This article examines how settlers in New Zealand and California responded to seismic instability throughout the late nineteenth century. By interpreting a series of moments during which the foundations of settlement were shaken by earthquakes I argue that the economic temporality of colonial boom and bust inflected contemporary understandings of natural disaster. In earthquake country, the relationships between scientists and settlers, their environmental knowledge, and the physical world existed in a dynamic equilibrium. When earthquakes struck in opportune conditions settlers were quick to resume their speculation on land, scientists were inspired by upheaval, and artists found sublimity in instability. In times of doubt earthquakes induced a latent anxiety among settlers about the prospects of the colonial project. In this context natural disasters were framed as threats to growth or harbingers of decline. Read together, responses to earthquakes offer a new way into the environmental history of settler colonialism that places a form of creative destruction at the center of the colonial project on both sides of the Pacific Rim.

In early 1856 the unflagging Sir Charles Lyell was busy, among other tasks, compiling correspondence from New Zealand for his upcoming lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Two decades after the publication of Principles of Geology, and eight years after he was recognized with a knighthood for his considerable scientific achievements, Lyell’s attention was drawn to rupture on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. His sources relayed details of the Wairarapa earthquake that struck Wellington on the 23rd of January 1855, toward the end of a two-day holiday marking fifteen years since the first European settlers stepped ashore at Petone on the other side of Wellington Harbor.1 Lyell’s sources—engineers, explorers, and scientists—told of the disruption across the southern end of the North Island and over the Cook Strait. Reporting to his colleagues at the Royal Institution the following year, Lyell discussed the upheaval, concluding that the Wairarapa quake was insufficient to “no other in magnitude of its geological and geographical importance.”2

Although the Wairarapa quake amounted to crucial evidence for Lyell’s arguments about the cumulative and incremental formation of landscapes through repeated seismic events, it was but one juncture in a burgeoning history of terrestrial instability for white settlers on the Pacific Rim.3 For scientists like Lyell these events became part of larger projects concerned with the discernment of geological and seismological laws. For locals, seismic instability was simply one of the local conditions of settlement in both New Zealand and across the Pacific in California. Settlement in these places was punctuated by a series of major earthquakes that forced settlers to grapple with the formation and disturbance of landscapes alongside their struggles to inhabit and secure Indigenous territory. Lyell’s invocation of both the “geological and geographical importance” of the Wairarapa quake hints at a complicated environmental apprehension of colonial space that drew on a mix of methodical and intuitive responses to landscape. For settlers and scientists this apprehension involved working out how glacial action shaped dramatic and prosaic topographies and how resilient their communities were to disaster. These processes were inextricably related to their environmental and colonial contexts. Indeed, on these “frontiers of empire” knowledge was constructed in a “dialogic” fashion. It was not simply produced by Europeans working within established scientific frameworks but through “cross-cultural engagements and negotiations” between metropolitan scientists, reporters, advocates for settlement, Indigenous informants, and settlers working in traditions like poetry, photography, and nature-writing.4 Through the latter groups in particular, new knowledge was also constructed in dialogue with the physical world, making settler scientific thinking an artifact of both colonial and environmental forces.

The cultivation of geological and geographical knowledge in settler colonies was subject to a peculiar set of constraints. Settlers came to terms with colonial nature in what the Australian historian Tom Griffiths has described as a “giant experiment in ecological crisis and management.”5 Scholars in settler societies like Aotearoa New Zealand, the United States of America, and Australia have been prominent in examining this “intellectual settling-in.”6 When these historians have developed comparative interpretations they have noticed that settlers in these spaces assembled a “framework that tied local and immediate experience to metropolitan worlds.”7 Natural events or disasters shaped these frameworks and “fundamentally altered the dynamic between settlers and their environment.”8 They frequently offered colonial actors a chance to investigate local natural events “of interest to the international scientific community.” For example, the 1886 Tarawera eruption in New Zealand’s thermal district provided an opportunity for the New Zealand Government Geologist and Director of the Colonial Museum, James Hector, to “short-circuit” the asymmetrical “pattern of scientific exchange” between metropole and colony.9 In 1886 Hector and those locals interested in turning an intellectual or financial profit from the eruption were assembling new, settler landscapes.

Natural disasters disrupted existing geographies and foregrounded the relationship between settlers and the environment. In apprehending natural disasters scientists traced connections between the frequently tense social and economic conditions of settler colonies and their environmental settings. Environmental historians have looked to these moments when considering the social and cultural aspects of natural disasters and their aftermath. Historians of fire and flood in particular have reframed the spaces between settler expectation and environmental reality as a site of creative destruction where old facts were discarded and new knowledge fashioned.10 These moments of crisis then, were crucial junctures during which the dimensions of a phenomenon we might call settler colonial environmental knowledge were thrown into sharp relief. Although natural disasters never critically affected settlement in New Zealand and California, they were nevertheless unsettling. “Like the troubled Earth,” the editors of a San Franciscan newspaper reported in the aftermath of the 1868 Hayward temblor, “the terrified continue to quake.”11 Earthquakes prompted settlers to reassess their understandings of environments, their identification with landscapes and their faith in the colonial project. Earthquake country, then, is an intriguing site from which to begin a consideration of the relationships between scientists and settlers, their environmental knowledge, and the physical world.

