I’ll start our story right at the beginning. It was late fall in the Year of our Lord 1811. James Madison was the fourth President of our young United States of America.
I was eleven years of age, having had the good fortune to be born at the turn of the new century, the oldest of five children of John and Margaret Murrell. Our family was living in the Cumberland River area of the State of Tennessee on a small farm, about fifteen miles southwest of Carthage. Papa was in his late thirties, a strong, determined man with a deep voice, a good-natured face, and pride in himself, his home, and his family. He wore a beard and, back then, kept his upper lip clean shaven. When he talked, men listened. He was honest and fair in his dealings with other men and a good father. Most people said he had more common sense than any dozen other men put together.
Papa and two of our neighbors were taking bales of cotton, sacks of cornmeal, and a few barrels of good Tennessee whiskey by flatboat to market in New Orleans. The round trip would take most of six months. This was not the first time Papa had made this journey, and as always, he would be sorely missed by Ma, my brothers Joel and Barney, and my sisters, Martha and Mary. And especially by me. I longed to be allowed to go with him on these river voyages, but he would always tell me I had to wait until I was older.
Like everything he did, Papa planned this trip to New Orleans carefully. The crops were in and well prepared for the haul down to Louisiana. Papa and two of our neighbors pooled their money for a good-sized flatboat and hired an experienced boatman, Mr. Ben Torbett, to navigate down the Cumberland River, over to the Ohio, then onto the great Mississippi. Since neither of our neighbors could make the trip, Ben brought a couple of rough-looking deckhands with him to help man the flatboat.
If you are not familiar with such things, a flatboat is a large, raftlike barge used to haul freight and passengers downriver. Papa’s boat was about thirty-five foot by eleven foot, but some of the biggest ones were over fifty feet long and could be up to twenty feet wide. Most had a deckhouse in the middle of the boat for sleeping and to protect some of the cargo from the elements.
Usually these craft are manned by three flatboatmen working giant oars, also known as sweeps, with one on each side and another at the rear used as the rudder. The sweeps help move the boat along, maneuver it around hazards, and generally keep the flatboat clear of the riverbanks. A spotter works at the front of the boat looking for rocks or sawyers, those big stumps and sunken trees hidden just below the waterline that are the bane of river transportation. The flatboat is only good for floating downstream with the current. Once he got to New Orleans, Papa would sell it for timber and come back home by horseback.
Papa had arranged to meet up in Nashville with two other flatboats belonging to a Mr. Charlie Douglass and a Mr. Rayford Fuller. All of the men were well armed and fully prepared for attack by Indians or pirates, both of which were well known dangers on river trips down to New Orleans. But all the planning in the world could not have prepared this crew for the events of December 16, 1811. I heard Papa recount this story many times and will do my best to be true to his telling. And because it was Papa doing the telling, I believe every word is true.
The boats had been away a little more than three weeks, Papa recalled, and had tied up for the night to a willow bar on the east bank of the Mississip’, some fifteen miles south of New Madrid, Missouri. It was about two hours after midnight, cold and clear, with little moonlight and eerily quiet, Papa remembered. As they did every night, the three flatboats were lashed together and positioned with a clear view of the riverbank and general vicinity. Mr. Fuller was standing second watch on his boat, situated between the Douglass boat and Papa’s. Papa and his two flatboatmen had gone to sleep inside the deckhouse. Mr. Torbett was out on the deck, snoring to beat the band.
Wham! The first shockwave slammed into the boats. Papa woke up and instinctively reached for his rifle. There was a deafening roar that Papa later likened to the thunder of a thousand cannon firing all at once. “My God, we are in the middle of a war!” he hollered at the top of his lungs. By the time Papa got to his feet, the flatboats were pitching like ships in the grasp of a violent hurricane. Wham! A second impact hit harder still. Papa fell and heard one of the men scream something, but it was impossible to hear what he’d said over the mayhem.
Papa finally got his footing, sprung out onto the deck in a fighting stance, and looked in all directions to locate the enemy. There was none.
His raft gyrated, straining its lashes, grinding against the one beside it. In the moonlight, Papa saw chaos all around. The river looked like it had been hit by an ocean squall, but there was no wind. Trees were falling from the banks into the water. By the faint light he could see the earth itself buckling in all directions. But no enemy. No storm. Not even a cloud across the black night sky.
