James JosephWriting can be difficult and it can be fun. Here, I can write about anything that comes to mind, modern or ancient. I hope you'll join in with your comments.

July 14, 2009

Possible Reasons Why North America Was Not Heavily Populated When Europeans Arrived

It does seem strange that one of the most fertile areas on Earth, particularly the prairies and bottomlands surrounding the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and many other large rivers would not have been thickly settled long ago. But, there are many hints. Accumulating prehistoric evidence, combined with written accounts, provide an unusual history to this entire area.

While the Mississipi would provide a superb means of transportation for trade and migration, it was also much more unstable than appearances would suggest. Building along its banks would require the use of temporary structures or very high foundations. Even with all of the planning and work done by the Army Corps of Engineers to try and control the Mississippi with dikes and levees built on a massive scale, the power of the river can be unpredictable and overwhelming. In 1993 more than 1,000 of the river’s 1,300 dikes and levees were breached.

Even back during the initial European discovery, accounts by early Spanish explorers record the river flooding so extensively, it overflowed its banks for 20 leagues (60 miles) on each side of the river in 1643. Only the tops of the tallest trees remained visible. Since most people tended to live either near the ocean or a large river for purposes of travel, trade and food, this would make for a difficult place to survive. It is said that many of the great mounds built by the Native people contained large flat areas for housing to protect the villages from such dangerous floods.

Natives also said the Mississippi flooded about every 14 years. In the 1900’s there were 8 major floods, which would be very close to what the natives in De Soto’s time predicted.

But there were other problems as well. Droughts. Some of them were called mega-droughts. In the 1930’s, right at the time of the Great Depression, the dust bowl days began. A 10-year drought devastated most of the midwest. Crops were nearly impossible to grow. And odd occurrences created a nightmarish environment. Dust storms were extremely common and relentless. Those caught in these storms were often blinded and sometimes buried alive. The quickly moving dust caused strong jolts of static electricity when in contact with metal objects.

It wasn’t taken all that seriously by much of the US until the huge, billowing clouds of dust were blown all the way to Washington DC, and the east coast. Earlier droughts, however, were much more severe. One recently discovered mega-drought lasted 38 years.

This type of flood and drought pattern is extremely erratic, and while most of the time, the middle part of the country provides an excellent environment, it can suddenly turn dangerous, or perhaps deadly for early civilizations. But there’s yet another danger that can produce catastrophes on a regular basis. Earthquakes.

The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 were the worst earthquakes recorded in the lower 48 states. The fault runs through 7 states and crosses both the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. So powerful were these earthquakes that churchbells were ringing in steeples more than 1,500 miles away in Washington DC as well as Boston, MA, and this occurred more than 18 times during this series of earthquakes. The Mississippi river flowed backwards (or appeared to) at times. Whole lakes disappeared and turned up miles away. The Mississippi changed it’s course several times. Eyewitness accounts reported the ground rolling like an ocean in 30 foot waves. Water spouts of sand and water shot up to 200 feet in the air for days at a time. The smell of burning sulphur was in the air during the most severe of these massive earthquakes.

During the 1811-1812 earthquakes, there were 3-5 earthquakes estimated to be as high as 8.0 on the Richter scale, with thousands of aftershocks that lasted until 1817. Due to the geological makeup, earthquakes in the New Madrid fault zone can damage 20 times more area than earthquakes of similar magnitudes in California, where the underlying mass is younger and more pliable. It’s estimated that a 7.5 magnitude earthquake on the New Madrid fault could cause widespread damage in as much as 20 states, whereas a similar earthquake in California could be limited to that state.

While many of these disasters occured in the middle of the country, the west coast has also had its share of catastrophic earthquakes, droughts and tsunamis. The east coast is often pummeled by major hurricanes and blizzards. However, we only have a history of this continent that goes back for a little more than 500 years. Unlike Asia, Europe and Africa, we don’t have access to a long history. We really don’t know what other events occur here on a one or two thousand year average.  There could be other regular events that we simply don’t understand or have any preparation to withstand.

The North American continent could also have been protected by extremely aggressive tribes. In many places along the east coast it’s estimated that a family or village lived on the coastline every quarter to half mile. That would create a very effective communication system. If, for example, it was known that foreign vessels often contained hostile peoples, or carried deadly disease, they could have been prevented from surviving landfall. It’s known that when the pilgrims landed in what’s now Plymouth, MA back in 1620, their first encounter was with a native called Squanto. Squanto’s village had been decimated by pestilence. And, he spoke English. Our history books are quite incomplete and very selective.

However, it is becoming clearer as to why the North American continent was so undeveloped at the time of the first European arrivals (in relatively modern times). We know some of the difficulties and challenges this continent can produce, but perhaps only a minor understanding.  As time goes on, we’ll learn more and more.


3 Comments

  1. I’ve been fascinated by the New Madrid earthquakes since studying Tecumseh as a kid. Supposedly, he predicted the earthquake. I regularly look at the USGS site. Tomorrow will the the anniversary (199 years from one of the “big ones” that are said to occur about every 200 years. The USGS map of the Central US is interesting in that the New Madrid area has not recorded any tremors in 8 days now. That is unusual. I have not been checking this website long enough to know if the parallel earthquake areas to the West and east have always been this active. Has central Oklahoma always been such a “hot spot”? What about southeastern Tennessee?

    Comment by Wandering Soul — December 17, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  2. Sorry, Wandering. I accidentally deleted your post, but luckily, I had a copy in my email. It is very interesting that this is the 199th anniversary. I’ve heard that the New Madrid earthquake may occur about every 600 years as well as the 200 year figure. Since no one can really predict them, I guess it’s really just a number. It is interesting that you’ve been following this, and they haven’t had any tremors in 8 days. Are there always tremors somewhere along the fault?

    BTW, some old stories also suggest that Tecumseh was a powerful “medicine man”, and that he actually caused this earthquake as the start of a curse against the US that supposedly affected presidents every 20 years, generally by death. Reagan’s presidency apparently was the end of that curse/superstition. Just a curious side note I’ve come across in my readings over time.

    Comment by Jim — December 17, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

  3. The damage area for the 16 December 1811 New Madrid earthquake was 15 times as large as the area of similar damage for the magnitude 8.3 San Francisco earthquake of 1906. And the third of these great earthquakes, in February of 1812, is the largest known earthquake in the continental U.S. Only Alaska has had a larger one, the Great Alaska earthquake of 1964.

    Comment by Brigitte Mcmahon — February 15, 2013 @ 11:27 pm

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