What do you know about the New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) earthquakes of 1811-1812? If you are like me, you don’t know much, if anything. Geologists and seismologists (persons who study seismic activity, a.k.a. earthquakes) can maybe tell you about it. I learned about the earthquakes while researching my mother-in-law’s Holcomb ancestors. Several Holcomb families are reported to have lived in or near New Madrid, Missouri, when the earthquakes struck. As a genealogist, can I prove the connection? First, I relate the family history and historical documents then information about the earthquakes. Finally, I make my own conclusion.
The ancestral Holcomb/ Holcombe line traces back to Pendleton County, South Carolina. The 1790 census shows Joel Holcomb with one male over 16 years and 4 females.  Joel Holcombe I received a land grant in Warren county, Kentucky in 1792. The state of Virginia generally reserved land grants in this area for Revolutionary War soldiers.  Joel Holcombe I is my mother-in-law’s fifth great-grandfather.
An extensive Holcombe family history was published in 1947. The narrative records one or more men named Joel Holcombe in each generation. Sources include historical documents and oral family history. The editor also refers to written communications from numerous family members.
Pages 492-493: “[Joel Holcombe I] moved about 1797 with brother, Harman Holcombe, to Warren Co., Ky [Kentucky]. . . . moved from Warren Co., Ky. about 1804 with his brother, Harman Holcombe to New Madrid, New Madrid Co., Mo., they being reported as the first settlers there to take up land W. of the Mississippi River in the then new Louisiana Purchase. . . . moved to St. Clair Co., Ill. where his brother, Zachariah Holcombe, arrived in 1807. Joel had returned to New Madrid, Mo., by 1809 when he d.[ied] there.”
Page 493: “Joel Holcombe II. . . moved from Pendleton to Warren Co., Ky. about 1797 . . .and on or before 1812 had left Warren and was settled in New Madrid Co., Mo. where they were Dec. 16, 1811 when the first of a long series of earthquake shocks there, and throughout a large adjoining region. . . . “
If this account is true, then Joel Holcombe I died in or near New Madrid in 1809. Other Holcombe relatives survived the earthquake. “The Holcombes fled this disaster with others, generally mounted, carrying but little of their property to higher ground to the north and west, in Mo., where Joel Holcombe remained only a year or two before removing to St. Clair Co., Ill. , where he entered land in 1814. . . . “ 
Census records for 1820 show Joel Holcomb in St. Clair County, Illinois. The family consists of 2 free white males of 16 and under 26 and 1 free white female of 26 and under 45. Birth years for the males are estimated as between 1794 and 1804 suggesting that this is the younger Joel Holcomb. So far, information looks consistent.
However, there is at least one issue. Joel Holcombe II’s birth year is reported as about 1797. If true, then he would have been 13 or 14 years old at the time of the New Madrid earthquakes. At present, I am not attempting to validate the above information as reported in the Holcombe history. That is another project!
New Madrid is in the boot heel region of Missouri. During the early 1800s, the Mississippi River system was the primary trade route connecting eastern cities with New Orleans. New Madrid was the largest settlement between St. Louis and Natchez, Mississippi. This thriving, busy community had no way to predict the coming earthquake. Survivors reported rainy, unusually warm weather in the days just before the first quake.
The first earthquake shook the people of New Madrid, Missouri out of their beds at 2 a.m. on December 16, 1811. Numerous quakes continued to occur through March 1812.  At least two of the subsequent quakes were felt as far away as Washington, D.C. Eyewitness accounts describe the general destruction including coffins being tossed out of the ground at the local cemetery. At one point, the Mississippi River actually ran backwards and carried a flatboat about 4 miles upstream.
Located near Dunklin County, Missouri is Holcomb Island. Dunklin county was formed in 1845 from Stoddard County which had been formed from New Madrid County in 1845.  Was this island named after our Holcomb ancestors? From a message board: “Could Joel have been unlucky enough to have his 100 acres sink to the bottom of the Mississippi?” The same person reported that Joel Holcomb bought land in New Madrid County from an Edward Robertson in October 1811. I have not seen the original land transfer record and have not located it online.
Question: Were Holcomb ancestors present in or near New Madrid, Missouri at the time of 1811-1812 earthquakes? Answer: Likely. The land transfer record would prove that Joel Holcomb I purchased land in New Madrid about two months before the first earthquake. Land purchase suggests residence at the appropriate time. What other Holcomb families lived in the area? Joel Holcombe II may not have been old enough to have his own family. The assertion still needs to be proved. I see a genealogy field trip to Missouri in my future!
For additional information:
Fuller, Myron L. The New Madrid Earthquake. USGS Bulletin 494. Washington Gov’t Printing Office, 1912. [Cape Girardeau, MO: Center for Earthquake Studies, 1989]. 121 pages with extensive references including some firsthand accounts. Available online: https://pubs.usgs.gov/bul/0494/report.pdf
I have been intrigued by this story since I first read about it in 2015 as I delved deeper into my mother-in-law’s family. The New Madrid earthquake was a significant event in our nation’s early history. We lived in Arkansas for 9 years and heard about the New Madrid fault which runs through northwestern Arkansas. A similar earthquake now would potentially cause thousands of deaths. I have only scratched the surface on this topic. Still makes for an interesting family story.
In this post, I continue to write about possible family connections to specific events. These connections make both the people and the events more real. I realize that I need to validate information reported in the Holcombe book. The challenge will be to separate the lives of multiple men named Joel Holcombe in various generations. Genealogy Do-over focus for 2019?
What I learned: Personal stories about those who experienced the New Madrid earthquake. The impact was more far-reaching than I expected. The Indian leader Tecumseh is part of this history. The Holcombe family story has been handed down for generations.
What helped: Previous access to some documents. Book about the earthquake in my local library. 1820 & 1830 census records for Joel Holcombe (probably Joel II) in St. Clair, Illinois. Met word count goal of less than 1500 words for this post.
What didn’t help: Not having access to documents mentioned by others. No online database found with 1810 census or tax records for Missouri. I am becoming too dependent on technology!
To-do: Field trip to New Madrid and/or Missouri State Archives. Continue search for documents about Holcomb family during this time period. Search 1810 census records in Warren County, Kentucky for Joel Holcomb.
 1790 U.S. Census, Pendleton district, South Carolina, population schedule, , page 5, column 2, line 12, Joel Halcomb; digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed, printed, downloaded 21 September 2018); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C. microfilm publication M637,Roll 11.
 Hannah Elizabeth Weir McPherson, The Holcombes.Nation Builders (Washington, D.C.: The author , 1947), 492.
 McPherson, The Holcombes, Joel Holcombe I (p. 477, 492-493); Joel Holcombe II (p. 493); Joseph Holcombe (p. 493, 499-500).
 McPherson, The Holcombes, 493.
 1820 U.S. Census, St. Clair county, Illinois, population schedule, page 131, line 33, Joel Halcomb; digital images, Family Search (https://www.familysearch.org : accessed & printed 2 December 2018); citing National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., microfilm publication M19, roll 25.
 Jay Feldman, When the Mississippi ran backwards: Empire, intrigue, murder, and the New Madrid earthquakes. New York, NY: Free Press, 2005.
 Arch C. Johnston & Eugene S. Schweig, “The Enigma of the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 24 (1996), 339-384; image copy, Semantic Scholar, (https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1302 : accessed & downloaded, 2 December 2018).
 Donna Lonan, “Wingfield Notes: The Holcombs,” My Arkansas Families, discussion board, November 1981 and January 1982, posting date unknown (http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~arkfam/holcomb.html : accessed 2 December 2018).