On February 17, 1815 [three years after the strongest earthquakes in U.S. history], Congress passed the New Madrid Relief Act, the first federal disaster relief act in U.S. history. Unfortunately, the act itself turned out to be a disaster.
The legislation provided for residents whose land had been damaged in the earthquakes to trade their land titles for a certificate that would be good for any unclaimed government land for sale elsewhere in the Missouri Territory. The only restriction was that the new grants had to be between 160 and 640 acres, regardless of how much or little land a person had previously owned. Well-intentioned though the legislation was, it did little to help the residents of the New Madrid area.
Communications being what they were, word of the New Madrid Relief Act did not reach the New Madrid area for months. News did reach St. Louis and other places, however, and speculators were soon beating a hasty path to New Madrid and buying up land for a pittance from unsuspecting locals. Of the 516 certificates issued for redemption, only twenty were held by the original landowners. Three hundred and eighty-four certificates were held by residents of St. Louis, some of whom had as many as forty claims. Adding insult to injury, many banks in Missouri failed, making the Missouri banknotes used to pay for these claims worthless. Governor Clark himself was not above profiting from the situation, as he authorized two of his agents, Theodore Hunt and Charles Lucas, to purchase land in the New Madrid area. Meanwhile, opportunists in New Madrid caught on to what was happening and began selling their land titles many times over. Before too long, the term “New Madrid claim” came to be synonymous with fraud.
Litigation over the resulting land claims tied up the courts for over twenty years, with hundreds of fraudulent claims being pressed. Over the next three decades, Congress passed three more pieces of legislation to try and straighten out the mess. The last case stemming from the New Madrid Relief Act was finally settled in 1862, fifty years after the earthquakes of 1811–12—by which time the frontier had moved a thousand miles west.
Plus ça change …