Historic Earthquakes

The Earthquake of 1638

Chapter II
Historic Storms of New England
by Sidney Perley

The morning of Friday, June 1, 1638, was very pleasant. The sun shone brightly, and the wind came gently from the west. The month of roses never opened more auspiciously.

Noon came and passed, and the settlers proceeded to their various labors in the field. Between one and two o'clock acute ears heard a low murmur of distant sound, which grew louder and clearer until every one heard what seemed to be the rumble of thunder far away. In a minute or two it increased in volume and in sharpness until it resembled the rattling of many carriages fiercely driven over granite pavements. The people were startled by the noise and discontinued the work upon which they were engaged to discover whence the sound came, and what it was. A clear sky beamed down upon them. Not a cloud could be seen out of which the thunder tones could emanate. The more they thought of the matter, the greater grew their perplexity. Not many moments elapsed, however, before the earth began to tremble beneath their feet, and terrified they threw down their tools and ran reeling like drunken men, with ghastly countenances, to the first group of people they could find, for men like many animals will flock together when they are afraid. The shaking of the earth increased to such a violent extent that people could not stand erect without supporting themselves by taking hold of posts or palings and other fixtures. Not only the mainland, but the islands in the ocean were shaken violently, and the vessels that rode in the harbors and those sailing along the coast were acted upon as if a series of tidal waves had passed under them.

People in their houses were much alarmed, for not only did they hear the awful sound and feel the trembling of the earth, but the houses over them shook to their very foundations, and it seemed as if they must collapse. The chimneys of the first houses here were built on the outside at the ends of the houses, with the tops rising just above the roof. They were massive piles of rough and uneven stones, generally some six feet square, the sides being nearly perpendicular. Imperfectly built, without mortar except for filling, they readily yielded to the terrible shaking they received, and the tops of many of them fell off, striking on the house or on the ground. The noise of the falling stones outside accompanied the rattle of pewter platters and dishes and other things that stood upon the shelves in the houses, which knocked against each other and fell down.

This first and greatest shock of the earthquake continued for about four minutes. It came from the western and uninhabited portion of the country and proceeded easterly into the Atlantic. It shook the whole country from the coast into the wilderness for many miles, the Indians reporting that they felt it far in the interior.

The first shock died away and the noised ceased. The people began to resume their several labors. Half an hour passed, when to their surprise and terror, the horrible rumbling of the thunderous sound, and the quaking of the earth were renewed. But it quickly passed, being less violent than the first shock. For twenty days the earth was in an unquiet condition.

Some of the people of Plymouth were about to remove to another place, and several of the principal persons of the town were gathered at a house for an hour of conference before their separation. While thus engaged, the terrible noise and shaking of the earth came upon them. The men were sitting in the house talking together, and some women and others were without the door. Those outside would have been thrown to the ground if they had not caught hold of the posts and pales near which they were standing.

At Newbury, a town meeting was in progress, and while the questions which arose for decision were being discussed, the sound of the on-coming earthquake burst upon their ears, as the historian says, like "a shrill clap of thunder." The building was violently shaken; and wonder and amazement and fear filled the minds of the people. After the tumult had ceased, before proceeding to further business, the assembly voted to record the fact of the earthquake, concluding their record thus, "wherefore taking notice of so great and strange a hand of God's providence, we were desirous of leaving it on record to the view of after ages to the intent that all might take notice of Almighty God and fear this name."

The summers for several years after the earthquake were cool and unseasonable for the ripening of corn and other crops, as compared with those of a number of years preceding it. They were also subject to unseasonable frosts, and on this account Indian corn seldom matured. Whether this was a change brought about by, or was a result of the earthquake is of course uncertain, though it does seem reasonable to suppose that the earth after its convulsions would be cooler than it was before.

Earthquakes are always fearful and impressive, but the people of the time when this one occurred must have had many doubts and fears in their minds. They were not only superstitious, but this was a new and unknown world, which but a few years before was pictured with the most awful terrors.

This, the greatest earthquake of the seventeenth century, marked an epoch in the lives of the settlers of New England, and for many year afterwards it was common for them to compute dates of incidents as "so long since the earthquake."

N.B.: Although the earthquake occurred on 11 June 1638, this article lists the earthquake as having occurred on 1 June 1638. This time discrepancy is due to the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendar.