Cape Ann Earthquake

The Cape Ann Earthquake, November 18, 1755

A series of earthquakes in the 17th and 18th Centuries gave rise to recurrences of religiosity through New England.

June 1, 1638: Believed to have been centered along the Connecticut River Valley with a magnitude of about 6.5, this was the strongest known earthquake to hit New England: “A great & fearful earthquake; it was in this place heard before it was felt. It came with a rumbling noise, or low murmur like unto remote thunder; it came from ye northward, & passed southward. As ye noise approached nearer, the earth began to shake and came at length with that violence as caused platters, dishes, & such like things as stood upon shelves, to clatter and fall down.” (Bradford’s History)

March 5, 1643: “At seven in the morning, being the Lord’s day, there was a great earthquake. It came with a rumbling noise like the former but through the Lord’s mercy it did no harm.” (Coffin, A sketch of the History of Newbury & Newburyport)

Oct. 29, 1653: “There was a small shock of an earthquake.” (Coffin)

January 26, 1662: “Three violent shocks were felt in New England; There was an earthquake at the “shutting in of the evening, one of the greatest in New England. Chimneys were thrown down. The first shock continued about half an hour. On the same day, at evening, another. On February 5th, another, and they did not cease till July. November 6, another in the same place. ” (Newbury Record)

February 8, 1685: “Sabbath afternoon there was an earthquake.” (Essex County records)

On October 29, 1727 a severe earthquake occurred on a Sabbath night between ten and eleven o’clock. People became so frightened that a very powerful revival of religion followed in the Ipswich parishes and throughout New England. An urgent demand for reformation among the churchgoers at Chebacco parish (Essex) tested the abilities of the Rev. Thomas Pickering, until the more usual degree of harmony prevailed. (Waters, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony).

Reverend Benjamin Colman wrote about the earthquake in Newbury: “There the earth opened and threw up many cart-loads of a fine sand and ashes, mixed with some small remains of sulphur.” Henry Sewall also of Newbury, wrote, “We were sitting by the fire and about half after ten at night our house shook and trembled as if it would have fallen to pieces. Being affrighted we ran out of doors, when we found the ground did tremble, and we were in great fear of being swallowed up alive; but God preserved us.” (Memoirs read before the Boston Society of Natural History)

January, 1728: “January third, about nine at night an easy clap. Saturday night and day five claps. From about six at night to four Sunday morning some people said it continued for half an hour without ceasing burst upon burst. Upon Wednes-day January twenty-fourth about half an hour after nine at night one loud burst followed in half a minute by another much abated. Upon Lord’s day January twenty-eighth another easy burst about half after six in the morning, another about ten same morning easy. At the same night about one o’clock a loud burst. Monday January twenty-ninth it was heard twice. Tuesday the thirtieth about two in the afternoon there was a very loud clap equal to any but the first for terror, shaking our houses so that many people were afraid of their falling down, pewter and so forth was shaken off dressers at considerable distance. Another shock much abated about half an hour afterwards. February twenty- first about half after twelve at midnight a considerable loud burst. February twenty-ninth about half after one P. M. another.’ Mr. P. also mentions shocks as having occurred i March seventeenth about three A. M. March nineteenth about forty minutes past one P. M. and at nine the same night. April twenty- eighth about five P. M. May twelfth Sunday morning about forty minutes past nine a loud and long clap. May seventeenth Friday about eight P. M. a loud and long clap. May twenty-second several claps in the morning, and about ten the same morning a very loud and long clap. May twenty-fourth about eleven at night June sixth about three in the morning. June eleventh at nine A. M.” (Rev. Mathias Plant)

On June 3, 1744, the services of worship at the Hamlet (Hamilton) were interrupted by another earthquake. Pastor Wigglesworth continued preaching and calmed his parishioners by reminding them that “There is no better place for us to die in than the house of God”.

On November 18, 1755, the great “Cape Ann Earthquake” took place off the coast of Gloucester. At between 6.0 and 6.3 on the Richter scale, it remains the largest earthquake in the history of Massachusetts, and caused great alarm.

The Rev. Leslie of Linebrook Church in Ipswich announced it an opportune moment for “God of his infinite mercy to make it an effectual means of arousing sinners to a seasonable realization of their danger.” He recorded the earthquake’s effect on Ipswich: “Between ye hours of four & five in ye morning there happened a most surprising shock of ye earthquake, which was afterwards succeeded by several others, though non equal to ye first in ye Town of Ipswich. Much damage was done to many houses, yet through ye goodness of God no hurt was done either to ye lives or ye limbs of any persons. On Nov. 19 several shocks were heard, tho but small compared to ye first.”

The 1755 Cape Ann Earthquake was felt from Halifax to the Chesapeake Bay and from Lake George, NY to almost 200 miles out to sea east of Gloucester and Rockport. Fences were said to have fallen over in a line from Boston to Montreal. The epicenter was about 25 miles east-northeast of Cape Ann in an area of the ocean near Jeffreys Ledge where several small earthquakes have been noted over the past few decades.

This map shows the Earthquake history of New England
This map shows the occurrence and severity of earthquakes in New England from the beginning of English colonization until 1974. Note the cluster on the North Shore. The star just off of Cape Ann is the 1755 quake. A magnitude 5.0 earthquake centered on Nantucket occurred October 25, 1965.

Further Reading:

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