Shaken Spirits

Cherokees, Moravian Missionaries, and The New Madrid Earthquakes, 1811-12
Center for American Indian Studies Programs
American Indian Studies Seminar Series
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

5:30 - 6:30 pm

B-94

Jonathan Hancock, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

From December 1811 through the spring of 1812, a series of massive earthquakes rattled the eastern half of North America.  At a mission site in Cherokee country, Moravians and Cherokees met to discuss the earthquakes’ meaning.  This paper uses their earthquake interpretations to trace a wider grappling for interpretive authority between Cherokees and Moravians.  Contemporary cultural and territorial concerns, grounded in a long-standing cosmological knowledge of the mechanisms responsible for natural disorder, framed a range of Cherokee interpretations.  Moravians hoped that the fear generated by the earthquakes would create the opportunity to stimulate Cherokee interest in Christianity, which had been distinctly lacking in the first decade of the mission. As their efforts to use the earthquakes for evangelical ends proved fruitless, however, the missionaries constructed an image of a lawless and threatening Cherokee nation that conformed to biblical signs of the end of the world.  These exchanges demonstrate the process by which two peoples mutually seeking divine explanations for natural disorder came to emphasize their cultural and epistemological differences.

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