Shaken Awake: The Nighttime Earthquake of 1783

By Katrin Kleemann

Earthquakes in the United States? California is probably the first state that comes to mind. The largest earthquake with an estimated 8.7-9.2 magnitude in the contiguous US was a megathrust earthquake off the coast of Washington state on 26 January 1700. Ever since Conevery Bolton Valencius’ book The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes we know that the 1811–1812 earthquakes in today’s Missouri, which reached magnitudes of between 7 and 8, were felt over large parts of the Central and Eastern United States. The East Coast has experienced some strong earthquakes in the past—most recently on the 23 August 2011, when an earthquake in Virginia with a magnitude of 5.8 and a maximum perceived intensity of VII (very strong) damaged the Washington monument and the National Cathedral in Washington DC, among other buildings (Image 1 &2).

 

Image1: In September 2017, the repair works at the National Cathedral were still going on. Photo by Katrin Kleemann

 

Image 2: Earthquake Update at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in September 2017. Photo by Katrin Kleemann

 

In May 2018, I spent a month in the US visiting several archives to study the weather in the 1780s to see what sort of impact, real or imagined, the Laki Fissure eruption in Iceland, the topic of my dissertation, might have had on North America. In Europe, it caused a sulfuric-smelling dry fog that lasted for about two months, and it was associated with several other extraordinary natural phenomena at the time.

In the US, I studied mostly meteorological records, diaries, correspondence, and annotated almanacks. The latter turned out to be a very fruitful source for reconstructing historical weather. Almanacks were printed the year before, but they contained (sometimes individually added) blank pages next to the printed page about every month of the year, which were used to describe the local weather of the respective month. Usually the blank page was a list, numbered 1 through 31 for the days of the month, with additional information on the weather of the day, information on farming or harvest, personal events, as well as mentions of anything extraordinary. An earthquake on the East Coast would certainly fall into the latter category. Not expecting to learn about earthquakes in North America, I was fascinated to find a description such as this (Image 3):

 

“29 [November] Sat[urday]. Clear. Mr. Philip Derheimer spend [sic] the evening at my home. At about twenty minutes after 10 o’clock at night I felt an Earthquake walking through the room upstairs by the Rattling of the Windows which lasted about a half a minute.“

 

Image 3: This photo shows one page of Jacob Hiltzheimer’s diary, the second last entry on the right-hand side page mentions the earthquake.
Credit: Jacob Hiltzheimer’s diary, volume 13, 29 November 1783, from the collection Jacob Hiltzheimer Diaries, 1765-1798; American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, USA. Photo by Katrin Kleemann.

 

I found this mention in the diary of Jacob Hiltzheimer, a German immigrant (Image 4), who emigrated from Mannheim to Philadelphia in 1748. He was a farmer in Philadelphia at the time.

 

Image 4: This photo shows the entries of Cotton Tufts for the month of November 1783. On the bottom left, next to the number 29, you can see the below mentioned entry about the earthquake on 29 November 1783.
Credit: Cotton Tufts’ diary, 29 November 1783, from the collection Cotton Tufts Diaries, 1748-1794; Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, USA. Photo by Katrin Kleemann.

 

Many of the diaries I studied in the American archives mentioned this earthquake—in Philadelphia, New Haven, Boston, and Worcester. Most of these entries are really brief, usually only consisting of a few words, such as the line “Between 10 & 11 [pm] a small shock of an Earthquake” from Cotton Tufts’ diary on 29 November 1783. He lived in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The fact that diarists from several different states reported on the earthquake, means the earthquake must have been felt over a large area and must in fact have been quite strong, but not strong enough to cause widespread destruction.

Several contemporary newspapers also featured reports about this earthquake, such as this one above in the Pennsylvania Packet and General Advertiser, published in Philadelphia, from 2 December 1783:

 

“On Saturday night last, about a quarter after ten o’clock, a smart shock of an earthquake was felt in and about this city; and about one o’clock on Sunday morning another, less violent, was felt by many people in the city and suburbs. Most of the houses were very sensibly shaken so that in many the china and pewter, &c. were thrown off the shelves, and several persons were waked [sic] from their sleep. We hope that the country has sustained no damage by this convulsion of nature, which brings fresh to our memory the late calamities of Italy, &c, &c.”

 

Indeed, the earthquake(s) seemed to have awoken many people along the East Coast, famously, however, George Washington did not wake up from the earthquake. According to Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, Washington was staying at the Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan, New York, at the time, and Chernow argues, a man who has been through war isn’t unsettled easily.

 

Image 5: Location of the Ramapo Fault and the approximate location of the 1783 earthquake in northern New Jersey. Map by Jack Walsh, CC BY 4.0.

 

Today we know that this earthquake on 29 November 1783 originated in New Jersey, probably in the Reading prong on the 12 km wide Ramapo Fault (Image 5), but the location has an uncertainty of 100 km (according to Sykes et al. 2008). The USGS states that it reached a magnitude of 5.3 and an intensity of VI (strong) on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale, which describes an earthquake “felt by all; many frightened and run outdoors, some heavy furniture moved; a few instances of fallen plaster or damaged chimneys; damages slight” and therefore is in accordance with the description in the newspaper. The earthquake was preceded by a magnitude 4.65 foreshock at around 9 pm local time (according to Sykes et al. 2008) and a less severe aftershock at around 2 am, both were only felt in New York and Philadelphia.

This article first appeared on Environmental History Now as “29 November 1783: The night the US East Coast was awoken by “a small shock of an earthquake” on 10 September 2018.


About the Author

Dr. Katrin Kleemann is an environmental historian working on volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, climate, and maritime history. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the German Maritime Museum / Leibniz Institute for Maritime History in Bremerhaven, Germany. Katrin studied history, cultural anthropology, and geology at the University of Kiel, the Free University Berlin, and LMU Munich. In 2020, she obtained her doctorate from LMU Munich with a major in history and a minor in geology. She was a member of the international and interdisciplinary doctoral program “Environment and Society” at the Rachel Carson Center. Her book A Mist Connection. An Environmental History of the Laki Eruption of 1783 and Its Legacy was published in De Gruyter’s Historical Catastrophe Studies series in 2023. Her work has also appeared in Nature, Global Environment, Climate of the Past, and WIREs: Climate Change. Previously, Katrin worked at the Department of History at the University of Freiburg, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at LMU Munich, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and was a fellow at the John Carter Brown Library (Providence, USA) and the Scott Polar Research Institute (Cambridge, UK).

Email: k.kleemann@dsm.museum

Website: http://www.katrinkleemann.com/

Twitter: @katrinkleemann

 



Cite this blog post
The Editors (2023, October 25). Shaken Awake: The Nighttime Earthquake of 1783. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved May 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg69

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1 Response

  1. Troy says:

    Thank you for sharing your research.

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