How the New Madrid Earthquake Created a Kentucky Exclave on the Mississippi

Meet Kentucky's western exclave, courtesy of the Mississippi

Half man-made, half the Big Muddy’s work – a 45,5 sq. km (17,5 sq. mi) sized enclaved border irregularity bounded on three sides by a hairpin turn in the Mississippi and in the south by Tennessee is known as the Kentucky Bend. But its denomination is as fixed as the river that created it. Alternate names are: the New Madrid Bend, the Madrid Bend, the Bessie Bend, and even ‘Bubbleland’.


Bubbleland was home to about a dozen Kentuckians, cut off from the mainland of their state by Missouri and Tennessee. Formally, their home is an exclave of Fulton County in Kentucky’s extreme southwest. It is only reachable via Tennessee State Route 22.

The event that created Bubbleland was the New Madrid Earthquake, actually a series of earthquakes in late 1811 and early 1812 that each may have registered 8.0 on the Richter scale, making them the largest quakes in the contiguous USA in recorded history. Not only flattening most of the town of New Madrid nearby in Missouri, the tremors – felt as far away as Connecticut – also shifted the course of the Mississippi.

This confounded the work of early surveyors plotting out the line that would mark the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. By 1812, they hadn’t made it as far as the Mississippi. Later, it turned out their line cut right through the loop in the Mississippi created by the quakes, crossing the river twice.

This led to legal wrangling between Kentucky and Tennessee; for Kentucky had secured the Mississippi as its western border and thus claimed the westernmost point on the line. Tennessee held that it nevertheless had rights on the land contained in the loop. In fact, Tennessee administered Bubbleland as part of its Obion County until at least 1848, but eventually dropped its claim.

Much to its regret, one can imagine, as the soil inside the loop proved extremely fertile cotton-growing land. The 1870 Census tallied more than 300 residents, mostly cotton-farmers. Interestingly, Bubbleland has two other claims to fame:

• From February 28 to April 28, 1862, the area was the location of the Battle of Island Number Ten between Union and Confederate forces in the American Civil War. The battle, which involved ironclad ships, was won by the Union side and opened up the Mississippi further south, eventually leading to the capture of Memphis by northern troops. Island Number Ten has since eroded away (although Island Number Nine still remains).

• In ‘Life on the Mississippi’ (1883), Mark Twain describes a vendetta lasting 60-odd years between the Darnell and Watson families living in Bubbleland: “Both families belonged to the same church … They lived each side of the line, and the church was at a landing called Compromise. Half the church and half the aisle was in Kentucky, the other half in Tennessee. Sundays you’d see the families drive up, all in their Sunday clothes, men, women, and children, and file up the aisle, and set down, quiet and orderly, one lot on the Tennessee side of the church and the other on the Kentucky side; and the men and boys would lean their guns up against the wall, handy, and then all hands would join in with the prayer and praise; though they say the man next the aisle didn’t kneel down, along with the rest of the family; kind of stood guard.”

Whether this blood feud is in some way responsible for the thinning of the population of Bubbleland could not be ascertained.

This map, and much of the information on which this text was based, can be found here in Wikipedia.

Strange Maps #178

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.