The Last Big One: Accounts from 1857
Reminiscence by Mr. Bell, ca. 1905, as retold by geologist Harry R. Johnson
A year or so before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake I learned that a Mr. Bell had experienced the 1857 disturbance whilst herding cattle in the Cariso Plains [sic]. I visited Bell in Bakersfield and he informed me that at the time of the earthquake he and a couple of other men working with him thought at first that the disturbance was due to a stampede among the cattle. According to Bell the earthquake occurred in the early morning hours, before daybreak,1 and when it became light enough he and his helpers started a search for their cattle, which of course had been badly frightened. Bell noticed considerable dust in the air along the foot of the Temblor Range and assumed it to have been raised by his stock on the run. It is possible of course that this may have been due to fine material thrown into the air along the rift at the moment of displacement.
The outstanding statement made by Bell to me was that an old fashioned round sheep corral, apparently located directly upon the rift near the southeastern end of Carriso Plains [sic], was dislocated in such a way that it made a rude S-shaped figure,2 which would imply a movement horizontally of several feet.
I was very doubtful as to the accuracy of Bell's statement at the time he made it, but a year or so later, after the 1906 earthquake, I saw plenty of evidence along the San Andreas rift south of San Francisco of a sort which convinced me that the statements by Mr. Bell were to be trusted.
1. It is very likely that, when Mr. Bell recounted his experiences on the morning of the earthquake, some 50 years after the fact, the details were somewhat nebulous and perhaps rearranged in his mind. Undoubtedly, he is in error in stating that the main earthquake occurred "before daybreak" -- rather, it occurred shortly after 8 a.m. However, there were two large foreshocks located near Parkfield several hours before the mainshock, which may be what caused the cattle to stampede.
2. Note that this unquestionably describes right-lateral offset.
Click on a location below to view more first-hand accounts of the 1857 earthquake.
For the original sources of these accounts, please click here.
Several maps show the above locations.