The Natchez, Mississippi tornado of 1840
The date is May 7, the year is 1840. The place, Natchez, Mississippi.
A bustling and booming river town along the Mississippi River, it’s 20 years after Mississippi joining the union and 20 years before the Civil War. 1840 along the Mississippi river is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. If you’re familiar with these tales, it is easier to imagine the context in which this tornado tragedy took place.
Facts about the tornado
The day started out as “excessively sultry. The sky was overcast … with a sort of dusty haze (and) thick clouds — and the sky from 9 to 1 was a continual rumble of a hundred low thunders all melting into each other.1” The temperature was in the mid-60s, as one Timothy Flint recalled.
The tornado first touched down around 20 miles southwest of Natchez and moved primarily in a northeast direction2. The clouds seen by the residents were described as “black masses, some stationary and some whirling” but the storm caused “no particular alarm” amongst the residents of Natchez. Most of the residents were either down by the river working, or in town itself which was high on a bluff inside eating “dinner”3. Just before 2 p.m., the sky darkened so much that residents in town eating dinner had to light candles in order to see. One Dr. Henry Tooley noted that the barometer began to fall rapidly1. The rain came first, then the tornado.
The tornado hit suddenly. Perhaps rain-wrapped, at around 2:10 p.m1 it moved into town. First hand accounts say that the tornado itself lasted anywhere from three to five minutes3. However, the storm that produced the tornado lasted for around 30 minutes3.
The damage path which sliced through Natchez was seen starting at least 10 miles to west-southwest of town. It started around Natchez Island from the top of the bluff next to the river3. The tornado followed the river north, scraping the far southern and eastern edge of the town of Vidalia. The tornado then made its way slowly across the river and made landfall on the eastern shore about where the current US-84/US-428 bridge is today.
Above is an interactive 360° Google Street view from the Natchez bluff above the Mississippi river. Sans today’s architecture, this is likely the view residents of Natchez would have best seen as the tornado approached. As best as historical documentation indicates, the tornado came right up the river, with the left edge passing over the camera and the center of the tornado off to the east (left), where it destroyed the city. The river shore below the bluff (right) is where most of the boats, as described in the next section, would have been anchored.
“A Tremendous Gale:” Tragedy on the Mississippi
By far, the worst of the damage, and the most loss of life, occurred on the Mississippi river.
There were a large number of boats anchored at Natchez that fateful day. This was mostly because a town to the north, Vicksburg, had levied a tax on boat anchoring. So, many boat owners decided to come farther down the river to Natchez4. There were two kinds of boats anchored at Natchez that day.
Most of the boats consisted of flatboats. These are large rafts that carried goods on one-way trips down to New Orleans to be sold. Of the 120 flatboats docked at Natchez, 116 of them sunk. It is estimated that as many as 200 people drowned after being tossed from their flatboats4. It was said that during the tornado the water rose between 10 and 15 feet, and that the water was whipped to such an extent where even a experienced swimmer “could not sustain themselves on the surface”4.
There were also steamboats on the river as well.
The steamer Prairie, ironically filled with a cargo of lead at the time, sunk4. The steamer Hinds was badly damaged but did not sink. Its lifeless remains floated down the river to Baton Rouge where 51 bodies were found aboard4.
A major issue in establishing an accurate death count was the fact that since most of the people on the river in Natchez were not from Natchez. Most of the bodies that were found (which did not float down river and lost) were unable to be identified because no-one knew who they were or where they came from. Lloyd’s Steamboat Disasters lists the number of lives lost at around 4004, though this number was likely subject to large error. This by itself would have been a significant tornado, however damage also occurred above the river, in Natchez itself.
Damage in Natchez
The town of Natchez was basically completely destroyed by the twister, with the central and northern parts of town facing the most complete destruction3.
Damage was described with equivalents to gunpowder and “all the cannons of Austerlitz”3 (Austerlitz was a large European battle in 1805). There was total destruction of at least twelve city blocks, including hotels, two churches, the town’s theater, and the main town square3.
The damage area equates to a tornado width of nearly a mile wide, though some reports had the width near two miles when including Vidalia across the river3. By the next day, about 50 people were dead in Natchez3, though later reports have the number at 482.
Given it occurred so early in our history, the tornado was of course never rated, but the general consensus is that it was likely an F/EF-4 or F/EF-5. Total (accounted for) damage was estimated at $1,260,000 Dollars (1840), which is around 33 million in 2016 dollars.
Damage was also reported to have occurred on plantations on the Louisiana side of the river. Some reports had the deaths in this area in the “hundreds” but these deaths were never confirmed. It is possible that the African American slave population was impacted in Louisiana. Due to their status at the time, it is likely they were not counted in many or any death counts. Therefore, the official death count is commonly listed as 317+, with the breakdown being 1 in Vidalia, 48 in Natchez, and some 269 on the river. Though, as noted before, the river death count is uncertain as well.
Either way, the Natchez tornado of 1840 firmly ranks as the #2 most deadly tornado in U.S. history, behind the Tri-State Tornado of 1925.
1 Nelson, Stanley. “Stanley Nelson: ‘Our beautiful city is shattered’.” Concordia Sentinel. Hanna Newspapers , 26 Apr. 2017. Web. 06 May 2017. <http://www.hannapub.com/concordiasentinel/opinion/columns/stanley-nelson-our-beautiful-city-is-shattered/article_76c2ae12-2ade-11e7-9a1d-7333cd8a4ae4.html>
2 Grazulis, Thomas P. Significant tornadoes 1680-1991: A chronology and analysis of events. Enviromental Films, 1993. Pg. 559-560
3 “Dreadful Visitation of Providence.” Natchez Free Trader 8 May 1840: The Tennessean. Newspapers.com. Web. <https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/118801521/ >.
4 Lloyd, James. “Lloyd’s steamboat directory, and disasters on the western waters” 1856. Pg. 140-142.TS. Lib. of Cong., Washington, D.C. Lib. of Cong. Web. 05 May. 2017. <https://archive.org/details/lloydssteamboatd00lloy>.
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