The Great Earthquake of 1663

JESUIT RELATIONS: The Earthquake of 5 February 1663

The account of Father Jérôme Lalemant, S. J.

Although many of us have thought of the numerous hardships experienced by our ancestors in the early days of New France, it's likely that most of us never considered the fact that one of their many experiences would be an earthquake - a strong one at that. However, those ancestors who were living in New France beginning in early February 1663 did, indeed, experience an event of nature unlike anything they could have ever imagined. ..... This is an account of the event that was written by Jesuit Father Jérôme Lalemant and appeared in the 1663 publication called Jesuit Relations.

"On the fifth of February, 1663, toward half past five in the evening, a loud roaring was heard at the same time throughout the length and breadth of Canadas. This noise, which gave one the impression that the house was on fire, made all rush outdoors to escape so unexpected a conflagration; but, instead of smoke and flames, people were much surprised to behold the Walls tottering, and all the stones in motion, as if they had been detached. Roofs seemed to bend down in one direction, and then back again in the other; Bells rang of their own accord; beams, joists, and boards creaked; and the earth leaped up, and made the palisade stakes dance in a way that would have seemed incredible, had we not witnessed it in different places.

Then all left their houses, animals took flight, children cried in the streets, and men and women, seized with terror, knew not where to take refuge, — expecting every moment to be either overwhelmed under the ruins of the houses, or swallowed up in some abyss that was to open beneath their feet. Some knelt in the snow and cried for mercy, while others passed the rest of the night in prayer; for the Earthquake continued without ceasing, maintaining a certain swaying motion much like that of Ships at sea, so that some experienced from this tossing the same heaving of the stomach that one suffers on the water. The disturbance was much greater in the forests, where there seemed to be a battle between the trees, which crashed against one another, — not merely their branches, but even, one would have said, their trunks being torn from their places to leap one upon another, with a din and confusion that made our Savages say that all the woods were drunken.

War seemed to be waged even by the Mountains, some of them being uprooted, to be hurled against others, and leaving yawning chasms in the places whence they had sprung. At times, too, they buried the trees, with which they were covered, deep in the ground up to their topmost branches; and at other times they would plant them, branches downward, which would then take the place of the roots, leaving only a forest of upturned trunks.

During this general wreck on Land, ice of five and six feet in thickness was broken, flying into fragments, and splitting open in various places, whence issued either great clouds of smoke or jets of mud and sand, which ascended to a lofty height in the air. Our springs either ceased to flow or gave forth only sulphurous waters; Rivers either disappeared entirely or were thoroughly defiled, the waters of some becoming yellow and of others red; and our great river Saint Lawrence appeared all whitish as far as the neighborhood of Tadoussacq — a prodigy truly astonishing and fitted to surprise those who know the volume of water carried by this great stream below the Island of Orleans, and how much matter it must have taken to whiten it.

The atmosphere was not without its disturbances, during those on water and Land; for, beside the roaring which constantly preceded and accompanied the Earthquake, we saw specters and fiery phantoms bearing torches in their hands. Pikes and lances of fire were seen, waving in the air, and burning brands darting down on our houses — without, however, doing further injury than to spread alarm wherever they were seen. There was even heard what sounded like plaintive and feeble voices in lamentation during the silence of the night; while white Porpoises were heard crying aloud before the Town of three Rivers — a very unusual occurrence — and filling the air with a pitiful bellowing. Whether they were real Porpoises, or sea-cows (as some have supposed), so extraordinary a circumstance could have arisen from no common cause.

Word comes from Montreal that, during the Earthquake, fence stakes were plainly seen to jump up and down as if in a dance; of two doors in the same room, one closed itself and the other opened, of its own accord; chimneys and housetops bent like tree branches shaken by the wind; on raising the foot in walking, one felt the ground coming up after him and rising in proportion to the height to which he lifted his foot, sometimes giving the sole a quite smart rap; and other similar occurrences, of a highly surprising nature, are reported from that place.