Despite the appeal of considering these intersections of culture and nature, there is a distinct lack of comparative historical explanations of nineteenth-century responses to earthquakes in New Zealand and California. Given that Thomas Dunlap’s Anglo-Pacific framework, Tony Ballantyne’s colonial dialogue, and the historical development of the discipline of geology all share characteristics as comparative enterprises, this is a puzzling omission. General histories regularly feature references to major earthquakes, but these are more often than not contained within national or regional limits that necessarily eschew sustained comparative frames.12 More local studies exhibit similar limitations. Herbert Guthrie-Smith provides a sample of this localism in his book Tutira when, after experiencing the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake, he was inspired to reorder his sense of the history of the landscape surrounding the Tutira-Waikopiro Lake according to the intersections of hydrology, geological rupture, and local knowledge.13 Such inspiration was hardly unique among settlers in New Zealand and California, for whom terrestrial instability was a fact of life.

The common experience of major events of terrestrial instability during the histories of settlement in Aotearoa New Zealand and California demands comparative study. At a superficial level, the comparison between New Zealand and California is an obvious one: both settler colonies boomed during the mid-nineteenth century and each featured scenery plainly shaped by glacial action or seismic movement. Aotearoa New Zealand and California are places where, according to the author John McPhee, “plate tectonics” plainly announces “its agenda.” Both regions share a geological history as island arcs: McPhee describes them as the “outermost laminations” of “new landscapes,” and New Zealanders, such as the environmental historian Tom Brooking have reached for San Francisco when explaining the position of Wellington on an active fault line.14 Other works have used earthquakes to grapple with the specific legacies of colonialism in Aotearoa New Zealand or the gradual construction of environmental knowledge in unstable landscapes. Katie Pickles has considered the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931 alongside the more recent Canterbury earthquakes of 2010, Rodney Grapes and Gaye Downes have published extensively on the Wellington earthquakes of 1848 and 1855, and other scholars including Joanna Dyl and Mike Davis in California and Eric Pawson in Aotearoa New Zealand have used rupture to think through environmental hazards, natural disasters, and their reception in the twentieth century.15 Aside from rhetorical comparisons, these examples largely isolate settler experiences of earthquakes into local, national, or regional narratives that resist the broader geological and geographical contexts that Lyell’s audiences and readers were interested in.

Aotearoa New Zealand and California clearly share their own histories of geological instability, but they were also both key sites of vigorous settler cultures. In the wake of what James Belich has called the “settler revolution,” Native populations were displaced, and new industrial extractive economies were rapidly constructed in their wake.16 In New Zealand and California these economies took root in the mid-nineteenth century and were fueled by immense capital flows, mineral extraction, and immigration. Belich argues that settler colonies were unique because of the accelerated, cyclical pattern of boom, bust, and economic reorganization that buttressed expansion, bound center and periphery, and imbued immigrants and investors with confidence in a range of different markets. These cyclical patterns had “decisive effects” in imperial metropoles, North America, and the antipodes but they also shaped subjectivities. Even if, as Noam Maggor points out, settlers all across the American West “thrived in the flux of their dynamic environment,” they remained attuned to shifting conditions. There was a geography and temporality to settler optimism. Speculation might run unimpeded in San Francisco but not in a more marginal place. Likewise, a booming Wellington was very different from Christchurch in the midst of a bust.17 Local conditions were shaped, too, by the conflicts over land that became endemic in New Zealand and California later in the nineteenth century—the New Zealand Wars were a persistent feature of settler colonial life between 1845 and 1872 and California’s Indian Wars ran for a similar length of time between 1850 and 1880.18 While these histories may have shaped the development of settler science in various ways, and remain a promising avenue of study, this article focuses predominantly on how geological thinking related to uneven economic development in late nineteenth-century New Zealand and California. It breaks new ground by linking settler understandings of earthquakes with the structural conditions of the settler revolution. By doing this I show the utility of a wide comparative frame and the myriad ways in which the global scientific apprehension of landscapes was informed by various local, and in this case settler colonial, factors.

In the immediate aftermath of earthquakes, and in landscapes marked by their traces, settler scientists and artists were major conduits for ideas about rupture. The same kinds of actors who expressed and influenced understandings of the magnitude 8.2 Wairarapa event in Wellington in 1855 were also pivotal players in the promotion of colonial growth and in the comprehension of a series of major earthquakes that took place around the Pacific Rim throughout the late nineteenth century. These major events included the magnitude 6.5 1868 Hayward earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, the magnitude 7.5 earthquake that struck the Owens Valley in 1872, and the magnitude 7.3 1888 North Canterbury earthquake in New Zealand’s South Island. Although Ballantyne offers a reminder that responses to these events were not carried out on wholly colonial terms, the existence of dialogue did not inhibit settlers in using new knowledge systems as an instrument of control. In fact, as ideas about rupture flowed through settler scientists and writers, incipient knowledge about specific physical processes was ultimately folded into a settler orientation to landscape that secured European notions of nature as a site of opportunity. In all four instances of rupture in New Zealand and California between 1855 and 1888 settlers were confronted with the vulnerability of colonial projects yet managed to cultivate new knowledge that further enhanced their connections to territory.

