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When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes Hardcover – March 1, 2005

4.3 out of 5 stars 61 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The shocks that devastated the Mississippi River town of New Madrid, Mo., and environs in the winter of 1812 were among the strongest earthquakes in America's history. But in human terms they were fairly inconsequential (about 100 people died in the lightly populated area), hence the resort to empire, intrigue and murder to flesh out this engaging if haphazard survey of the Mississippi valley frontier. Journalist and scriptwriter Feldman gives a lucid rundown of the geology and seismology of the quakes and skillfully deploys sparse firsthand memoirs of the disaster to describe the titanic upheavals of earth and water that terrified onlookers. But that leaves most of the book still to write, so he brings in other developments tenuously related to the earthquake and the region. These include the brutal Indian wars of the early 19th century, the maiden voyage of the Mississippi's first steamboat and the murder of a Kentucky slave by his degenerate owner, which came to light after one of the titular quakes demolished the chimney where the victim's remains were hidden; a set piece of the Battle of New Orleans is tacked on as a coda. The author's attempts to tie these happenings together are perfunctory at best, but it's a diverting patchwork of events, with colorful characters, that Feldman's well-paced storytelling turns into a vivid historical panorama. Agent, Alex Smithline. History Book Club Alternate Selection.(Mar.)
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From Booklist

Through four historical figures, Feldman re-creates the frontier world of 1811-12, when the New Madrid earthquakes devastated the lower Ohio and mid-Mississippi valleys. One central character is New Madrid founder George Morgan. Others include Lilburne Lewis, a nephew of Thomas Jefferson, and Nicholas Roosevelt, whose steamboat, the first on the western rivers, was maltreated by the Mississippi when the quakes struck. Together, the schemes of these men stand for the white settlement that was opposed by the fourth main character in Feldman's drama: Tecumseh. In fateful ways, according to Feldman, the earthquakes affected their projects: the tremors destroyed Morgan's town; they collapsed Lewis' chimney, exposing the remains of a slave he murdered; and they signified, to Tecumseh's pan-Indian movement, the Great Spirit's disapproval of ceding land to whites. Synthesizing lives and times, Feldman composes a fluent, coherent narrative that culminates in the War of 1812. Feldman's fine history on the New Madrid events parallels a popular work on their geology, The Big One, by Charles Officer and Jake Page (2004). Gilbert Taylor
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (March 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743242785
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743242783
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #616,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on April 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The great American earthquake was the one that hit San Francisco in 1906, and has since been celebrated in song, story, and cinema. Most people have forgotten a worse series of earthquakes that struck in three months starting in 1811. The New Madrid earthquakes not only were stronger, but they covered a much wider area. Now when we get real-time coverage of earthquake disasters, we have lost the history of this one. In _When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes_ (The Free Press), Jay Feldman has told the story of the earthquakes themselves, but they occupy only a fraction of the book. Much of his work is an examination of how the earthquakes changed American history. There are some characters within it who were simply affected by the earthquakes in peculiar ways, and some of the connections Feldman draws to larger events are tenuous, but this is an entertaining look at a particular event that did befall the young nation.

The earthquakes that rocked the Midwest began on 16 December 1811, and were completely unexpected. They were calamitous for the people in the region, but one of the reasons that they are so little remembered is that there were few people there to be shaken. The chief story here is about, of all things, the war between the American government and the Indians. The main character in the story is the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who threatened to stomp his feet from a distance and shake down the houses of Indians who opposed him. The earthquake was timed to do so, increasing his prestige and allowing him to lead the tribes as a unified force. The town of New Madrid itself was the brainchild of Revolutionary War veteran George Morgan, who wanted to make his fortune on land.
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Format: Hardcover
Good book...a solid 4, leaning a little toward 5...The book is about the New Madrid Earthquakes, yes, but it is also about much more...the molding and shaping of America...the New Madrid Earthquakes are used as a backdrop for a candid human discussion of the times....Relationships with the Indians, the Westward movement, Manifest Destiny, the slavery issue with all of its horrors, the Westward migration in hopes of a better life that wasn't always there...the beginning of steamboating and its impact on the opening of the West...Human treachery, intrigue and promise all against the backdrop of the New Madrid Earthquates...Taken as a whole this book is about a cataclysmic time in America, a time of remarkable change...all of the issues coming together at one period of time...all of those issues have been resolved..The West has been won, Slavery Abolished, River traffic and commerce taken forgranted...Only one remains: the New Madrid faults that caused the cataclysmic earthquakes...They are still there, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting...They are not done with us yet...Good Book. Very good Book Club Discussion Book.
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Format: Hardcover
Starting on December 16, 1811 and lasting into the calamitous year of 1812, a series of earthquakes leveled towns, settlements and Native American villages along the drainage of the Mississippi centered near New Madrid in what is now Missouri. This catastrophic series of quakes (at least three near or greater than 8.0 on the modern Richter scale) occurred during the land speculation and grabbing of the early 1800s and killed an untold number of people. The legendary "prediction" of the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh that he would stamp his foot and the earth would move if the tribes did not join him in an alliance against the whites had come true. This then set off a war fought within the American War of 1812 with Britain and continuing beyond it. Indeed Tecumseh and his allies had much to grieve them, as unscrupulous land speculators and settlers took over Native American land with little or no payment and by dealing with tribes who often had no exclusive ownership of the land they sold.

All of this turmoil and more are caught in "When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes" by Jay Feldman. Feldman has interwoven numerous threads of history that revolved around the great quakes, the most damaging, but least known, earthquakes in the history of the United States.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a real page-turner. Though it is a carefully-researched piece of fairly straight-up history, the author has woven a complex fabric, a tapestry revealing an little-known time in American History. He has included several personal stories of historical figures whose destinies were altered by the New Madrid earthquakes without pandering to the maudlin or the sensational. Every element is appropriate to the development of the tale and I read it with appreciation for the writing and the author's art as well as for the insights and information the book provided. I recommend this one highly as a really good read.
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