"About 2 in the Afternoon we had a very moderate Trembling of the Earth." John Blair to Thomas Jefferson, March 2, 1774
The 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Central Virginia and many parts of the Eastern United States on August 23, 2011 was not the first of its kind to tremble the area. James and Dolley Madison’s historic Montpelier home lies squarely within the Central Virginia Seismic Zone, and while noticeable earthquakes are highly irregular, they are not uncommon. On March 2, 1774, Virginia statesman John Blair wrote to Thomas Jefferson that on February 21st in Williamsburg “about 2 in the Afternoon (some say ½ Hour later) we had a very moderate Trembling of the Earth, so moderate that not many perceived it, but Dr. [George] Gilmer informs me it was a pretty smart Shock with You; and by all accounts it was more and more severe as You advance to the West.”1 These tremors, which Jefferson noted in his account book on February 21 and 22, 1774, were undoubtedly also felt at Montpelier, although no extant accounts exist. Several years later in February 1791, James Madison wrote from Philadelphia to his father at Montpelier that “The earthquake was not felt here at all.”2 Unfortunately, James Madison Sr.’s letter describing the quake from Montpelier does not survive.
Perhaps the largest earthquake to affect the Madisons was a series of tremors centered in New Madrid in present day southeastern Missouri. This chain of powerful earthquakes — felt as far away as Massachusetts and Georgia — began on December 16, 1811, followed by subsequent quakes in January and February 1812. With the imminent prospect of war with Great Britain looming, Dolley Madison wrote to Anna Payne Cutts from Washington on December 22, 1811: “We had another shock of Earth Quake on Wednesday Night & Thursday Morg—.”3
Two months later, James Madison wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson: “The re-iterations of the Earthquakes continue to be reported from various quarters. They have slightly reached the State of N. Y. and been severely felt W. & S. Westwardly. There was one here [Washington, D. C.] this morning at 5 or 6 minutes after 4 OC. It was rather stronger than any preceding one, & lasted several minutes, with sensible tho very slight repetitions throughout the succeeding hour.”4 Similar to Tuesday’s tremor, the New Madrid earthquakes were felt hundreds of miles away.
Just as Montpelier survived the earthquakes described above, it smoothly weathered yesterday’s tremors. The epicenter of the earthquake was a mere thirty miles southeast, but damage in the mansion was limited to cracks in the plaster and slight damage to two chimneys which fortunately do not contribute to structural instability. These cracks almost certainly follow the exact pattern of those which would have been created during the 1811/1812 earthquake. John Jeanes, Director of Facilities & Restoration attributes some of this to the basic solidity of Montpelier’s original construction, but more specifically to the abilities of the modern artisans who precisely replicated the best of period practices with extraordinary integrity during Montpelier’s recent restoration.
A few books needed to be straightened on the bookshelves of the Library and picture frames tilted back to their normal position, but today things are steady and back to normal.
1. John Blair to Thomas Jefferson, March 2, 1774, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.
2. James Madison to James Madison Sr., February 13, 1791, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.
3. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Anna Payne Cutts, December 22, 1811, Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.
4. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, February 7, 1812, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.
Dolley Madison to Anna Payne Cutts, December 22, 1811, Courtesy of Library of Congress
Books askew in the Library.