The construction of settler ties to territory was curiously resistant to the threats posed by terrestrial instability, and on both sides of the Pacific settlers were remarkably resilient between 1855 and 1888. Settlers took stock of their damaged environments, buried their dead, reconstructed their dwellings, and began again. The alternative—whether it was a return to their origins or relocation—must have been a more daunting prospect than endurance. However, settler cultures did more than just endure territorial instability; they often made good use of the destruction that earthquakes wreaked. If, as the historian and theorist Patrick Wolfe argues, settler colonialism “destroys to replace” then earthquakes could be useful because they created opportunities.19 Scientists like Josiah Whitney, of the U.S. Geological Survey, were drawn to inquire into earthquakes so as to draw new conclusions about the “nature and origins of the forces there displayed on so grand a scale.”20 Urban boosters were similarly interested in instability because of the promises of new markets for trade, purchase, and profit. In the week following the Hayward earthquake in 1868 the real estate market in San Francisco suffered from “no diminution in confidence.”21 Just two days after the earthquake the Alta California confidently predicted that within two weeks “all the damages will have been repaired, and in two months the stranger will seek in vain for any extensive traces of the ravages of the greatest earthquake that ever shook and startled San Francisco.”22

Settler polities were well positioned to respond to the shocks of natural disasters as investment in colonial infrastructure was supported by an almost unlimited access to credit. For much of the late nineteenth century, opportunity outweighed anxiety and development mindsets did not adequately acknowledge risk. For example, in New Zealand government building regulations were only introduced in 1931, not during the years of consistent population growth between 1860 and 1885, or 1900 and 1918.23 The delayed adoption of these regulatory building codes reflects a settler New Zealand that was “young, vigorous and suddenly dominant.”24 This mirrored the experience in San Francisco, where the construction of dwellings and workshops on alluvial mud continued apace despite the formation of a civil commission to investigate the necessities of “building against earthquakes” in late 1868.25 In the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire the geographer George Davidson, who was a member of both the 1868 and 1906 commissions, alleged that the chair of the 1868 investigation (the merchant George Gordon) vehemently suppressed the publication of the final report because of its anticipated impacts on property markets.26 Here, and in New Zealand, a coalition of real estate, civic, and development interests fueled growth and caused a delay in safety or zoning reform until the twentieth century.27 These interests, which helped settler boosters capitalize on instability, also played central roles in the expansion of settler control over territory during the late nineteenth century. The comparative perspective developed in this article reveals the structural basis of these attitudes to development, regulation and risk in a common trans-Pacific settler colonial mindset.

This structural basis inhered in the settler colonial logic that shaped responses to earthquakes in New Zealand and California. While rupture might have temporarily revealed the contingency of the settler enterprise, the methods of its apprehension eventually served to further enhance settler colonialism. Here, adversity furthered what Wolfe has called the ultimate objective of settler colonialism: the “fusion of people and land.”28 In the late nineteenth century settlers created and reinforced permanent attachments to earthquake country. Rather than rendering “the landscapes of colonialism vulnerable and compromised,” as Pickles suggests and as we might expect, earthquakes created opportunity.29 Scientists like Charles Lyell, Julius von Haast, Josiah Whitney, and Joseph LeConte all filled the spaces created by earthquakes with hypotheses about geological processes. The destruction wrought by shifting faults also bound settlers together in the task of rebuilding. Earthquakes, therefore, were influential events in the construction of settler landscapes in places like New Zealand and California. Earthquakes may have highlighted vulnerabilities in the ways that settlers conceived of nature or in the ways that they constructed their cities, but these moments of weakness were reliably resolved. This article explores how science and settlement functioned at the intersection of nature and culture in such a way as to resolve rupture, encourage endurance, and perpetuate settler control.

These cultural factors grew out of the same “geological and geographical” frames that Lyell relied upon in asserting the importance of the Wairarapa earthquake.30 To understand how they developed across the span of the late nineteenth century, it is necessary to examine the nested registers of time that settlers laid onto the landscape in earthquake-prone regions. First, there was the geological framing that excited imperial scientists like Lyell and their colonial contemporaries in the field. Geological or deep time allowed settlers to attach significance to the landscapes that they inhabited and create enduring cultures of scientific and aesthetic attachment. The geographical frame was Janus-faced: one side related to the economic patterns of the settler revolution and the other pertained to the perceived conditions of the settler landscape.31 The apprehension of these physical features was therefore subject to the volatility of settler economies and memories. When the geological and geographical frames were forced together by terrestrial instability in settler colonies—as they were repeatedly in late nineteenth-century New Zealand and California—assessments of the settler project could swell with opportunity, but they also occasionally shrank in anxiety. Not only does an examination of these moments complicate linear narratives of settler progress and support cyclical interpretations of settler development, it also shows how important reckonings with the natural world were for resolving instances of doubt.

By the mid-nineteenth century settlers were beginning to read the landscapes of New Zealand and California through the lens of deep time. Debates about the formation of landscapes in settler colonies were conducted in the lee of monumental revolutions in earth history. In 1785 the Scottish scientist James Hutton breached the possibility of a world with “no vestige of a beginning” and “no prospect of an end.”32 In this paper, delivered to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in his 1795 Theory of the Earth, Hutton was arguing against the received wisdom of the those who adhered to linear conceptions of earth history, linked to Mosaic cosmology. These perspectives, most notable in the work of Robert Jameson and William Buckland, effectively conflated geology and biblical history, ingratiating their science with the Church of England. Hutton’s revelations, which were picked up by figures such Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, circumvented temporal restrictions that limited accounts of the formation of landscapes and opened new vistas in geology and science. These discoveries meant that by the mid-nineteenth century, the constant movement of landscapes over vast timescales and their gradual change—what Martin Rudwick refers to as the “historicity” of nature—were inferred but the specifics of geology and landscape change were still in contention.33

The academic study of glacial geology provided an early set of principles and insights that exerted a strong influence on geological interpretation in both the American West and the antipodes. New ideas about the action of glaciers and how to read their traces formed in the lateral moraines of the revelation of deep time. Driven by Lyell and the Swiss (later American) geologist Louis Agassiz, the study of glacial geology developed in the 1830s and was particularly observable in both New Zealand and California, where the action of glaciers in the landscapes was evident. While the ice that covered much of the earth during the Pleistocene was in recess in these places, it had not disappeared in the way that it had in other parts of the globe.34 While these sites clearly fascinated metropolitan thinkers their geology held altogether different meanings in local milieux. Even though geological theory clearly informed settlers the simple act of apprehending time in space—and of dwelling on its meaning—was of far greater importance to them.

Around the remnants of the Pleistocene glaciation, settler poets, scientists, and explorers identified the artifacts of extinct glaciers, traced their impact across highland and lowland environments, and mounted arguments against those insisting on alternative histories of formation. For these settlers, glacial landscapes were where time in space was laid bare, and where they could begin to construct and then maintain a configuration of time, beauty, and space that attracted geologists, photographers, and tourists alike. Just as earthquakes did in settler cities, this construction and maintenance cut across the boundaries between scientific and popular discourse—attesting to the broader importance of these spaces in the settler colonial imagination. Accounting for the particularities of the settler apprehension of deep time is important; but this local thinking also shared a central occupation with the metropolitan perspectives, which pursued a kind of “pure” science. In geological time land really was terra nullius.

The revelation of deeper geological timescales in settler California was at the forefront of attempts to explain the formation of the distinctive canyons of the Sierra Nevada and especially the renowned Yosemite Valley. From the mid-nineteenth century the question of the topography of the Yosemite Valley occupied generations of geologists and nature writers.35 Josiah Whitney, the Harvard geologist and head of the first California Geological Survey, was among the first to weigh in after conducting fieldwork in the mid-1860s and publishing The Yosemite Book in 1869. After introducing the reader to the range of Yosemite’s features as if entering the valley on horseback from the Mariposa Trail, he noted the “perpendicular surfaces” of El Capitan and Bridal Veil Rock. On the formation of the valley Whitney concluded that “erosion could not have been the agent employed to do any such work.” He explicitly rejected theories of glacial formation by arguing that a “more absurd theory was never advanced” based on a comparison to the glacial valleys of the European Alps.36 His observations led him instead to a theory of catastrophic subsidence.

Whitney inferred from the shape of the valley and the precipitous drops of the granite walls that a portion of the landscape had dropped hundreds of meters, leavings the walls of the canyon exposed. He surmised that this had occurred at a remote point in the past—perhaps “during the process of upheaval of the Sierra” or as a result of a number of faults or “fissures crossing each other.” At this hypothetical point in time “the bottom of the valley sank down to an unknown depth, owing to its support being withdrawn from underneath.” Whitney was vague about more than just the point in geological history at which this event took place. He also could not provide a span over which his catastrophic subsidence transformed Yosemite from mountain plateaus into the geological curiosity that had captured the imagination of scientists and artists across the American West. For Whitney, the theory based on rupture explained the formation of the Yosemite Valley “no matter how slow we may imagine the process to have been.”37

Opposing, and eventually displacing Whitney’s hypothesis was a theory relying on the gradual processes of glacial erosion. The famous nature writer and wilderness advocate John Muir took up this argument in his first published article for the New York Tribune in 1871. In this article Muir concluded that the “great valley itself, together with all its domes and walls, was brought forth and fashioned by a grand combination of glaciers, acting in certain directions against granite of peculiar physical structure.”38 Whitney’s protégé, Clarence King, reached the same position as Muir by at least 1871 when he published Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Where Whitney saw only the valley floor, King observed a monumental moraine that filled the entire Yosemite Valley with “varying rubbish of angular boulders,” “slopes of glacier-worn granite,” and crucially, “sienitic granite from the summit of Mount Hoffman.”39 The glacial theory of the formation of the Yosemite Valley became the favored explanation in the 1930s when the U.S. Geological Survey returned to the Sierras and settled the debate with updated scientific techniques.40 However the eventual triumph of the hypothesis of glacial formation in the 1930s obscures some of the broad underlying consistencies that the two approaches shared with each other that can be emphasized through a comparison with the development of glacial geology in New Zealand.

