Mississippi Twister Kills Hundreds
Mother Nature proved one of the most formidable adversaries on the American Frontier, lashing out against pioneers and settlers in a variety of lethal ways. During the spring of 1840, she took the form of a deadly tornado that completely decimated the small river town of Natchez, Mississippi. Still considered the second-deadliest twister in U.S. history, the storm killed 317 citizens and injured approximately 100 more—the only tornado on record where deaths eclipsed injuries. According to modern estimates, the cyclone likely killed a greater number of people, as slaves were not officially counted among the dead.
The evening of May 6, 1840 was much like any other in the small southern town. Heavy spring rains soaked plantations and swelled the banks of the Mississippi River. Farmers, blacksmiths, and common folk tried to wait out the storm. Sunrise brought with it the promise of a new day, revealing loads of bustling steamboat traffic on the nearby waterway. Little would get done in the muddy fields, but river traders and haulers were already hard at work trying to turn a profit. In a world without phones or weather radar, none of them had any way of knowing what was next.
A second thunderstorm engulfed the town around noon, with the killer twister forming on the banks of the river, about twenty miles south of Natchez. The tornado snaked northeast, along the busy Mississippi, gaining strength with every mile. Falling upon the town with a thunderous roar, it flung flatboats like toys. Hundreds of people ran for cover but it was too late. Entire houses were lifter off their foundations, while barrels and carts shot through the air like ballistic missiles. The tornado flattened everything in its wake. A period newspaper reported that “Never, never, never, was there such desolation and ruin.”
Taking into consideration that the tornado struck during an era without the benefits of organizations like the National Weather Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or the American Red Cross truly compounds the matter. The people of Natchez, alone and decimated on the western edge of civilization, were forced to recover from the disaster in virtual isolation. Experts today estimate that the storm caused an adjusted $21 million in damage as it ravaged the town with winds exceeding 300 mph. Some meteorologists even suggest that the storm could have achieved F6 status, a rating considered practically impossible by most modern-day weather scientists.