Ye Earth Shooke

By Jack Sheedy

Turning the page to another tale from Cape Cod’s past…

When you consider earthquakes, you probably immediately think of California. You certainly wouldn’t think of the Northeast. Or Massachusetts. And certainly not sandy Cape Cod.

Yet, in 1638, this area felt a sizable earthquake – believed to be a 6.5 magnitude tremor – which Pilgrim William Bradford included in his journal, published in book form as Of Plimoth Plantation.

Bradford wrote:

“This year, aboute ye 1 or 2 of June, was a great & fearfull earthquake; it was in this place heard before it was felte. It came with a rumbling noyse, or low murmure, like unto remoate thunder; it came from ye norward, & pased southward. As ye noyse aproched nerer, they earth begane to shake, and came at length with that violence as caused platters, dishes, & such like things as stoode upon shelves, to clatter & fall downe.”

Bradford witnessed this event at Plymouth, yet it was also most likely felt on Cape Cod by the Natives living here, and by early settlers (the towns of Sandwich, Yarmouth, and Barnstable were incorporated the following year). The “rumbling noyse” of the earthquake came from the north – New Hampshire was believed the epicenter – and moved southward, shaking things along the way.

Continuing with Bradford’s journal:

“How ever it was very terrible for ye time, and as ye men were set talking in ye house, some women & others were without ye dores, and ye earth shooke with yt (that) violence as they could not stand without catching hould of ye posts & pails yt (that) stood next them; but ye violence lasted not long.”

It must have been quite a thing for the early residents of this area to have the earth beneath their feet “shooke.” But as Bradford wrote, the earth’s shaking didn’t last long, although it was followed half an hour later by a somewhat weaker aftershock, and then all returned to normal.

Earthquakes have indeed visited this area over the centuries, in 1755, 1766, 1847, 1860, 1869, 1909, 1929, and 1965, to mention a handful. The 1860 earthquake, which occurred upon a March evening, was strong enough to awaken Cape Codders from their sleep. Meanwhile, the 1929 quake, which was felt across New England, gently shook the Cape for about a minute upon one November afternoon, rattling houses, moving small objects, and cracking plaster at the town offices in Hyannis.

Although we now know earthquakes are caused by the sudden movement of tectonic plates along fault lines, thus releasing energy, Bradford in his journal considered the Lord’s hand in the event of 1638 which he said was not only felt by those on land, but also by those on ships off the coast.

Jack Sheedy is the co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.

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