What Rebecca Solnit has called “glacial fever” in California had a rather different set of symptoms in late nineteenth-century New Zealand.41 Not only was New Zealand’s South Island unmistakably marked by glacial action, but the rivers of ice were in clear view and not hiding in the clefts of mountain peaks as they were in the Sierras. In settler New Zealand, the revelation of deeper geological timescales in the late nineteenth century had less to do with solving the historical puzzle of monumental scenery and more to do with extending the effects of glacial action into more prosaic topographies. The pivotal scientific figure in New Zealand’s period of glacial fever was Julius Haast: a German-born geologist who emigrated from Frankfurt in 1858 and duly explored and mapped much of the provinces of Nelson, Canterbury, and Westland during the 1860s.42 In 1879, Haast published his Geology of the Provinces of Canterbury and Westland, New Zealand, which presented an assessment of the “Physical Geography and Geology of the Southern Alps.”43 Importantly, Haast also weighed in on a number of objections surrounding his views on glacial action and the physical geography of the Canterbury Plains.

During the late nineteenth century geologists debated how the area was formed, with some scientists claiming that the plains were created from an uplifted seabed and others who identified glacial origins in the region’s alluvial gravels. Haast surmised that the “whole of the plains were formed by the deposits of huge rivers issuing from the frontal end of gigantic glaciers.”44 He identified “the morainic matter” of “shingle, gravel, sand and glacier mud” that rivers like the Ashburton, Rakaia, and Rangitata distributed in great fans across the plains and traced the different depths of these river channels to the varying sizes of the glacier valleys that they issued from.45 Haast was reading time in landscape, just like Whitney, King, and Muir were. His Canterbury Plains could not be the result of a dramatic uplift event, but of gradual and ongoing glacial erosion.

Although settler scientists deployed numerous estimates of age, their hypotheses all situated landscape formation in a distant (rather than recent) past. In Yosemite, as on the Canterbury Plains, evidence for this past was sought in the rocks of the valley. King even read the valley as an archive: “To-day their burnished pathways are legibly traced with the history of the past. Every ice-stream is represented by a feeble river, every great glacier cascade by a torrent of white foam dashing itself down rugged walls, or spouting from the brinks of upright cliffs.”46 Characteristically, Muir was even more poetic in evoking the metaphor of a worn book. In his 1871 article “Yosemite Glaciers” he claimed that the valley was a “great open book” whose pages had been “blotted and storm-beaten,” “stained and torn,” but were still readable in their proclamation “in splendid characters the glorious actions of their departed ice.”47 Such glories were captured in the wilderness imagery of settler photographers who moved between subjects like wilderness, geoscience, Indigenous dispossession, and settler development as a matter of commercial necessity. Dunedin’s Alfred Burton produced his own versions of the reflective photography popular in the Yosemite Valley. Lake Hankinson was nominated by Burton as one of the “points of greatest beauty” around Te Anau and his photograph Lake Hankinson, North West Arm, Middle Fjord, Lake Te Anau displays a pleasing harmony of water and rock.48

The standards of beauty repeated in Burton’s photograph of Lake Te Anau owed much to established imagery of the sublime captured in Yosemite by artists like Carleton Watkins, whose work was reliably admired at international exhibitions throughout the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s.49 It is worth noting though that these harmonies were made possible by glacial formation. Lake Hankinson, for example, is situated in between two glacial moraines which shelter its waters from the open Middle Fjord and the higher Lake Thompson. This protected location created the conditions for the mirror-like surface that reflected the high mountains on either side and so attracted photographers like Burton who framed the view as scenic and imbued it with a peaceful, ancient tranquility.

Figure 1.

Alfred Burton, ‘Lake Hankinson, North West Arm, Middle Fjord, Lake Te Anau’ Burton Brothers studio, 1889, Dunedin, registration number: O.027967, Photography Collection, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Figure 1.

Alfred Burton, ‘Lake Hankinson, North West Arm, Middle Fjord, Lake Te Anau’ Burton Brothers studio, 1889, Dunedin, registration number: O.027967, Photography Collection, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Close modal

Glacial landscapes, through their identifiable geology and appealing aesthetic, provided opportunities for settlers in California and New Zealand to cultivate notions of time in space. The revelations of Whitney, Muir, King, Haast, Watkins, and Burton, were those of a settler landscape imbued with significance through the professional practices of geology, amateur articulations with antiquity, and poetic appraisals of beauty. In these ways the colonial development associated with surveyors and the more sentimental approach to place that artists cultivated served the same intellectual imperatives. All these settlers, despite their different careers and priorities, were in this instance thinkers of time in place. Moreover, Solnit’s Californian glacial fever turned out to be a symptom of a wider settler revelation of time in space that broke out on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean.50 It also occurred during other, more violent, geological events.