“QUAKE!” someone cried.
Papa registered the danger immediately and knew that they needed to get control of the boats or all would be lost. By now, all the men were scrambling. “John!” Ben hollered to Papa, “Take that other pole and get these boats away from the riverbank!”
Papa secured his rifle and quick as anything grabbed a pole. They pushed with all their might against a river bottom that was shifting like a giant ocean swell. A tree groaned and fell into the water with an enormous crash not five foot from the boats.
“One hell of a quake! Fuller, cut that line!” Papa yelled over to the other boat. Lashed closely together, the boats smashed into each other with every surge of the river and made little progress away from the bank. Fuller hacked the lines free from Papa’s boat and hurled himself toward the lashings securing it to the Douglass boat.
Papa’s boat was free. “Get us out into the middle of the river,” he told the two flatboatmen. Trees were falling all around, plunging into the waves and being thrust back up to the surface from the undulating river bottom like matchsticks. The water was churning and the rafts were in danger of being swamped or torn apart.
“Ray, what ya got?” Papa yelled over to Mr. Fuller. “Anyone hurt?
We’ll keep our distance so we don’t tear each other up.”
“Gracious John, you can feel waves moving across the river bottom,” yelled Mr. Douglass back at Papa and Mr. Torbett. “It’s Judgment Day!” Waves kept lurching up and over the rafts, drenching the men and tossing them around. They would grab a rope or throw themselves flat to stay on board the bucking flatboats. Even with moonlight, it was impossible to see what was happening from one minute to the next.
Whether they believed it was an earthquake or the end of the world, all the men, including Papa, were in mortal fear for their lives, which drove them into frantic action. The Murrell and Fuller boats lurched out into the center of the churning river. The Douglass boat was the last to push away from the bank, but it was too late. A big pine dropped across its deck and pinned it down.
Papa looked back toward land and saw what had happened. “Charlie, can you pole your boat out from under that tree?”
“We’ve got a man hurt,” called Douglass. “I’m not sure if we can get— ” His voice was drowned out by another roar, then the waves carried the Murrell and Fuller boats swiftly away. In another minute they were two hundred yards downstream, bucking up and down, back and forth, like wild broncs.
“Ben, we got to get this here boat under control and pointed downriver. Move up front and pole it out straight.” Papa called to the boatmen, “Get some rope and get those bales lashed down. You, see if you can fish some of that overboard cotton and whiskey out of the water and back on the boat.”
Suddenly, another surge came from downstream. The men were knocked to their knees as water rushed over the deck.
As Ben and Papa staggered back to their feet, Papa looked over at Ben who was staring slack jawed, an expression of total amazement on his face.
“My God, John, the river is flowing BACKWARDS!” said Ben.
Papa looked across the raging waters; it was true. Somehow, that last surge had reversed the flow of the river. Now they were being pushed upstream, back toward Douglass.
The surge had rolled the tree off the back end of the Douglass boat and the crew was able to pole out into the river. The roaring grew louder and louder, filling the men’s heads with fear and helplessness. It seemed like it would never stop.
Suddenly there was another huge rumbling from within the earth behind them. Even more powerful waves began crashing down on all sides. They swung around, terrified to watch, as the land and river bottom cracked open about fifty feet behind them. The upstream riverbank, where their boats had been moored, was thrust ten feet into the air. Instantly there was a waterfall between them and the Douglass boat. Their boats had begun moving backward toward the fissure when they saw the Douglass boat plunge toward the newly formed falls. As the boat flipped end over end, half the Douglass cargo and at least two men went flying twenty feet into the air.
Papa pushed aside the panic and got down to business. Thinking fast, he used his pole to check for sawyers in the water directly in front of him, then hollered to one of the flatboatmen, “Take this pole and get the boat under control! I’m going after those boys!” He jumped in and fought his way through the angry frothing water to the nearest man. It was Douglass. Papa grasped him so his head would stay above water while he swam toward the riverbank. There was no way to tell whether Douglass was dead or alive, but Papa struggled against the surges and made it to shallow water. With Douglass in tow, he was wading waist deep up to the shore when he saw a big oak come crashing down. Papa was struck a blow to the head by one of its falling branches, and his world went black.