The Day The Mississippi River Ran Backward—and How It Led to The Trail Of Tears


New Madrid seismic zone. Red circles identify earthquakes that occurred between 1974 and 2002 with magnitudes 2.5 and larger. Green circles denote earthquakes that occurred before 1974. The larger the circle, the larger the earthquake. Source: USGS

In 1811 and 1812, a series of earthquakes emanated from New Madrid, Missouri, and were felt as far away as Ohio and South Carolina. The soil beneath the Mississippi River rose, temporarily changing its course so that it flowed backward. (The phenomenon is not as rare as you might think; in fact, the Mississippi flowed backward earlier this year thanks to Hurricane Isaac.) The event might have gone relatively unnoticed except that a group of Muskogee people thought the phenomenon was a river god, the Tie Snake, writhing under the ground.

The Tie Snake was believed to be an antlered river monster who lurked beneath the water and straddled the divide between the Upper and Lower Worlds—between sky and river, and order and chaos. Muskogee culture focused on communal prosperity, but their traditions had been altered by the infiltration of European trade goods and the new culture that accompanied them. Some Muskogee people believed that the Tie Snake was calling them to return to a traditional lifestyle—and warning them to stop the Europeans from infiltrating their culture.

This command might also have gone (relatively) unnoticed, except that a remnant of the Spanish government met some Muskogee warriors in Pensacola, Florida, and gave them weapons. The British had the young American navy tied up off the Atlantic coast in the War of 1812, and the Spanish hoped that the Muskogee men could weaken the Americans from another direction.

The Muskogee (Creek) War

The Muskogees themselves were divided over the potential for conflict, but before they could reach a consensus, European settlers in the area caught wind of the exchange and ambushed the Muskogee warriors at the Battle of Burnt Corn. The Muskogees retaliated at the Battle of Fort Mims in 1813, and panic flared all the way from the frontier outpost to the paved streets of the new capital. Andrew Jackson charged south, leading a cavalry which chased the Muskogees from the Battle of Talladega to the slaughter at Horseshoe Bend in 1814.

The Muskogees were forced to cede a huge portion of their land in the subsequent peace treaty, and Jackson didn’t forget the experience. When he ascended to the presidency, his harsh policies led to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Throughout the next decade, thousands of Muskogee, Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw people were forced to march from the forests of the Deep South to what is now eastern Oklahoma. The Cherokee people’s journey was the most notorious; of the 15,000 who began the journey, 4000 died along the way.

All told, 46,000 Native Americans were removed from their ancestral lands during the forced migrations, in the exodus now remembered as the Trail of Tears.

Laura Steadham Smith is a graduate student at Florida State University.