When the Mississippi Ran Backwards by Jay Feldman

The ground shook, the big river changed direction, and it affected people.

That is the basis of this book by Jay Feldman, who added the subtitle “Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes.” That’s New Madrid, Missouri where the earthquakes referenced occurred in three major episodes from December 1811 to February 1812.

Feldman tells three stories. One is how the fault line came to exist along the mid-Mississippi River valley and then rumbled to life in the early nineteenth century. A second is the founding of the town of New Madrid. The third is the actions of various people affiliated with either the town, western Kentucky, or other parts of what we would call the Midwest. We witness the trauma visited upon the collection of townspeople and other residents of the broader Mississippi valley. In these pages are the powerful stories of hundreds of people caught unawares by an overwhelming natural disaster. Then as now, these stories of survival and in some cases death are poignant and sobering.

Feldman shows that the earthquakes affected many events of the time. The most compelling are the efforts of Nicholas and Lydia Roosevelt who seek to guide the steamboat New Orleans down river. Nicholas Roosevelt was the originator of the side-wheel design of steamboat transportation. Nicholas and Lydia were a husband and wife team that is a model for marriages in our own era.

Another such event was the heinous treatment of a slave named George by their barbaric owners, Isham and Lilburne Lewis (related to Meriwether Lewis and the prestigious Lewis family of Virginia). The two Lewises killed George, tried to cover up the murder, and were ultimately found out because the heaving earth brought forth remnants of the corpse. A dramatic murder trial unfolds as the third earthquake hits in February 1812. Feldman’s account of the Lewis crime is one of the strongest features of the book.

Finally, we learn about a fortuitous stamp of the foot by Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh. He stamped his foot in frustration over fellow tribes who refused to join his Indian confederation. Within days the earthquakes began. Over the next three years, until his death in 1813, Tecumseh waged war against the land grabbing government of the United States. His attempts to strengthen Indian unity against the United States often included references to the earthquakes.

Feldman writes in an easy fashion. He keeps the narrative moving as smoothly as the river itself, avoiding the snags of tedious geologic explanations. He intersperses enough scientific information to make the natural events complete and understandable. And he has the gift of an eye for details that would interest the thoughtful reader.

His research appears to be sound and thorough. Information sources include accounts from the early nineteen century and more recent scientific studies.

My primary criticisms of the book pertain to the long run. Feldman spends too much time recounting the War of 1812 and Andrew Jackson’s military campaigns against the Creek Indians without showing how the earthquake directly affected the conflicts. Simply because something happened within a few months or years of the great natural events doesn’t guarantee that they were affected by it. Quite likely, such connections existed. Feldman fails to draw them out explicitly. In addition, while Feldman offers an interesting summary of the predicted earthquake of late 1990, he doesn’t relate the speculative effects of an actual recurrence of the 1811-1812 disaster. He doesn’t compare the past example with the future projections. It might have made for intriguing commentary.

I’m also not sure that Feldman showed the complete picture of how people outside the immediate earthquake zone understood the event. He is outstanding on the depiction of what it was like to be in the zone, an amazing feat when you consider the context of the event. However, the reader isn’t completely clear on how all the major newspapers, diarists, and writers of letters would have recorded the event. Feldman tells us that shocks could be felt as far away as Boston, Philadelphia, and Augusta, Georgia. He offers a few examples of written reactions. But surely there were additional literate people in those communities who left their impressions in journals or letters.

Don’t let these criticisms of mine dissuade you from reading the book. These are minor points. The book’s overall value as a good read is still intact.

We’ll turn now to the issue of application. Many examples of leadership appear in Feldman’s book. The reader will see the role of leadership in Tecumseh’s ability to excite the passions of followers, Nicholas Roosevelt’s perseverance in designing a steamboat, and Colonel John Shaw’s stubborn courage in rescuing a young girl everyone else had given up as lost. The reader also sees examples of the vacuum of leadership, especially in the damage inflicted on Tecumseh’s cause by the behavior of British General Henry Procter.

You can’t help but notice that a significant tone in the book resounds from the nature of the earthquakes. The leaders in 1811-1812 are all reacting against forces beyond not only their control but their comprehension. They are barely holding on.

The lessons for leaders are vivid. A leader will need to simply help followers meet hour-to-hour needs. He or she will encounter severe emotional distress among followers. Providing a sense of comfort, calm, and compassion are essential leadership actions. A leader will also be ready to assist with the same cycle of fundamental needs and emotional support if or when another disaster ensues (aftershocks, in this case). Major disasters reduce leadership to its smallest, tightest, most primitive (or pure, if you prefer) core. We might call this “disaster leadership.”

You should realize that disaster leadership is also a metaphor. Your group or organization can have “disasters” of its own. Shutting down a department is a disaster to the people involved, an earthquake in their existence. The takeaways of leadership from 1811-1812 may resonate quite well in such cases.

Feldman’s book further demonstrates that major natural events will affect human events. The effect will have two parts—the ways in which altered landscapes and other natural phenomena shape human events, and the efforts people will make in analyzing and interpreting them. Pardon the pun, but such an awareness of the link between natural and human events is, shall we say, “not a shock.”

A more shocking observation emerges when we take a closer look at exactly who uses these events for their own purposes. In the case of the 1811-1812 earthquakes we see an interesting commonality between Tecumseh and numerous ministers in American churches. Both the Indian and religious leaders sought to persuade listeners that a spiritual purpose could be found in the disasters. What makes this interesting is that Tecumseh is normally viewed as a secular figure (his half-brother is the more spiritually inclined of the pair), yet here he was attached religious significance to the earthquakes. We don’t see William Henry Harrison or Andrew Jackson or any other political/military figure of the time doing the same thing.

I think a surprising aspect of the spiritual-based interpretation is that more Native Americans weren’t convinced by Tecumseh’s arguments. Given that their society was largely oral-based and largely illiterate, you would expect they would be swayed by the coincidence of the physical act of Tecumseh’s and the natural act of geologic forces. The fact that neither he nor other Indian leaders recorded widespread responses to their appeals as to the “lessons” of the earthquakes suggests a more sophisticated understanding by tribal members than we commonly ascribe to them.

I say this because Feldman never states precisely how the earthquakes motivated his audiences. He merely asserts—actually, repeats an assertion by a biographer of Tecumseh—that the events helped his cause. How that happened is never said.

We need to probe the reactions of followers to the natural disaster treated in this book. We know two things. First, the people who inhabited New Madrid and adjoining farms were reported as being in shock. A few years later, when the first “federal aid” legislation was enacted in American history, they were reputedly still in some form of mental unease. We also know that Tecumseh’s followers were not especially captivated by their leader’s argument which connected the natural disaster to a particular course of action against Americans. There is no direct evidence that the earthquake actually persuaded them to do anything. They fought, but they did not appear to state that they did so because of a spiritual or psychological interpretation of the earthquakes.

This pair of facts suggests that followers differentiated in reacting to a major disaster. On one side were the residents of New Madrid. Their lives were overturned and destroyed. On the other side were Tecumseh’s warriors. The earthquake was only one of several points which drove them into battle against American soldiers, militia, and armed settlers.

For the leader we encounter a critical point. Don’t expect followers whose lives are in upheaval to be capable of doing much beyond surviving. Conversely, don’t expect followers to embrace a course of action based just on the disaster itself or more precisely, on a spiritual interpretation of the disaster.

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards makes for fast-paced reading. You’ll never look at quiet river towns in quite the same way again.