From Three Rivers they wrote the following account: “ The first and severest of all the shocks began with a rumbling like that of Thunder, and the houses were shaken like tree tops during a storm, amid a noise that made people think there was a fire crackling in their garrets.

“This first shock continued fully half an hour, although its great violence really lasted only a scant quarter of an hour. There was not a person who did not think the Earth was about to split open. We further observed that, while this earthquake was almost continuous, still it was not of the same intensity, sometimes resembling the rocking of a great vessel riding gently at Anchor, — a motion which caused giddiness in many. Sometimes the disturbance was irregular, and precipitated by various sharp movements — sometimes of considerable severity, at other times more moderate; but most commonly consisting of a slight quivering motion, which was perceptible to one away from the noise and at rest. According to the report of many of our Frenchmen and Savages, who were eye-witnesses, far up on our river, the Three Rivers, five or six leagues from here, the banks bordering the Stream on each side, and formerly of a prodigious height, were leveled — being removed from their foundations, and uprooted to the water’s level. These two mountains, with all their forests, thus overturned into the River, formed there a mighty dike which forced that stream to change its bed, and to spread over great plains recently discovered. At the same time, however, it undermined all those displaced lands and caused their gradual detrition by the waters of the River, which are still so thick and turbid as to change the color of the whole great St. Lawrence river. Judge how much soil it must take to keep its waters flowing constantly full of mire every day for nearly three months. New Lakes are seen where there were none before; certain Mountains are seen no more, having been swallowed up; a number of rapids have been leveled, a number of Rivers have disappeared; the Earth was rent in many places, and it has opened chasms whose depths cannot be sounded; in fine, such confusion has been wrought, of woods overturned and swallowed up, that now we see fields of more than a thousand arpents utterly bare, and as if very recently plowed, where a short time ago were only forests.” We learn from Tadoussacq that the stress of the Earthquake was not less severe there than elsewhere; that a shower of ashes was seen crossing the stream like a great storm; and that, if one were inclined to follow the river bank all the way from Cap de Tourmente to that point, he would see some marvelous effects of the earthquake. Near the Bay (called St. Paul’s) there was a little Mountain, situated on the riverbank and a quarter of a league, or nearly that, in circumference, which was swallowed up; and, as if it had only taken a plunge, it came up again from the depths, to be changed into a little Island, and to turn a spot all beset with breakers, as it used to be, into a haven of safety against all kinds of winds. And farther down, near Pointe aux Allouettes, a whole forest became detached from the mainland and slid into the river, where it presents to view great trees, straight and verdant, which sprang into being in the water, over night.

Three circumstances, moreover, rendered this Earthquake very remarkable. The first was its time of duration, it having continued into the month of August, or for more than six months. The shocks, it is true, were not always equally severe. In certain districts, as toward the mountains in our rear, the din and the oscillating motion were unintermittent for a long time; in others as in the region of Tadoussacq, the shocks occurred ordinarily two or three times a day, with great force; and we noted that in more elevated places the motion was less than in the level country. The second circumstance concerns the extent of this Earthquake, which we believe to have been general in all New France; for we learn that it made itself felt from Isle Percée and Gaspée, which are at the mouth of our river, up to Montreal and beyond, as also in new England, Acadia, and other far distant regions. Therefore, knowing as we do that the Earthquake extended over a tract two hundred leagues in length by one hundred in width, we have an area of twenty thousand leagues which was all shaken at once, on the same day and at the same moment.

The third circumstance concerns God’s special protection of our settlements; for near us we see great clefts that were formed, and a prodigious extent of country utterly wrecked, while we have not lost a child or even a hair of our heads. All around us we see evidences of overthrow and ruin, and yet we had only some chimneys demolished, while the surrounding Mountains were swallowed up.

