After all, it had happened before…
During the winter of 1811 and 1812, the nation was rocked by a series of tremors and quakes which completely destroyed five towns, created 2 lakes, sank islands, and in a hydrological phenomenon which has never been repeated, actually caused the Mississippi River to run backwards for a time. It was the most powerful earthquake to ever strike North America, and yet, over time, it has largely been forgotten. Conservative estimates of the death toll from the New Madrid Earthquake rest at 1,000. Seemingly a small number, until you consider the population within the seismic zone at the time, including whites and natives, numbered a mere 15,000. Today over 30 times that many people live in the same area. By those same estimates, if another earthquake of the same magnitude were to occur today, over 20,0000 fatalities could be expected.
These facts were not lost on those of us living in Missouri that fall of 1990, and although Dec. 3 came and went with no earthquake, the event had nevertheless made an indelible impression on many people’s minds. I know it did on mine. Years later, the alt-country group Uncle Tupelo (A local act which would later go on to form the bands Wilco and Son Volt) chronicled the event in a song entitled “New Madrid”. Many books about the quake followed as well. Years later I came across one entitled The Earthquake That America Forgot by Dr. David Stewart and Dr. Ray Knox, in the stacks at my local library. Checking it out, I was soon immersed in the fascinating stories of survival and loss that the pioneers endured in the face of this natural disaster. The book went back to the library, but the stories… they stuck with me.
Years later, as I was fishing for ideas for a graphic novel, those stories returned to me. Why, I wondered, had nobody set a story against this amazing backdrop? One story in particular I recalled as having amazing potential was the river journey of Nicholas Roosevelt, an ancestor of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. Mr. Roosevelt built the first river steamboat in America, the New Orleans, whose maiden voyage down the Mississippi had the misfortunate timing of coinciding with the earthquake. His partner, a ship builder by the name of Robert Livingston, had a daughter who had been traveling via flatboat to New Orleans to meet her fiancée when river pirates suddenly overran them. As I remembered, her father had sent a rescue party aboard the New Orleans. Included in its number were both his daughter’s fiancée and her first love, a Kentucky hunter to whom her father had initially denied her hand in marriage. Now that, I thought, would make a great graphic novel! I set about trying to obtain a copy of the book for reference. But I had long since moved far away, and The Earthquake That America Forgot was a regional publication. Still, with the help of an Amazon reseller, I finally got my hands on a copy. Imagine my shock when, after scouring the book cover to cover, I found that the story wasn’t there!
Oh, the story of Mr. Roosevelt’s steamboat was there, sure enough. And indeed, there were some rather nasty river pirates that operated on the river at the time, out of a cave on the Ohio Bend called Cave-In-Rock. But the story of the kidnapped daughter, and her long lost love coming to save her, was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t understand it. The story was so vivid in my mind, yet I never found any mention of it, either in that book or any of the others I’ve read since in my research. The universe, it seemed, had handed me a story. I resolved to tell it to the best of my ability. The book you hold in your hand is the result of that resolve.
Black Powder is a work of historical fiction, yet as I mentioned, many of the events described within actually happened. The boat race between the steamboat and the Indians actually occurred, for instance, although the resulting quarrel between Robert and Edward is, like their characters, completely fictional. Many of the pirates are based on actual historical figures as well. Samuel Mason, for instance, was a former Revolutionary War hero who turned to piracy in his later years. His henchmen, Icajah and Wiley Harpe, are based on real people as well. But more on the pirates of Cave-In-Rock next time. For now, I’d like to thank you for coming aboard. Like Mr. Roosevelt’s steamboat, this story has some amazing twists and turns waiting just around the bend. I hope you’ll stick around for the ride!