At twenty miles long and seven miles wide, Reelfoot Lake in Northwest Tennessee is the largest naturally occurring lake in the state. The picturesque, Reelfoot Lake has a long, unique history and tradition, dating back to pre-settlement times. Today, it is a popular destination for duck hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts.
How Was Reelfoot Lake Created?
According to local native legend, Reelfoot Lake is said to be named for an Indian chief who had a deformed foot and was nicknamed “Reelfoot” by settlers in the early 19th century. The legend states that the name originated from a prince of a Chickasaw tribe inhabiting present West Tennessee, who was born with a deformed foot and walked with a rolling motion, so was nicknamed Kolopin, meaning Reelfoot.
When he became chief, Reelfoot was determined to marry a Choctaw princess, but her father would not permit it. The Great Spirit warned Reelfoot that if he attempted to kidnap the maiden, his village and his people would be destroyed. Reelfoot disobeyed the Spirit and seized the princess by force and carried her to Chickasaw territory, where he arranged a marriage ceremony.
In the middle of the ceremony, the Great Spirit stamped his foot in anger, causing the earth to quake, and the Father of the Waters raised the Mississippi River over its banks, inundating Reelfoot’s homeland. The water flowed into the imprint left by the Spirit’s foot, forming a beautiful lake, beneath which Reelfoot, his bride, and his people lie buried
The generally accepted geological genesis of the lake is that Reelfoot Lake was created by a series of extremely violent earthquakes, specifically the New Madrid earthquakes, from 1811 to 1812. These seismic events along the New Madrid Fault caused the area to subside and the Mississippi River to flow backward for a short period of time. As the water rushed back towards the direction from which it previously came, the forested area adjacent to this portion of the river was flooded when water from the Mississippi flowed over the banks. Thus, Reelfoot Lake was born.
Reelfoot is known for its shallow depths (5.5 feet average depth) and cypress trees, which provide a peaceful atmosphere for visitors. The lake’s waters are home to many species of fish, reptiles, amphibians, and birds – making it an ideal spot for duck hunting, fishing, or birdwatching.
Eyewitness Accounts of the New Madrid Earthquakes
There are numerous first-hand accounts of the New Madrid Earthquakes and the resulting creation of Reelfoot Lake. Here are a few of them:
Firmin La Roche
Firmin La Roche, master of a fleet of flatboats operating between St. Louis and New Orleans, recorded that on the evening of November 15, 1811, he tied up his boats eight miles above New Madrid. Awakened in the night by a crash, he found his boats carried more than a mile upstream by a great wave that came up the river. The water rose so rapidly that trees on the thirty-foot bank were covered. He went on to describe how he and his convoy were nearly killed and how the town of New Madrid was all but destroyed during the earthquake.
Mrs. Eliza Bryan
Perhaps one of the most important eyewitness accounts comes from Mrs. Eliza Bryan. Mrs. Eliza Bryan of New Madrid described the natural disaster in a letter to Rev. Lorenzo Dow, a Methodist preacher who was anxious to learn what had occurred. Mrs. Bryan said that “beginning December 16, 1811, there were violent earthquakes in that section throughout the winter months.”
Bryan continued, “On some days the atmosphere was so completely saturated with sulfurous vapors as to cause total darkness; trees cracked and fell into the roaring Mississippi, and on some occasions, the current was retrograde for a few minutes supposedly due to an eruption in the river bed. The climax came on February 7, 1812, with the hardest shock of all when the waters of the river gathered up like a mountain, rising fifteen to twenty feet perpendicularly and then receding within its banks with such violence that it took with it whole groves of young cottonwoods which edged its borders. Fissures in the earth vomited forth sand and water, some closing again immediately.”
Mrs. Bryan’s most noteworthy statement was that she heard a report that a lake had been formed on the opposite side of the river in the Indian country. She mentioned that this lake “communicated with the river at both ends,” surmising that within a few years the whole Mississippi would pass that way.
Vincent Nolte was a merchant on his way from New York to New Orleans. As he rode horseback over the Allegheny mountains to Pittsburgh, he fell in with another traveler who happened to be the distinguished naturalist, Audubon.
Nolte and Audubon purchased two flat boats on which they started down the Ohio River in January 1812. The weather was so cold that the river froze over, forcing them to leave their boats in the ice and ride through the vast forest.
They passed through Lexington and Frankfort. When near Louisville, they felt the first earthquake shocks which broke the ice in the river, allowing their boats to come down. Boarding their boats again at Louisville, they reached New Madrid by February 6 on a clear, moonlight night. Awakened by fearful crashes, they saw the Mississippi “boiling up like water in a boiling cauldron.”
Nolte recalls, “The stream flowed rushing back, while the forest trees came cracking and thundering down.” As they traveled on to Natchez and New Orleans, they learned that this earthquake had shaken all of Louisiana and the whole region around the Gulf of Mexico, as far south as Caracas where forty thousand inhabitants were swallowed up.
For more information on these individuals who witnessed one of the most dramatic natural disasters to hit the North American continent, you can head to the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis. You’ll find brief bios and links to the original excerpts of their accounts.
With over 270 bird species, the Audubon Society has designated Reelfoot Lake as an important bird area. Reelfoot is considered by some birding enthusiasts to be the best bird-watching area in Tennessee. A natural wonder of the world, this unique and diverse ecosystem is home to bird species like bald eagles, Swainson’s warbler, peregrine falcon, and Mississippi kite. It is also home to at least 30 different rare or endangered species such as snakes, turtles, amphibians, mammals, and invertebrates. Oh, and don’t forget about the winter eagle tours given by the park staff!
Reelfoot Lake is a national treasure and a designated National Natural Landmark that you are sure to love whether you are coming to hunt waterfowl, fish, or just take in the scenery. So, what are you waiting for? Start exploring and uncovering the secrets of this iconic Northwest Tennessee lake.