The area near New Madrid, Missouri, experienced three devastating earthquakes between 1811 and 1812. The first earthquake on December 16, 1811, was felt as far away as Canada and the Gulf Coast, causing very strong shaking over 232,000 square miles of the country. The sparse rural population at the time kept the human toll low, but the effects on the land were severe, liquefying soil and spreading fissures in the ground. Another smaller quake hit on January 23, 1812. The third quake occurred on February 7, 1812, destroying the town of New Madrid and causing structural damage to the city of St. Louis more than 150 miles to the north and widespread landslides. It even affected bodies of water: The Mississippi River appeared to reverse course for a time due to waves produced by the tremors.
The cumulative damage prompted William Clark, governor of the Missouri Territory, George Bullitt, speaker of the territorial house of representatives, and Samuel Hammond, president of the legislative counsel, to pen this petition imploring Congress in dramatic language that “provisions ought to be made by law, for granting to the Said Inhabitants relief, either out of the public land, or in Such other way as may seem meet to the wisdom & Liberality of the general government.” In 1815, Congress compensated victims by authorizing the sale of public lands of “like quantity” to those whose land had been destroyed by the earthquakes, making it the first disaster relief act.