Notions of deep time and settler belonging took root in late nineteenth-century New Zealand and California despite the challenges that terrestrial instability posed. When these geographies shook, the gradual construction of a settler landscape through the revelation of deep time in space was temporarily threatened by rupture. Josiah Whitney himself understood shifts in the cluster of faults underneath the Sierra Nevada as disruptive events that temporarily revealed “dormant” and “subterranean” features.51 These were ruptures in the settler landscape of the Californian highlands. Whenever these clusters of faults moved in California, or in similarly “shaky” New Zealand an earthy equivalent of glacial fever emerged. These reactions were of course of a different temerity—where glaciers sliced through landscapes leaving grand voids, earthquakes cleaved, shifted, and broke them. Instead of revealing giant cross sections of the physical archive of the earth like glaciers did, earthquakes threatened to confuse the stratigraphical order of rocks that had been so painstakingly assessed. In this way rupture threatened settlement at certain times and in certain places by revealing the vulnerability of settler knowledge systems as they applied to landscape.

Despite the specific differences in geology, Whitney would have recognized the settler understanding of rupture in New Zealand. Like California, the continental landmass of Aotearoa New Zealand is located astride an active plate boundary and Wellington’s reputation for geological instability earned the young colony the epithet, the “shaky isles” amongst Britons across the Empire.52 As early as 1842 settlers had been warned (and reassured) by local Māori that the area around Cook Strait was a particularly unstable one.53 Other settlers in New Plymouth in the 1840s took special note of the ways that Indigenous people constructed their dwellings and were accordingly suspicious of stone houses.54 Earthquakes occurred often in these places: between the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and the turn of the twentieth century, there were six earthquakes with magnitudes above seven on the Richter scale, with the 1855 Wairarapa event that captured Lyell’s attention ranking as the largest earthquake in the history of European settlement in Aotearoa New Zealand.

During the main shock on the 23rd of January 1855, an area of land the size of Trinidad was lifted up and tilted west towards Australia. The Wairarapa earthquake had the largest effect on the city of Wellington—the first official settlement of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s New Zealand Company.55 Contemporary accounts of the earthquake that struck Wellington on the date of the anniversary of its settlement confirm that there was little damage to the town but noticeable changes to the landscape. In the New Zealander Captain Byron Drury of the surveying boat HMS Pandora reported that no changes had “been made in Lambton Harbor beyond the elevation of the land to the extent of two feet.” This according to Drury was a “matter of congratulation to the inhabitants that they have gained or can easily redeem a large tract of building ground.”56 During the fifty seconds of the quake, Wellington’s Basin Reserve was initially transformed from a lake into a swamp. The Basin was further reclaimed during the 1860s when settlers capitalized further on the landscapes created during rupture.

The optimistic tone that infused Drury’s reporting on the lowlands around Wellington was tempered by wary reactions to changes in the landscape in the highlands above the Wairarapa Fault. Although damage to the built environment was concentrated on the “lower ground,” this was most likely due to the distribution of population in these areas in 1855. While the effect to the landscape was nonchalantly dismissed around the harbor, changes along the Rimutaka range “where the shocks were very severe” and “whose flanks, from the summits” were “chequered with land slips,” functioned as threatening alternatives in Drury’s account.57 We can observe a similar distribution of concern in responses to the 1868 Hayward earthquake in California. While San Francisco’s Alta was equivocal in their comprehensive report and bullish about the limited effects on the city in follow-up articles, north of the bay, Sonoma’s The Argus described “all nature” trembling “in fear at the threatened convulsion.”58 On balance, the provincial press were invested in the “pluck, confidence and spirit” of those in the main settlements, where, in the case of San Francisco, the regular real estate sales were conducted as usual on the afternoon of the Hayward event.59

The same optimistic approach is apparent in other contemporary reports and is especially noticeable in those sent from Wellington back to London. A syndicated article from the Wellington Independent from May 1855 suggested that a visitor would not know there had been an earthquake, “so rapidly have all its effects been effaced.”60 Establishing the stakes of terrestrial stability, the article went on to promote cheap agricultural settlement, the financial health of the colony and the efficient chain migration arrangements of the newly adopted “Loan System.”61 Articles like this invoked the global flows of credit and people that sustained settler colonies during their formation and obscured the local spatial consequences of terrestrial instability. By way of contrast an early report of the earthquake in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 12th of March linked the 1855 event with the Marlborough earthquake of 1848 and set the conditions of the Shaky Isles against the “seeming stability of the present surface of New South Wales.”62 This dissonance is hardly surprising: colonies were in constant competition for financial and human resources and reports in separate locales mobilized the Wairarapa earthquake in varying ways in order to disguise or exaggerate the effect of rupture in Wellington.

