|Historic Accounts and Oral Histories of Coastal Destruction
Japanese and tribal accounts describe huge quake, waves
Wednesday, January 26, 2000
By Richard L. Hill of The Oregonian staff
On Jan. 27, 1700 -- several hours after the last big quake on the Oregon coast, Japanese reserachers have found written records of a tsunami that struck a coastal village about 300 miles northeast of Tokyo:
"At midnight . . . a tsunami struck Kuwagasaki village. . . . Villagers went to hills. Fires broke out and 20 houses were burned. In addition, 13 houses were reported to have been destroyed by the tsunami. Because the tsunami and fires happened at the same time, villagers were unable to move anything, let alone furniture or tools. . . . Also, for those who lost houses, the officer in charge of the hills made an official request for timber" to build temporary shelters.
Written accounts from Japan and oral histories of Northwest coastal tribes provide insights into the impact of the huge 1700 subduction-zone earthquake that struck the Northwest coast.
A chronicle by the head of Miho village, about 90 miles southwest of Tokyo, told of sea water running up as if it were a high tide. "The water also went into the pine trees of Ego. The receding water went out very fast, like a big river. It came in about seven times before 10 a.m. of that day and gradually lost its power. . . . Because the way the time came in was so unusual, and was in fact unheard of, I advised the villagers to escape to Miho Shrine. . . It is said that when an earthquake happens, something like large swells result, but there was no earthquake in either the village or nearby."
Although the rich oral histories of coastal tribes don´t provide a precise date about the last earthquake, they suggest that a large earthquake and tsunami occurred on a winter night.
Deborah Carver, a researcher from Kodiak, Alaska, said a few stories describe a huge earthquake in which elders tell the young they must run for high ground because of floodwaters that will follow. After spending a cold night in the hills, they find that all traces of their village and neighboring villages have been washed away.
Carver and her husband, Gary Carver, a professor emeritus of geology at
Humboldt State University, are compiling many of the stories that describe
tsunamis as well as the sudden plunging of the ground -- a characteristic of a subduction-zone earthquake.
A story from the Yurok people of Northern California describe supernatural beings called Earthquake and Thunder running up and down the coast causing the ground to shake, sink and be flooded by the ocean, Gary Carver said.
"The details are fairly specific in some of the stories," he said, "with place names spelled out. So we were able to go to these places that are described
in the stories and look at the geological evidence. We found tsunami deposits at one site that dated at 300 years. In regard to the subsidence story, we found the place being described -- remains of a forest buried below bay muds -- that also dated at about 300 years."
Ruth S. Ludwin, a research scientist with the Geophysics Program at the University of Washington, also has been gathering Native American stories about earthquakes and tsunamis.
Ludwin said stories of the Hoh and Quileute tribes of the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington describe an epic struggle between the supernatural beings Thunderbird and Whale. The monstrous bird seizes the huge orca and a battle ensues. Thunderbird carries Whale to its nest in the mountains, where a final battle is fought, with "a shaking, jumping up and trembling of the earth beneath, and a rolling up of the great waters," one account states.
Another story apparently describes a tsunami, telling of the ocean water flowing from Neah Bay on the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Pacific an making an island of Cape Flattery on Washington´s northwestern tip.