble.

Earthquakes have disrupted the places where they had fished, hunted, and farmed near the thriving Mississippi River trading center of New Madrid, in what is now the Missouri bootheel.

After massive tremors in the winter of 1811 and 1812 (now estimated at around magnitude 7.2), most of the Cherokees left. Instead, Americans poured in. People like a certain nasty Mr Hunt roamed Cherokee lands, killing cattle that he “claimed as his own.” “A very bad man,” as one Cherokee complained, Hunt went about “insulting them and telling them that he will soon have them out of the Country.”

Unfortunately, it’s not only the Cherokees who are in trouble.

The New Madrid tremors had reverberations in many parts of Indian lands. The earthquakes emptied regions of the former New Madrid hinterland and intensified conflict in the areas further west where earthquake refugees fled. The quakes impelled a bloody Cherokee/Osage war, a conflict dangerously amplified when earthquake refugees streamed … into settlements claimed by the Osages along the White and Arkansas Rivers. Trouble with the Osages had been brewing for decades before the quakes. Earthquake flight made everything worse.

Why does this matter?

It matters because when those Cherokees left, the Americans who came after were able to forget that they were ever there. The New Madrid earthquakes made possible a flood of American emigration that erased the prior Native American history of the middle Mississippi Valley.

In the rest of this book, I show other ways the quakes mattered – to religious revival, to scientific discussion, to Indian confederacy, to the War of 1812.

I show why the quakes were forgotten, because of environmental, social, and scientific transformations.

I also show how they matter still. The New Madrid earthquakes are some of the most powerful and well-documented examples of quakes in the middle of a tectonic plate. This is not an academic interest: intraplate quakes have killed hundreds of thousands in China, and they visit the middle Mississippi Valley with geologic regularity.

In page 99 of The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes, just like in the book itself, we are in the midst of stories of how these long-ago American earthquakes shaped how our contemporary society and our contemporary sciences came to be.
Learn more about The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue