Northern New Englanders ran for cover in late October as the 1727 earthquake, more powerful than any they had experienced, shook the region late one night.
Distressed livestock went running around fields and terrified people packed into churches.
The epicenter of the 1727 earthquake was located off the New Hampshire and Massachusetts coast. It jolted buildings from Maine to Connecticut. People far down the coast and up into Canada felt the quake, though the most severe damage was recorded between Cape Cod and Portsmouth, N.H.
Ministers interpreted the 1727 earthquake as the wrath of God, though the more science-minded looked for other explanations.
"It is hard to express the consternation that fell," said the Rev. Nathaniel Gookin of Hampton, N.H., in a sermon. He quoted Psalm 55:5: ‘Fearfulness and terror hath come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me.’”
The 1727 Earthquake
In Boston, Rev. Cotton Mather reported there had never, in the memory of man, been a night like the one that followed the 29th of October.
"The air never more calm, the sky never more fair; everything in all imaginable tranquility," he wrote.
Then in Boston at 10:45 pm there was heard 'a horrid rumbling like the noise of many coaches together driving on the paved stones with the utmost rapidity.' Along with the noise came a most awful trembling of the earth that rocked houses. Smaller things fell down both inside and outside, reported Mather.
Four or five shocks followed the first one, the last of which came between 5 am and 6 am.
"What added unto the terrors of it, were the terrible flames of light in the atmosphere, which accompanied it," Mather wrote. "The vessels on the coast were also made sensible of it by shivering that seized on them."
In Newbury, Mass., the 1727 earthquake left large fissures in the ground. The inhabitants described the quake's roaring as a massive cannon firing. Henry Sewall noted the sand from the cracks in the ground, when heated, created a bluish flame.
After the 1727 earthquake subsided, Newcastle, N.H., residents gathered outside and observed an eerie occurrence. In the church tower, the bell rang out. While some believed it was simply the result of the tower having been shaken, others insisted it was a supernatural act.
On Nantucket, one of the town’s boat builders ran to the harbor and put to sea in one of his boats, afraid the island would sink.
As daylight came, New Englanders grew calmer, but the following night fear returned that the earth would open up and engulf the cities. Frightened citizens packed the churches through the night.
In the end, no one was even seriously hurt by the 1727 earthquake, though chimneys toppled and buildings cracked. Some observed other changes in the natural landscape. Marshland that was unplantable in some spots was elevated and became useful acreage. Springs were altered and some wells improved in quality.
The ministers, meanwhile, used the 1727 earthquake to inspire the recalcitrant to return to church. They urged the pious to rededicate themselves to living godly lives. Medford, Mass., like many other towns, held a day of fasting.
One theory held that thunderstorms were associated with earthquakes. The summer had been plagued by dryness and thunderstorms that brought a lot of lightning but little rain. Some suggested that phenomenon was connected to the 1727 earthquake.
Others suspected subterranean vapors and explosions brought it on. Boston minister Thomas Foxcroft suggested the earth was not solid, and underground caverns filled with flammable vapors were susceptible to exploding, causing earthquakes.
Thomas Prince, another Boston minister, conjectured the explosions underground did not force the land upward, but rather created pockets of vacuums underground into which the land collapsed.
John Barnard, minister in Marblehead, concluded the earth's surface shifted in response to the subterranean shocks. That's a fair approximation of what scientists today know about the tectonic plates that make up the earth’s shell.
All agreed, though, that while the mechanics of an earthquake were not understood, it definitely emanated from God. And while God had not punished New Englanders with a deadly quake, he was nonetheless expressing his displeasure.
Writers attributed the 1727 earthquake to a laundry list of sins: adultery, sodomy, excessive consumption of alcohol, failing to keep the Sabbath, failing to support one's family, swearing and disrespect of ministers.
As Cotton Mather put it: “Let the natural causes of earthquake be what the wise men of enquiry please, they and their causes are still under the government of Him that is God of nature”
Note: The earthquake of 1727 occurred on November 10, 1727, though it’s referred to here as occurring October 29. This discrepancy reflects the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendar.
Thanks to: Historic Storms of New England, Sidney Perley; The Literature of the 1727 New England Earthquake, William D. Andrews and The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, Abijah Perkins Marvin. This story about the 1727 earthquake was updated in 2017.