On Dec. 16, 1811 the magnitude 7.0 New Madrid earthquake, with its epicenter in present-day Arkansas, was felt as far away as Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Pensacola, Fla.
The quake struck fear into the hearts of many people, including a Tennessean named Joseph Burleson, who had moved into the Louisiana Territory (later becoming the Missouri Territory) from Tennessee to be close to family.
In an interview with Anne Newport Royall, who is considered to be America's first female journalist and newspaper editor, Burleson revealed his earthquake experience. Royall interviewed Burleson in Moulton, Ala., in 1819. The interview is published in the book, 'Letters From Alabama, 1817-1822‘ published by the University of Alabama Press.
As a note, it’s tough to tell from the text just how much Royall colored Burleson’s experience with her own anti-religious views.
Burleson and his family were asleep when the rumbling began at about 2 a.m. Royall said Burleson sprang out of bed half asleep. 'He never thought of an earthquake; but concluded that… the end of the world was at hand,' Royall wrote. Another earthquake hit at 8 a.m. and Burleson became afraid, he told Royall.
'[I] was wicked and [my] children were very wicked and the neighborhood was very wicked.' Burleson concluded they were about to receive the wrath of God. On that day he decided to get right with God.
Burleson had heard of a nearby neighborhood where the people were professors of religion. He packed up his wife and nine children and moved there. 'I thought if I could live to get there, they would teach me how to prepare for my death,' Burleson said.
He told Royall, 'All I wanted, or cared for, was to be around godly people.' Burleson said that in his fear, he lost all desire for worldly objects. 'But such was not the case with my religious friends. Some admired my fine wagon; some admired my horses; and others admired my fine new saddles and bridles; and some one thing and some another, and they must have this and they must have that.'
After a while, Burleson became used to the rumblings and aftershocks that continued into 1812.
'But in the meantime these religious people had cheated me out of all my property,' he said, 'and I thought it high time to quit the country; and from that day to this, I put no faith in religious people.'
Burleson tallied his losses. 'My fine wagon and team; all my horses and all my money, 1,500 dollars in silver, and a fine drove of cattle, gone.'
Destitute, Burleson returned to Tennessee with his wife and children and began life anew. He joined the military under an upstart Tennessee militia colonel named Andrew Jackson who was preparing a campaign against the Creeks. Burleson was at Horseshoe Bend where he helped Jackson win the final battle of the Creek War.
After the war, Burleson and his family moved into what would become the White House community on the Buttahatchee River in Marion County located in northwest Alabama. His descendants still live there around the Burleson Church of Christ, where, by all accounts, they are good, upstanding God-fearing people.