Great Comet of 1811
Partial projected path of the Great Comet of 1811 with locations of Burchell's comet and right triangle. Milky Way outlines are from Antonin Becvar's Atlas of the Heavens
The New Madrid seismic zone earthquakes of 1811-1812 may not have been caused by strictly run-of-the-mill seismic activity. This is a study into the possibility that some Near Earth Object (NEO), such as the "Great Comet of 1811", was an outside-the-box crustal stressor. If a NEO involvement is found, then some fear of the unknown about the timing of the next big one may come to be dispelled. See Earthquake Liquefaction Safety.

The following paragraph is extracted from the "Great Comet of 1811" article referred to above.

On November 4, [William J.] Burchell (near the Vaal River about 50 miles west of present day Kimberly, South Africa) wrote, "as I lay waiting for sleep, and amusing myself in observing the constellations above my head, I noticed a faint nebulous star of the third magnitude, which I had not been used to see in that part of the heavens. Looking at it more attentively, it appeared plainly to be a comet." He said it was located in the tail of Aquila and formed a right triangle with Alpha Cygni and Alpha Lyrae.

A portion of the path for the Great Comet of 1811-12, based on a NASA JPL ephemeris, is shown on the image. (Go to NASA's Near Earth Object Program and enter "C/1811 F1" as the search object.) Comet positions are annotated for 04 Nov 1811, 23 Dec 1811 and 06 Feb 1812. Note that Burchell's 04 Nov 1811 magnitude 3 comet in the tail of Aquila is approximately 35 degrees SSE from the ephemeris position for C/1811 F1 (RA 18 11 17.37 Dec +28 10 05.3) on the same date.

In 1991 David Yarrow, editor of the Ratville Times, reprinted Allan W. Eckhert's story(1) of the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh's prophecy, and its fulfillment, of a catastrophic event/sign felt across the North American continent on December 16, 1811. Eckert says the event, which seems to have pointed to the 16 Dec New Madrid earthquake, was preceded by a meteor-like preparatory sign which occurred 30 days earlier.

A biography of Tecumseh(2) coincides with details in Eckhert's account but does not address any events of 1811-12.

One historical account pertaining to the New Madrid Earthquake(3) draws attention to Tecumseh's prophecy about stamping his feet on a specified date (December 16th 1811) to cause all the houses in an Alabama Indian village to fall down. This account, although not as detailed as Allan Eckhert's story above, seems to bear it out.

Smoking Gun (or Blowing Smoke)?

There were no known seismic foreshocks prior to the first shock of 16 Dec 1811 earthquakes(4). This, in itself may not be evidence of, but could have been consistent with a meteorite impact. If so, where's the crater?

Most everybody knows about the Barringer meteorite crater, safely stashed away in the Arizona desert of the U.S.A., but they may tend to dismiss the idea of meteorite impacts near what are now populated areas. There is, however a growing body of information about heretofore unrecognized meteorite impact structures in some of the funnest places. [Added 07 Dec 2005.]

Panther Mountain
One such long-unrecognized impact structure currently under study, is located in southeastern New York state, some twenty miles WNW of Kingston, NY, or 83 miles NW of New York City. The ten kilometer wide structure, known as Panther Mountain (Great shades of Tecumseh!) is currently estimated to be 375(*) million years old. The map on the left, which shows this former crater (the rim has eroded) bracketed by two other such structures, is copied with permission from Charles O'Dale's Aerial Explorations of Terrestial Meteorite Craters webpage on the Panther Mountain Meteorite Crater. (On the map, the location of New York City coincides with the top part of the "P" in Panther.) [Added 07 Dec 2005. Updated 13 Dec 2005.] (*) Thanks to Pat Yager for noting the 3.75 million years, instead of 375 million years "boo boo" in the age figure. [01 Feb 2006]

If you visit the O'Dale web page, be sure to scroll down to the Panther Mountain Crater "Analog" on Mars section. It appears to show a central circular plateau consisting of fill in sediments, encompassed by an erosional depression, presumably where the former crater wall once existed. Whether or not the Hatchie Coon flat can be considered as the remains of a similar formation is a wild hairy speculation. [Added 14 Jan 2007.]

