New Englanders were a superstitious lot in the 17th and 18th Centuries. One natural event that occasionally terrified Yankees were earthquakes. Most, if not all, colonists understood earthquakes were a natural occurrence, but saw them as part of a divine intervention by God. According to one 17th century account, “it pleased God suddenly to raise a vehement earthquake coming with a shrill clap of thunder, issuing as is supposed out of the east, which shook the earth and the foundations of the house in a very violent manner to our great amazement and wonder, wherefore taking notice of so great and strange a hand of God's providence, we were desirous of leaving it on record to the view of after ages to the intent that all might take notice of Almighty God and fare his name.”
Of course, what colonists did not know at the time was Massachusetts sat on its own fault line. Worse, the geographic “hot spot” for this fault line was located between Cape Ann and Newburyport.
In the evening hours of October 29, 1727 (Julian Calendar), an earthquake struck Massachusetts. Scientists disagree as to the exact epicenter, but most have narrowed it down to three possible locations: Amesbury, Newbury or off the coast of Hampton, New Hampshire. It is believed that when the earthquake struck, it measured between 5.3 and 6.0 on the modern Richter Scale.
One Newbury resident wrote that the earthquake began “with a pounce like great guns.” According to Cotton Mather “The night that followed the 29th of October, was a night whereto New England had never, in the memory of man, seen the like. The air never more calm, the sky never more fair; everything in all imaginable tranquility; but about a quarter of an hour before 11, there was heard in Boston, passing from one end of the town to the other, a horrid rumbling like the noise of many coaches together driving on the paved stones with the utmost rapidity. But it was attended with a most awful trembling of the earth, which did heave and shake so as to rocque the houses, and cause here and there, the falling of some smaller things, both within doors and without. It cannot be imagined but that it gave an uncommon concern unto all the inhabitants, and even a degree of consternation unto very many of them. The first shock, which was the most violent, was followed with several others, and some repetition of the noise, at sundry times, pretty distinct from one another. The number of them is not entirely agreed; but at least four or five are allowed for; the last of which was between five and six of the clock in the morning. It extended for scores of miles, west and south. . . . What added unto the terrors of it, were the terrible flames of light in the atmosphere, which accompanied it. . . .The vessels on the coast were also made sensible of it by shivering that seized on them.”
An article from the November 3, 1727 edition of Boston’s Weekly News-Letter, described the shocking event in great detail. "The night after the last Lord's Day about 40 minutes after 10, in a calm & serene hour, the town was ... [suddenly] extremely surprised with the most violent shock of an earthquake that has been known among us. It came with a loud noise like thunder. The earth reel'd & trembled to a great degree. The houses rock'd & crackl'd as if they were tumbling into ruins. Many of they inhabitants were wakened out of their sleep, with the utmost astonishment: and others affrighted run into the streets for safety. Thro' the Goodness of GOD, the shock continued but about 2 or 3 minutes: and tho' some damage was done in the houses; yet none of the people received any bodily injury. For several times in the morning, there were heard some distant rumblings; and some fainter shocks were felt. But since that, the Earth, has been quiet; and tho' the minds of the people are yet greatly and justly affected."
In Newbury, the quake left large fissures in the ground, the inhabitants described the roaring of the earthquake as a massive firing of cannon. Henry Sewell noted that the sand from the cracks in the ground, when heated, created a bluish flame. Newbury minister Matthias Plant noted “Many chimneys were thrown down, stone walls fell, springs destroyed and others opened . . . it was a terrible, sudden and amazing earthquake.”
In a sermon given by Hampton’s Reverend Nathaniel Gookin declared “The shake was very hard, and was attended with a terrible noise, something like thunder. The houses trembled as if they were falling; divers chimneys were cracked and some had their tops broken off. It was especially so in the south parish, where the hardest shake seemed to be on the hill, where the house of God stands. Three houses on that hill had their chimneys broken, one of which was the house of the Reverend Mr. Whipple. When the shake was beginning, some persons observed a flash of light at their windows, and one or two saw streams of light running on the earth; the flame seemed to them to be of a bluish color. These flashes, no doubt, broke out of the earth; otherwise it is probable, they would have been seen more generally, especially by those who were abroad. The sea was observed to roar in an unusual manner. The earth broke open, near the south bounds of the town (as it did in divers places in Newbury) and cast up a very fine bluish sand. At the place of the eruption, there now (above two months after) continually issues out considerable quantities of water; and for about a rod around it, the ground is so soft, that a man can’t tread upon it without throwing brush or some other thing to bear him up. It is indeed in meadow ground, but before the earthquake, it was not so soft but that men might freely walk upon it. A spring of water, which had run freely for fourscore years, and was never known to freeze, was much sunk by the earthquake, and frozen afterwards like any standing water. There were divers other shocks the same night; yea, the sound was heard, and sometimes the shake felt every day for a fortnight after…”
The earthquake was felt as far north as Maritime Canada and as far south as Connecticut. The most severe damage was along the New Hampshire and Massachusetts coastlines.
The 1727 earthquake couldn’t have come at a worse time. New Englanders had experienced an abnormally hot summer coupled with a drought. In September New England was battered by a series of violent Nor’easters. Many concluded the sins of New England had incurred God’s wrath. As the Reverend Gookin reflected “All of us saw a necessity of looking to God for his favor and protection; and I would hope that many did, not only look to God in that time of their distress, but did truly and heartily return to him. Many are now asking the way to Zion with their faces thitherward. They say, Come, and let us join ourselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant, not to be forgotten.”
A few New Englanders rejected the religious underpinnings of a vengeful God and instead put forth various scientific explanation. Some speculated the September storms had triggered the earthquake. Boston minister Thomas Foxcroft suggested that underground caverns filled with flammable vapors were exploding, thus causing the earthquakes. Thomas Prince, another Boston minister, believed earthquakes were caused by underground vacuums. Of course, Marblehead’s John Barnard was perhaps the closest when he theorized that the surface of the earth was shifting in response to subterranean shocks.