The Great New England Earthquake of 1663 collapsed walls and frightened colonists from Quebec City to New York, but Puritan ministers and Jesuit priests saw a silver lining. People flocked to church in the immediate aftermath.
No one had much question that the tremors came from God. Clearly He was trying to tell sinners something. Opinions varied as to exactly what.
The Great New England Earthquake of 1663, also known as the Charlevoix Earthquake, started along the Saint Lawrence River, between the mouths of the Malbaie and Ouelle rivers. Geologists estimate it measured 7.3 to 7.9 on the Richter scale. It wreaked the most damage in Canada, but in Boston and Portland it toppled chimneys, tossed pewter off shelves, shook houses and sent frightened men and women into the streets.
The Great New England Earthquake
On the Monday evening of Jan. 26, 1663, New Englanders sitting inside their homes suddenly heard a peculiar roaring sound. It grew louder and louder, and houses shook and rocked. “The tenons of the timbers moved in and out of their mortises,” wrote historian Sidney Perley. People who stood when the shaking began had to sit or fall down, he wrote.
According to a contemporary account in Canada, the heavens were serene around 6 pm on Jan. 26 (Old Style), 1662-3, when all of a sudden a roar erupted ‘like that of a great fire:’
“Immediately the buildings were shaken with amazing violence. The doors opened and shut of themselves, with a fearful clattering. The bells rang without being touched. The walls split asunder. The floors separated, and fell down. The fields put on the appearance of precipices, and the mountains seemed to be moving out of their places: and amidst the universal crash which took place, most kinds of animals sent forth fearful cries and howlings.”
Boston suffered the most damage, followed by the coastal communities of Massachusetts Bay.
The aftershocks continued for days, and the earth didn’t stop shaking completely until July.
As the region had so few people, the earthquake caused no recorded loss of life. One Jesuit priest, Father Charles Simon, viewed it as a sign of divine mercy. And Puritan ministers reported the earthquake as a sign of divine judgment.
In New England and in New France, the people became more pious — at least for a while.
This story about the Great New England Earthquake was updated in 2021. With thanks to Historic Storms of New England: Breathtaking accounts of powerful storms on land and sea, by Sidney Perley.