In October, 1727 northern New Englanders ran for cover as the 1727 earthquake, more powerful than any they had experienced, shook the region late one night.
The Rev. Nathaniel Gookin of Hampston, N.H. recalled: “It is hard to express the consternation that fell, both on men and beast, in the time of the great shock. The brute creatures ran roaring about the fields, as in the greatest distress. And mankind were as much surprised as they, and some with very great terror; so that they might say, as Psalm 55:5; ‘Fearfulness and terror hath come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me.’”
The epicenter of the quake was located off the New Hampshire and Massachusetts coast, and it jolted buildings from Maine to Connecticut and 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.
In Boston, Rev. Cotton Mather reported:
The night that followed the 29th of October, was a night whereto New England had never, in the memory of man, seen the like. The air never more calm, the sky never more fair; everything in all imaginable tranquility; but about a quarter of an hour before 11, there was heard in Boston, passing from one end of the town to the other, a horrid rumbling like the noise of many coaches together driving on the paved stones with the utmost rapidity. But it was attended with a most awful trembling of the earth, which did heave and shake so as to rocque the houses, and cause here and there, the falling of some smaller things, both within doors and without. It cannot be imagined but that it gave an uncommon concern unto all the inhabitants, and even a degree of consternation unto very many of them. The first shock, which was the most violent, was followed with several others, and some repetition of the noise, at sundry times, pretty distinct from one another. The number of them is not entirely agreed; but at least four or five are allowed for; the last of which was between five and six of the clock in the morning. It extended for scores of miles, west and south. . . . What added unto the terrors of it, were the terrible flames of light in the atmosphere, which accompanied it. . . . The vessels on the coast were also made sensible of it by shivering that seized on them.
In Newbury, Mass. where the quake left large fissures in the ground, the inhabitants described the roaring of the earthquake as a massive firing of cannon. Henry Sewell noted that the sand from the cracks in the ground, when heated, created a bluish flame.
In Newcastle, N.H. after the quake had subsided, 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.
In Nantucket, one of the town’s boat builders ran to the harbor and put to sea in one of his boats, afraid that 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. The churches were packed through the night with frightened citizens.
In the end, no one was even seriously hurt by the quake, though chimneys were 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 noted that wells improved in quality.
The ministers, meanwhile, used the earthquake to inspire the recalcitrant to return to church and urge the pious to rededicate themselves to living Godly lives. A day of fasting was held in Medford, Mass. and in other locations.
The more science-minded looked for natural explanations of the earthquake. 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, and some suggested that was connected to the quake.
Others suspected subterranean vapors and explosions brought on the quake. Boston minister Thomas Foxcroft suggested that the earth was not solid, and underground caverns filled with flammable vapors were susceptible to exploding, causing earthquakes.
Thomas Prince, another Boston minister, conjectured that the explosions underground did not force the land upward, but rather created pockets of vacuums underground that the land collapsed into.
John Barnard, minister in Marblehead, concluded that the surface of the earth was shifting in response to the subterranean shocks, 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 quake to a laundry list of sins: adultery, sodomy, excessive consumption of alcohol, failing to keep the Sabbath, failing to support ones 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.