‘When the Mississippi Ran Backwards’ by Jay Feldman



The verdict's in. Feldman's book sketches some great history, but he left an awful lot of events dangling and half-explained. Because the actual New Madrid earthquake of 1811-1812 isn't enough material to sustain a full book treatment, he goes into the history at the time – the tension between settlers and Native Americans, the big land grabs, tension with Spain, France and Britain, etc.

Does it sustain attention? Definitely. Did it teach me a lot about this period in time? No question. But it also leaves the reader wanting to know more about those frustrating gaps he glossed over, stories he mentions briefly then passes over.

The New Madrid earthquake was phenomenal. Had this area been as populated as it is now it would have been devastating in lives and damage. As it was, the population was small. Few people had settled New Madrid, and the damage was localized to that settlement and conveyances on the Mississippi River at the time, river travel caught in precarious circumstances as the banks of the river caved into the water. Trees blocked their passage, often trees just below the surface where they couldn't be seen until they were right upon them. Islands disappeared completely.

When the earthquake heaved the river basin it did, for a short time, run backwards, creating a tidal wave that must have been petrifying. The Great River also changed course, having carved away hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet of river bank.

The stories of the locals fill in some of the detail, but seismological records were all but non-existent at the time. Feldman references what scientific information there was, which is sketchy, and does a good job describing the different sorts of earthquakes, and how New Madrid is set up for the worst case scenario.

But, again. A lot's left hanging, and many of the tales of the people who were there seem embellished, without any reminder they aren't all to be taken at face value. Did he do his research? His bibliography certainly indicates it. So do his notes at the end of the book.

We concluded he simply had to cut off things somewhere or he'd have way too much on his plate. On the cusp of the War of 1812 lots was happening. And the full story would force the earthquake even more into the background than it already seems (it wasn't mentioned 'til halfway through the book).

Verdict? We're glad we read it. We learned so much about Native American/White relations during the period, how the Indian agents operated, some good info about inter-tribal relationships and how the great figure Tecumseh was involved in it all.

A recommended read.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; Book Club (BCE/BOMC) edition (March 1,
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743242785

[I read a library copy of this book.]

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