In the context of imperial science, the most important mobilization of the Wairarapa earthquake was at the hands of Lyell, who immediately realized that this rupture had important implications for the ideas he initially put forward in Principles of Geology. Rodney Grapes and Gaye Downes have pointed out that the 1855 earthquake “provided Lyell with the first unequivocal evidence” of the “relationship between earthquakes and fault rupture” and that the same event buttressed the “Uniformitarian principle that geological features” were the sum of small incremental changes.”63 In a lecture on the earthquake to the Royal Institution of Great Britain (which was usually a venue for applied science) Lyell stressed the vast extent of the geological disruption of the Wairarapa earthquake and the positioning of the altered landscape in relation to “a line of fault, running north and south.” For Lyell, the Wairarapa earthquake built on Charles Darwin’s observations of coastal uplift and subsidence in Chile in 1835—notes that contributed to Darwin’s receipt of the Geological Society of London’s Wollaston Medal in 1859. The 1855 event however was even better: it was “impossible not to be led into geological reflections on the effects of the recent earthquake.”64 For Lyell, the Wairarapa earthquake represented a genuine rupture with previous ways of understanding geological change because of its temporal immediacy and its observable scale. It provided direct evidence for the Uniformitarian model of gradual (if not gentle) change and led Lyell into further meditations on the nature of the earth and scale of geological change.

Across the Pacific, Californian geologists and naturalists had prodigious opportunities to study large earthquakes and their geological and geographical effects. Over the course of the half-century leading up to 1906 there were three earthquakes in California that had a magnitude over seven on the Richter scale. These were the 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake, the 1872 Owens Valley earthquake, and of course the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake. By about the 1890s settlers in California had deduced the existence of the San Andreas Fault and the precarious positioning of Californian settlement along a series of interlocking fault lines but had done little to mitigate the risks associated with their settlement on vulnerable foundations.65 The 1872 Owens Valley earthquake, which levelled the mining town of Lone Pine, occurred in the midst of these processes of apprehension and at a remove from the major settlements in San Francisco and Sacramento. The Owens Valley earthquake was significant in that it was the second major California earthquake within two decades, but it was also important because the proximity of the epicenter to Lone Pine provided an opportunity to observe and record the effects of rupture in a non-urban landscape.

The Owens Valley runs north to south for about sixty miles through the heart of the Sierra Nevada between Death Valley in the east and the San Joaquin Valley on the western side. At approximately two thirty in the morning of the 26th of March, 1872 the faults around the Owens Valley corridor gave way and a major geological and seismic rupture shook the state of California. According to an eyewitness report published in the Sacramento Daily Union about a week after the event, “the inhabitants of Lone Pine were awakened by a loud explosion, followed by a terrible upheaval of the earth from south to north.” The earthquake reduced the town to ruins as “the earth was in constant shake and tremble for over three hours.”66 Just over one hundred miles north in the Yosemite Valley, the quake woke John Muir from his sleep in a cabin underneath Sentinel Rock. The Owen’s Valley quake occurred less than six months after Muir published his rebuttal of Whitney’s theory of the formation of the Yosemite Valley, and while it initially seemed impossible to Muir that “the high cliffs should escape being shattered,” he had nevertheless again rejected the theory of “cataclysmic origin” by sunrise. Muir joked with fellow travelers the next day at Hutchings’ Hotel that Whitney’s “wild tumble-down-and-engulfment hypothesis might soon be proved” and that “the domes and battlements of the walls might at any moment go roaring down” into a “mysterious abyss.”67 Aside from the initial doubt and fear of Muir—a temporary rupture—the only effect of the Owens Valley earthquake in Yosemite was the continued accrual of scree at the bottom of the valley walls. Lone Pine however was the site of more meaningful disruption.

Needing to pass through the Owens Valley in his work for the Geological Survey, Whitney arranged to inspect the area around Lone Pine and Independence in May 1872. Although he never published an official analysis of the Owens Valley earthquake, he did give an account in Overland Monthly—a Californian literary magazine that also counted Muir and Clarence King among its contributors.68 Upon arriving in the valley on the 21st of May, Whitney drily noted that seismic events were still taking place. Indeed, “there were usually several during each twenty-four hours.”69 At Lone Pine—where every house in the town had been “entirely demolished”—the party found themselves “in the midst of a scene of ruin and disaster.”70 All up the valley the geological effects of the earthquake were manifest in the “fissures in the soil or rocks; alterations of level in different parts of the valley” and “changes in the water-courses.”71 Twenty-three people were found dead among the ruins and four others succumbed to their injuries within a few days. Livestock were set loose and found dead, and almost all adobe houses in the valley were seriously affected.72 In the Owens Valley, Whitney encountered a landscape marked by the social and physical effects of rupture.

