Last week, this region’s newspapers and television stations carried stories about a number of minor earthquakes or “tremors” in places like Cherokee, Burnsville and Kingsport, Tenn.
According to the U. S. Geological Survey Report, the tremors averaged 2.l to 2.7 on their seismic scale. This is the kind of quake that merely causes electrical lights to flicker and sway. Nothing to get alarmed about. However, a century or two ago, this region was plagued by much more spectacular events.
On the night of Aug. 31, 1886, a young professor named Robert Madison arrived in what was then Charleston and is now Bryson City and found lodging near Whittier in the Qualla area; he later recalled that the weather alarmed him. The Tuckaseigee River appeared to be flooding and during the night, an earthquake toppled chimneys and cracked window panes in a number of homes. Madison said that the house in which he spent the night felt as though a giant had lifted it off the earth and shook it violently. Almost a century before Madison’s arrival, travelers in this region often reported even more dramatic quakes in conjunction with showers of falling stars and comets that glowed with ominous threat in the night sky. At the time such events were viewed as portents of disaster by Native Americans.
The most celebrated earthquakes (four in number) in American History, called “The New Madrid Quakes,” occurred between December 1811, and February 1812. They originated in the town of New Madrid, Mo., and spread into the Southeast as far as Georgia. All of the quakes were accompanied by tremendous noise, including the crash of falling trees, the screams of wild fowl and terrified animals and the atmosphere was saturated by a sulfurous vapor, followed by total darkness. The banks of the Mississippi collapsed, and at several locations, the water in the river began to flow in reverse. Chimneys fell and church bells rang throughout the region as the structure of buildings cracked and shook. In the aftermath, some of the tributaries of the Mississippi were permanently changed. Everywhere, the bewildered citizens were troubled and frequently noted that such an awe-inspiring event “had to mean something.”
Many of the Native American tribes of the Southeast believed that the earthquakes were the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Tecumseh, the Shawnee warrior who attempted to form a confederacy to drive the white settlers back to Europe. For years Tecumseh had traveled throughout the Southeast warning the Choctaws, Cherokees and Creeks that they were doomed if they did not resist the white man’s culture. History has preserved many of Tecumseh’s speeches, which readily demonstrate that he was blessed with an eloquence that moved thousands to heed his warning: “Brothers, the white people are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death. The white people came among us feeble; and now that we have made them strong, they wish to kill us, or drive us back, as they would wolves and panthers. Brothers, the white men are not friends to the Indians: at first, they only asked for land sufficient for a wigwam; now, nothing will satisfy them but the whole of our hunting grounds, from the rising to the setting sun. Brothers, the white men want more than our hunting grounds; they wish to kill our old men, women, and little ones.”
Tecumseh’s visit to the Cherokees was not successful. He told the Cherokee council that they were crucial in his plan to drive the whites out of this country, and he readily admitted that without the Cherokees, he might fail. He urged them to reconsider. When the Cherokee council voted to reject Tecumseh’s request, the disappointed warrior returned home to tell his bother, Tenskwatawa, the prophet, that he had failed. However, there is a marvelous story about that day. According to the Cherokees, the angry Tecumseh told them: “I go home now, and in three days time, I will be back in Tippecanoe. When I get there, I will turn my eyes toward you and I will stamp my foot ... and you will know it!” According to this story, Tecumseh’s stomp caused the New Madrid Earthquakes.
Tecumseh’s final war with the white man is filled with stories like this. He marched to war with a shooting star in the sky. Not surprisingly, his name means “shooting star.” There is an outdoor drama up in Chillicothe, Ohio: “Tecumseh.” According to the publicity it is “a mesmerizing drama” with a powerful script based on historic records and a stirring Native American musical score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and narrated by the Native American actor, Graham Greene. I want to see it. I sincerely hope that there is a scene in which Tecumseh stomps his foot.