This 1994 quote by Kenji Satake alludes to a meteorite impact caused tsunami. "Abnormal sediments in Texas and Mexico have been interpreted to be tsunami deposits, apparently from a gigantic meteorite impact near Yucatan at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary [Bourgeois, et al, 1988](5), when a mass extinction took place. Study of deposits from recent tsunami events will provide an important calibration to quantify such geological studies." [Emphasis added.] [Added 11 Dec 2005.]

A modest sized meteorite crater, say a mile or so in diameter, located in a swampy alluvial plain (such as that associated with the Mississippi river back in the 1800s) might be rapidly obscured from casual view by liquefaction, and tsunami-like river excursions associated with impact aftershocks. [Added 07 Dec 2005.]

With reference to obscured craters in aluvial plains: A few years back, in one of Saddam Hussien's public works projects, a swampy area in southern Iraq was drained. In so doing, what appears to be a submerged meteorite crater was found that is thought to date to about 2350 BC. It is being hypothesized that the meteorite impact may have caused the demise of some early bronze age (historical) civilizations. See the Cambridge Conference Network Summary. [Added 07 Dec 2005.]

The author of this webpage used Google Earth to search for the exposed crater (Umm al Binni Lake) which, according to one source, is at 31 08 58 North 47 04 44 East, but he was unable to discern its presence. It's reported to be about 45 miles south of Al'Amarah, Iraq, and 10 miles northwest of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Google Earth coordinates of Umm al Binni Lake are 31 14 26.5 North, 47 06 16 East. The lake is 28 miles (45 km) northwest of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and 42 miles (67 km) south (about 190 degrees CW from north) of Al'Amarah. See Master and Woldai (2004) (6) [Added 04 Jul 2008.]

Umm al Binni Lake
GoogleEarth satellite image of Umm al Binni Lake in southern Iraq. The ruler line represents a distance of two miles.
Where's the New Madrid Event Crater?

Readers may need to keep a salt shaker nearby.

The first jolt of the 1811 New Madrid quakes is thought to have been centered near Marked Tree, AR. The region of Marked Tree would, therefore, be a logical place to search for a meteorite impact structure.

Just north of Marked Tree, AR there is a swampy region called the Saint Francis Sunk[en] Lands. (The 1811-12 earthquakes are said to be responsible for the sinking of the lands.) This particular swamp is fed by the Saint Francis river.

In 1889, in the middle of the swamp, there there was a body of water called St. Francis Lake. At that time it had a circular southern border (which doesn't look like an oxbow feature) and a centrally located island. The island is now known as Hatchie Coon Island.

The following map shows the features just discussed. Jonesboro, AR is located in the upper left corner of the map, and the location for Marked Tree, AR is annotated in the southeast corner.

Saint Francis Lake
Saint Francis Lake North of Marked Tree, AR, USA, 1889 This abbreviated map is from a Northeast AR - Southeast MO map (Big!) Original map is at University of Alabama Map Library. To see an outline of the former St. Francis Lake overlaid
on a 1956 topo map of the area, goto St. Francis Lake.
The author recommends, if it hasn't been done yet, that some organization versed in meteorite impact structures examine the region of the former St. Francis Lake to see if there are any indicators there consistent with (or inconsistent with) a large meteorite impact. Anyone having knowledge that this has already been done, whatever the final verdict, please inform the author.
[Added 10 Dec 2005.]

