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New England's Great Earthquake of 1638

The first permanent settlement in New England was made in 1620, when the Mayflower landed in Plymouth. In the years following, thousands of freedom-seeking colonists arrived in America, a period called The Great Migration. It was a difficult time for new arrivals as they worked unceasingly to build their new homes and new lives in the new world.

Eighteen years later, New England was shaken to its core. It was Friday, June 1, 1638 - a beautiful Spring day. The sky was clear and the sun was shining as the industrious settlers worked in the fields and in their homes, as usual. Just after lunch time, a strange and alarming sound was heard. It began as a distant rumble and grew progressively louder as the people scrambled to determine what was happening. Suddenly, the earth began to tremble violently. People huddled together, barely able to stand without being tossed to and fro. They sought stability by clinging to any secured item they could reach while the rudimentary chimneys attached to their homes toppled. Tidal waves rocked ships and tossed boats along the coast. Surely many of them were praying and calling out to God to stop the calamity.

The people of Newbury, who had been assembled in a town meeting when the earthquake struck, felt compelled to record the incident, making the following proclamation:

"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 fear his name".

The earthquake lasted about four harrowing minutes. Afterwards, the startled settlers resumed their work but about half an hour later, the aftershocks began. Though the aftershocks were less violent, they certainly caused anxiety among the people and the torturous tremors continued for twenty days. Then on June 25, 1638, a full eclipse of the moon turned the moon blood red, an apocalyptic sign to many Christians.

For several years after the earthquake, the summer temperatures were significantly cooler than they had been previously. Corn and other crops were subjected to unseasonable frost, hindering crop production and causing food shortages.

The Great Earthquake of 1638 is estimated to have measured 6.5 to 7.0 on the Richter Scale. The epicenter was in New Hampshire and it was felt in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The event had such an impact on the people that they commonly used the date as a marker. For example, instead of saying "back in 1640", they would say, "two years after the earthquake".

Although earthquakes in New England are not unheard of, few have the strength and magnitude of the Great Earthquake of 1638. There was one near Boston in 1727 and another off the coast of Cape Ann in 1755, which is estimated to have measured between 6.0 and 6.3 on the Richter Scale. Two rattled New Hampshire in 1940. For the past hundred years, Massachusetts has averaged one earthquake per year. The counties at highest risk of earthquakes are Essex County, Plymouth County, and Suffolk County.


  • Kafka, A., 2014. Why Does The Earth Quake In New England?. [Link]

  • Perley, Sidney. The Earthquake of 1638. From The Essex Antiquarian, Volume 1 #11 Nov. 1897 [Link]

  • Love, William DeLoss, 1851-1918. The fast and thanksgiving days of New England. [Link]

  • Aftermath of earthquake engraving from Universalis Cosmographia, by Sebastian Munster (1489-1552).

  • 1755 Cape Ann Earthquake article on Wikipedia [Link].

  • Robinson, Christy K. The great New England Quake of 1638. [Link]

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