Tales of a great Pacific Coast earthquake passed down in legend

Last year, the Eastern coast of Japan was struck by a massive 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. Since that happened, you've heard researchers talk about how it was not the first time that region had experienced an earthquake that large. Although the 2011 Tohoku earthquake has been called the biggest earthquake in Japan's recorded history, that's really only describing the relatively short history of scientifically measured earthquakes. The Japanese have kept written records, describing earthquakes that sound as though they could have been every bit as destructive. And those records date back 1600 years.

But written records aren't the only way of preserving local memories, or warning future generations about the destructive power of the Earth.

Geologic evidence shows that North America's Pacific Coast has experienced earthquakes on the scale of the Tohoku earthquake. (In fact, the Pacific Northwest is probably due for one of these large quakes. It's not an "if", but a "when".) The last time it happened, nobody in the area was keeping written documents. Instead, the story of a massive earthquake and a devastating tsunami—which probably occurred around the year 1700—have become a part of oral storytelling traditions. Ruth Ludwin, a seismologist at the University of Washington, has been collecting these stories since the early 1990s.

"There was a shaking, jumping up and trembling of the earth beneath, and a rolling up of the great waters."

So says an ancient tale told to generations of Quilleute and Hoh Indians. Variations of this saga of an epic battle between the Thunderbird and the Whale are found among Pacific Northwest Tribes from Vancouver Island to Oregon's Tillamook tribe.

The Whale was a monster, killing other whales and depriving the people of meat and oil. The Thunderbird, a benevolent supernatural being, saw from its home high in the mountains that the people were starving. The great bird soared out over the coastal waters, then plunged into the ocean and seized the Whale.

A struggle ensued first in the water, the tribal tale says. "The waters receded and rose again. Many canoes came down in trees and were destroyed and numerous lives were lost."

The Thunderbird eventually succeeds in lifting the evil Whale out of the ocean, carrying it "high into the air (and then) dropping it to the land surface at Beaver prairie. Then at this place there was another great battle."

"A picture began to emerge that looked a lot like what you'd expect from a major quake," she said. One tribe even had what sounds like an explanation for aftershocks, noting Whale had a son, Subbus, who took Thunderbird several more days to locate and kill. The earth-rumbling struggle persisted, but eventually Subbus was subdued.

"I can't say for certain this was the 1700 event, but it sure sounds like it," Ludwin said. "You hear the same story from tribes all along the coast."

Read more about how Ruth Ludwin connected the story of the Whale and the Thunderbird to the 1700 Pacific Coast earthquake.

Image: Simulation from a U.S. Geological Survey research report, showing how the 1700 Cascadia earthquake might have created a tsunami that reached Japan. Written documents in Japan describe a tsunami from that year with no "parent" earthquake. Cascadia might be the source of the so-called "orphan" tsunami. You can read the full paper online.


  1. Pretty sure there is geologic evidence of a big tsunami around 1700.  It was mentioned last year in some articles when the tsunami rolled through under the Golden Gate bridge and jostled some marinas.

    1. There’s tons of evidence awjt – the legends are just another confirmation of what’s already been shown in core samples and more.  There are also historical records of a tsunami in Japan in 1700 that probably came from this same earthquake.

  2. Can’t find the reference, but I recall reading that the 1700 earthquake left evidence of tsunami debris in Lake Washington, two miles from Puget Sound on the eastern edge of Seattle.  

    Keep in mind that back then, the lake wasn’t connected to the Sound, which itself is supposed to dampen the effect of any tsunamis.  That’s one helluva wave.

  3. another connection to Japan’s experience of the quake:  the stories are prototypical Godzilla movies.  awesome!

  4. Well I was just checking out property values up there, I guess I’ll have to start cross-referencing elevation. :(

  5. The earthquake was not “around 1700”; it occurred on January 26, 1700. And the Oregon Department of Transportation predicts that if the next Cascadia Subduction Zone quake were to happen today, 70 western Oregon bridges will go down.

  6. Fascinating stuff.  The Juan de Fuca Plate scares the living daylights outta me.

    As for this sort of data gathering, it’s the same principle as an old Inca folk tale of tongues of fire descending from the sky and caressing the ground.  A few years ago, a sequence of huge skid marks from a single meteor were found in northwestern Argentina, dating back to around the time of, you guessed it, the Incas.

    Seems this meteor of just the right size, hit the atmosphere at just the right angle to skip across the ground, as a stone would across a pond, before it blew up into a gazillion bits (because it left no crater, only skid marks), an event that would have been easily visible from many places along the southern section of the Inca Trail.

  7.  These kinds of things are great, and not just because it’s fun – this kind of data is crucial. Of course it’s cross-referenced with other things (like tsunami deposits in the rock record) but the key is that you can get an exact date – carbon-14 and every other radioisotope dating method have massive inherent error, and for the time scales of earthquakes it can be a big problem.

    Earthquake predictions are based on maybe 100 years of good data, and then what little scraps of other data can be determined from the rock record (you can see sequences of earthquakes if you dig a trench along a fault) and recorded history for before that. If your “big one” style earthquakes happen infrequently – every 100-150 years, say – that means we have maybe three or four data points at most to make future predictions on.

    That’s why earthquake prediction is difficult to impossible right now, at least for the biggest earthquakes – other, unproven methods have to be used, like computer modeling.

  8. Actually, I went out with Geologist Brian Atwater in the early 1990s and I was one of the first to publish his tree-core research. He and another UW scientist used dendrochronology matched with Japanese warehouse records to nail down the date of the 9.0 1700 quake. It was Jan 26, 1700 at about 9 am Pacific coast time.  There is plenty of geologic evidence in the soil and in tree snags down here in Pacific County.  See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1700_Cascadia_earthquake and 
    The Orphan Tsunami of 1700 by Atwater et al. 

  9. There was a great book published a while ago called, “When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber,.  The books central thesis is that myths contain real historical information, describing actual events that were preserved by pre-literate peoples in the only way they could – by telling interesting stories to preserve it.  The the stories then become altered and distorted over time due to the nature of storytelling via several rules that the authors lay out.  Many of the examples in the book are about volcanic eruptions and earthquakes just like the one here.

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