Assembling the seismic history of the Pacific Northwest
Sometimes we are caught in events that are so huge we can barely comprehend them, much less explain them. On January 26, 1700, Native American communities living from northern California to Vancouver Island were surprised by an earthquake so large it reshaped the coastline and triggered multiple tsunamis, flooding areas even 1000 feet from what had been the shore. Oral histories describe the sea receding before rushing inland and wiping out entire villages. Survivors could only get to high ground and then try to piece together what happened as best they could. Nothing of this scope had been seen before, aside from the previous 8.5+ earthquake in the same area some 500 years before.
People living through this earthquake attributed the event to various supernatural causes. Depending on who you asked, it was the work of Earthquake, Thunderbird fighting with whale, a person with their foot stuck in a magical drum, shaking the ground. In some cases, such as with the Tolowa people in northern California, accounts barely focused on the cause, instead just trying to prescribe some way to survive such an event. Geologists today point to an entity known as the Juan de Fuca plate, which is constantly pushing against the North American tectonic plate. When that pressure becomes too great for the friction between the plates to hold, they pop loose in a massive seismic adjustment. In 1700, the earthquake resulted in the coast being lowered by as much as six feet in altitude, with portions of beaches, hills and forests being permanently submerged under the expanded sea.
Digging up details
While geologists are fairly confident about the source of these seismic events, they are interested in the historical accounts of those who lived through them. The stories passed down through hundreds of years of tradition include many valuable details, describing that night with impressive specificity. Surveys have now been conducted to piece together stories from a variety of communities in the region, and some indicate that the quake of 1700 was not the first, as some cultures were already sharing tips on how to endure tsunamis, such as tying long ropes to the tops of trees so you would have something to hold on to when the ocean comes rushing inland.
Unfortunately, humans don’t seem to put much effort into solving problems that aren’t immediately apparent. While a massive earthquake was part of the folklore in many Northwestern cultures, few communities seemed to be ready for much more than running to high ground. Because the Juan de Fuca plate only seems to only make such massive shifts every couple hundred years, it likely felt like a vague but distant warning to people living in the region. Even today, as the next iteration of this cycle is coming due, many towns and cities are only partially aware of how they might avoid disaster. Hopefully the next time such an event strikes, we’ll be able to have happier stories to report than this account from the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Vancouver Island:
“Everything then drifted away, everything was lost and gone.”
Source: The Great Quake and the Great Drowning by Ann Finkbeiner, Hakai Magazine