Over the past week and more the news has been dominated by reports on the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the island nation of Japan on March 7. Perhaps inevitably, talk has turned to major fault lines on the North American continent that could potentially affect nuclear installations in the US as those in Japan have been affected.
There’s a major fault line centered near New Madrid, Missouri, which has the potential to affect all or part of seven surrounding states, one of which is my home state of Tennessee. The greatest effect a quake along the New Madrid fault has had in Tennessee is the doozy of a tremblor that struck the region on February 7, 1812. That one, variously estimated at a strength somewhere between 7.4 and 8.0 on a seismic scale that did not exist at the time, formed Tennessee’s only natural lake–the aptly named Reelfoot, in the far westen corner of the state.
The Chickasaw tribe of Native Americans have a legend that gives color and a bit of romance to the formation of Reelfoot Lake. It begins with an unfortunate Chickasaw chieftain named Kalopin, who was seeking a wife.
Kalopin was the son of a Chickasaw chief, and became chief upon his father’s death. He was of an age to marry, but was having no luck in finding a wife; Kalopin had been born with a club foot, and walked with a limp, which none of the Chickasaw maidens found attractive.
Kalopin finally concluded that he must look farther afield for a mate. He journeyed southward, therefore, into the lands of the Choctaw. In one of the Choctaw villages, he saw and fell desperately in love with the daughter of a Choctaw chieftain. He eagerly requested her hand in marriage, but the girl–and her father–refused to entertain his suit; the daughter did not wish to marry a man with a limp, and her father decreed that she should marry none save a Choctaw warrior.
Kalopin, therefore, followed a tradition hallowed by time, if unseemly, to get his bride. One night he kidnapped her, and took her back, a journey of several days, to his home village.
Word had reached his home that the chief was returning with a would-be bride. As the pair–the eager chief and his reluctant captive–approached they could hear drums beating, as welcoming ceremonies began for them.
Scarcely, though, had they reached their destination than the unthinkable happened: the ground began to pitch and roll and thunder beneath their feet. As the whole village struggled to keep their footing, a great hole opened up in the earth. That hole was suddenly filled by a wall of water from the nearby great river, a wall taller than the trees, that smashed down upon the village and within a matter of seconds completely obliterated it.
The vast hole filled up and is now a fairly tranquil lake. The legend says, though, that sometimes locals and tourists will hear the sounds of drums. The sounds come from deep beneath the surface of the lake. . .ghost drumbeats, forever welcoming Kalopin and his bride home.
The lake, incidentally, is named for Kalopin. In English, Kalopin translates as Reelfoot.
Another legend about the earthquakes of the winter of 1811-12 involves the first of the series of quakes–that of December 16, 1811–and tells a story of a prophecy made by the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who formed a confederacy of tribes to go to war with encroaching white settlers and drive them from Native American lands forever.
One of the tribes to which Tecumseh journeyed on his quest was known as the Alabama, with their main village on the banks of the southern Mississippi River. He made his plea to them, but they refused to join him. Their chief openly derided Tecumseh, telling him that talk was free, as the wind was free; therefore, his talk meant nothing.
Tecumseh, infuriated by this response, made a prophecy on the spot: when he returned to his home in the north–near Detroit, Michigan–, he would stamp his feet and shake down all their houses, since he had been treated with such disrepect.
Tecumseh left the village, still angry.
A few weeks later, on December 16, the first of two earthquakes along the New Madrid fault that would strike that day, making waterfalls in the Mississippi where none had existed and causing the river to flow backwards in some areas, destroyed the Alabama village, among many others. The survivors had no doubt what had caused the earth to tremble and shatter.
Tecumseh had stamped his feet at Detroit!
The legend of Reelfoot Lake is taken from Dennis William Hauck’s 1994 edition of Haunted Places: The National Directory.
Some versions of the legend of Tecumseh’s curse attribute it as a prophecy, rather than a curse, to his brother Tenskatawa (sometimes given as Elskatawa), also known historically as the Shawnee Prophet, with whom the so-called Zero Year curse on American presidents is said to have originated. In that version, the Prophet simply said, in a prophecy made c. 1807, that there would be a great earthquake in December of the year 1811; there was no mention of stamping of feet. That version also comes from Hauck’s book. In attributing the curse to Tecumseh, I have followed the version given by Michael Norman and Beth Scott in Historic Haunted America (1995).