We have all the more reason to thank Heaven for this most loving protection, inasmuch as a person of probity and of irreproachable life, — who had felt presentiments of what afterward occurred, and who had declared them to the one to whom such confession was due, — had a vision, on the very evening that this Earthquake began, of four frightful specters occupying the four quarters adjoining Quebec, and shaking them violently, as if bent on working a universal overthrow. This they undoubtedly would have done, had not a higher Power — one of venerable Majesty, the author of the universal disturbance — interposed an obstacle to their efforts, and prevented them from harming those whom it was God’s will to frighten, for the sake of their own salvation, but not to destroy.

The Savages, as well as the French, had had presentiments of this fearful Earthquake. A young Algonquin girl, between Sixteen and seventeen years of age, named Catherine, — who has always lived a very innocent life; and who, indeed, owing to her extraordinary trust in the Cross of the Son of God, has been cured, as if by a miracle, of an illness from which she had been suffering for an entire Winter, without any hopes of recovery, — deposed with all sincerity that, on the night preceding the Earthquake, she saw herself with two other girls of her age and Nation mounting a great Stairway. At its top was seen a beautiful Church, where the Blessed Virgin appeared with her Son, predicting to them that the earth would soon be shaken, trees would strike against one another, and rocks would be shattered, to the general consternation of all the people. This poor girl, much surprised by such an announcement, feared that it was some illusion of the Demon, and determined to reveal the whole, as soon as possible, to the Father in charge of the Algonquin Church. On the evening of the same day, a short time before the Earthquake began, she shouted in a transport of excitement; and, as if wrought upon by a powerful influence, she said to her relatives, “ It is coming soon, it is coming soon.” And she afterward had the same presentiments before each of the Earthquake shocks.

We add a second deposition of much greater detail, which we received from another Algonquin woman, — twenty-six years of age, and very innocent, simple, and sincere, — who was questioned by two of our Fathers concerning her experiences, and answered them in all frankness. Her replies were confirmed by her Husband and her Parents, who saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears what follows. Her deposition runs thus:

“ On the night between the 4th and 5th of February, 1663, being fully awake and in full possession of my senses, while in a sitting posture, I heard a voice, distinct and intelligible, which said to me: ‘ Strange things are to happen today; the Earth will tremble.’ Thereupon I was seized with great ‘fear, seeing no one from whom those words could have come. Filled with alarm, I endeavored, with considerable difficulty, to go to sleep; and when day broke I told my Husband, Joseph Onnentakité, quite in private, what had happened to me. As, however, he rebuffed me, saying that I was lying, and wished to impose upon him, I said nothing further. At about nine or ten o’clock on the same day, on my way to the woods to gather fagots, I had scarcely entered the forest when the same voice made itself heard, saying the same thing and in the same manner as on the night before. My alarm was much greater, as I was entirely alone. So I looked all around, to see if I could catch sight of any one; but no person was to be seen. Accordingly, I gathered a load of fagots and went home, meeting my sister on the way, as she was coming to help me; and I told her what had just occurred. She at once took the lead and, reëntering the Cabin before me, repeated my experience to my father and mother; but, as it was all very extraordinary, they merely heard it without giving it any especial thought. There the matter rested until five or six o’clock in the evening of the same day, when an Earthquake occurred, and they recognized by experience that what they had heard me say in the Forenoon was only too true.”

FROM WIKIPEDIA: "Immediately after the earthquake, the missionaries, once it had become clear that no lives had been lost, regarded the earthquake not only as a timely warning to the population of New France for their sinfulness, but also as a sign of God's protection. They described it as "miraculous" rather than a disaster, regarding the date of the earthquake as particularly important, coming on the last day of the carnival, just before Mardi Gras. They were pleased to see all the colonists attending church regularly in the following days and that even the traffickers in wine and brandy appeared to repent. These effects were short-lived and Lalemant and other missionaries were soon left wishing for another great earthquake to help them in their cause.” ("Le Ciel et la Terre nous ont parlé — Comment les missionnaires du Canada français de l’époque coloniale interprétèrent le tremblement de terre de 1663", Berry, 2006)

NOTE: The 1663 Charlevoix earthquake occurred on February 5 in New France (now the province of Québec), and was assessed to have a moment magnitude of between 7.3 and 7.9.

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