One such (meteorite yes/no) indicator would be the forestry history of the area. For example: If there are any trees within the confines of the former St. Francis Lake and/or Hatchie Coon Island which were alive and standing before, during, and after the winter of 1811-1812, then that would be constitute evidence that St. Francis Lake was NOT caused by a meteorite impact. On the other hand, if all the trees in the area came to be there only after 1811, and not as a result of clear cutting and replanting, then that would suggest a need to examine other possible meteorite indicators. The author solicits inputs from persons who have knowledge of publicly available written or photographic information on this topic. [Added 26 Feb 2006.]

See a report [under construction] regarding a field trip to the Hatchie Coon Island area to make initial assessments of the above hypothesis. [Added 14 Jan 2007.]

The Great Comet of 1811

In 1893 Norbert Herz reported what seems to have been evidence of a significant pertubation to the orbit of the Great Comet of 1811(7). Quoting Herz: "In general, if a comet is not perturbed by external forces, only one orbit, be it parabolic, elliptic, or hyperbolic, can be derived from the observations [of the comet]. But a single curve cannot be found for the comet of 1811 which will satisfy the observations."

Working from a total of 984 observations, Herz published monthly simple means of the errors (between calculated and observed positions) but didn't furnish indicators of maximum errors or of variances. The author hopes to obtain a copy of the observations in order to produce a clearer assessment of the comet's path. The idea is to see if Burchell's 04 Nov 1811 comet observation from South Africa (See second paragraph of this article.) is consistent (or not) with vetted observations of C1811 F1. Secondarily, it is desirable to look for a probable cause of the pertubation to the Great Comet's orbit. [Added 12 Dec 2005.]

One possibile explanation for the fact that a single curve couldn't be found for C1811 F1's orbit is that the comet fissioned and that one or both of the fission products moved off in different orbits from the original. John Kezys calls our attention to a report of such an event. He says, "As Napoleon marched into Russia with an army of seven hundred thousand strong, the Great Comet [of 1811] developed a tail one hundred million miles long. Following initial victories Napoleon overextended himself. After the invasion of Moscow he ran short of supplies and the winter proved unforgiving. Hundreds of thousands died while the comet performed frightening acrobatics by splitting in two."(8) [Added 12 Dec 2005.]


(1) Allan W. Eckhert, PANTHER ACROSS THE SKY - Tecumseh and the New Madrid Earthquake, December 16, 1811.

(2) Tecumseh 'The Panther Passing Across' Shawnee Warrior.
Was at: No longer available online.

(3) Nicholas Roosevelt's 1811 Steamboat New Orleans - Tecumseh and the Earthquake. The author quotes material from Thomas McKenney's History of the Indian Tribes of North America, (1838).

(4) A. C. Johnson and E.S. Schweig, (PDF) "The -Enigma of the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812". Annual Reviews Earth Planet, 24, 339-84, 1996. An abbreviated HTML version of this document is at .

(5) Bourgeois, J., T. A. Hansen, P. L. Wiberg, and E. G. Kauffman, "A tsunami deposit at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary in Texas," Science, 241, 567, 1988.

(6) Sharad Master and Tsehaie Woldai (2004), "The Umm al Binni Structure, in the Mesopotamian Marshlands of Southern Iraq, as a Postulated Late Holocene Meteorite Impact Crater: Geologic Settings and New Landsat ETM+ and ASTER Satellite Imagery," Economic Geololgy Research Institute Information Circular No. 282, Hugh Allsopp Laboratory, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, SA. See: (PDF)

(7) Herz, Norbert, "Remarks on the orbit of the great comet of 1811 and on comet's tails," The Observatory, 16, 98-102 (1893).

(8) Kezys, John, "Napoleon's Comets," Orbit, Feb 1996, page 27. See: [URL has changed or article is no longer available] Kezys's source on this was Olson, Roberta, Fire and Ice, A History of Comets in Art, Walker, ISBN 0802777838, page 76, (1985).

Related Links

How Dangerous are Earth-Crossing Objects? [Added 02 Jan 2006.]

Latest Update 23 Sep 2010 (New or recently modified material is in bold)