Interestingly, Whitney did not relate the Owens Valley event to his theory of the formation of the Yosemite Valley—despite the publication of Muir’s rebuttal only months before. Instead, Whitney placed the 1872 earthquake within a global context. Whitney sought to explicate an “earthquake cycle” over the winter and spring of 1872 and cited “a season of extraordinary seismic disturbance” with events in “North America, Iceland, Europe, Africa, Asia, the Japanese, the Philippine, and the East India Islands, as well as Australia.”73 In the first part of the article Whitney had argued for the distinctiveness of the geology of the Owens Valley, but in the second these local factors escaped his concern in favor of placing the Californian experience of instability in a global context.74 The global hypothesis of the “earthquake cycle” linked California with other peopled landscapes across the world. Whitney was careful to note that his list would be “extended considerably, as detailed news reaches us from the far-off regions of the earth,” and California settlers were quick to think about their experiences comparatively.75 In a long article in the Mariposa Gazette, geologist Joseph LeConte from the University of California meditated on geology, seismology and the Owens Valley earthquake and accentuated the necessity of comparison in developing a “true science of earthquakes.”76 For LeConte, Whitney, and their settler audiences, it was not just California that was in a “rather unstable condition of equilibrium.”77 Indeed the whole world seemed to be changing due to the earthquake cycle of 1872. The settler reading of the Owens Valley earthquake and the comparative understanding of seismology were riven with the concept of rupture.

Just as Whitney’s earthquake cycle was composed of a series of lithospheric and geological relationships that had disruptive effects in California’s Sierra Nevada, so too was the continued growth of settler colonies like California disrupting existing global geo-political relationships. For LeConte, settler modernity meant the increasing perfection of geological records as “seismometers” were “distributed in abundance over every earthquake region.”78 There is a sense of Charles Lyell’s excitement at the news from New Zealand in LeConte and Whitney’s enthusiasm with the seismic news rolling in from around the world. Economically, too, California was on the move: in mid-1872 California was in between the 1869 correction brought on by transcontinental rail and the panic of the 1873 bank runs.79 Socially and culturally, “the whole world seemed to be in motion.” The city of San Francisco and California itself were both manifestations of and engines for this disruption.80 Linking these social and cultural contexts to Whitney’s account of the Owens Valley earthquake was its publication in a Californian literary magazine founded and edited by a group of booster-poets. Overland Monthly went through a series of iterations over the course of the late nineteenth century but it was always primarily “an exponent of the literature of the Pacific coast.”81 Publication in a periodical like Overland Monthly cast “The Owens Valley Earthquake” in a literary hue and placed it within an organ that published in the interests of the boosters that, according to Ted Steinberg, were ignoring the geological realities of settlement in the Bay Area.82 While Whitney’s chief objective in part two of his article on the Owens Valley earthquake was undoubtedly to mount an argument about seismology, his emplotment of it in the 1872 earthquake cycle must also be read as a metaphor for settler California’s own assertive emergence.

In both New Zealand and California settlers were relatively unperturbed by the threat of rupture. After the Wairarapa, Hayward, and Owens Valley earthquakes the optimism of settlers and their interest in scientific hypotheses mostly outweighed the unsettling effects of terrestrial instability. In times of expansion optimistic settlers like John Muir found inspiring sublimity in the rupture that earthquakes induced. Scientists distanced themselves from the local costs of rupture as they were drawn to the insights that settlement and communications delivered. Metropolitan scientists like Charles Lyell delighted in events like the Wairarapa earthquake of 1855, and so did settlers in Wellington, who were able to reclaim land because of geological shifts. Other earthquakes were met with circumspection, though; and while concern was distributed geographically, its expression by some related to a different reading of the settler project. Some urban observers, for example, also met the 1868 Hayward earthquake with the circumspection seen in Sonora. Other events, like the 1888 North Canterbury earthquake, elicited even more disconcerting responses.

Writing after the magnitude 6.5 Hayward earthquake of 1868 that resulted in thirty deaths across Alameda County on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay, Leland Stanford’s personal physician and forty-niner, Jacob Stillman, diagnosed California as “earthquake country.83 He warned settlers that “in vain we invoke philosophy to our aid” because “the earthquake is a matter of fact after which philosophy gropes in obscurity.”84 Here, Stillman was tapping into a current of anxiety about the hubris of construction on “made ground.” Almost all the damage had been sustained by “old structures, the foundations of which were on piles which had become rotten and insecure.”85 Spirits remained high amongst many San Franciscans but it is hard to escape the impression that Stillman was anticipating the bust of 1869 when he alleged that wilful settler ignorance of the geological history of the Bay Area was motivated by a “fear that the prospect of damage will check the rise in real estate, and that the credit of the State will suffer.”86 No doubt these very considerations influenced the suppression of the Gordon Report. Stillman identified these economic constraints and warned that while few geologists and planners were exploring the landscape’s unstable intricacies, most settlers had been “speculating in stocks, trading jack-knives, or growing rich by the advance in water-lots.”87 Stillman’s warnings mostly fell on deaf ears though. The subsequent reiteration of the importance of altered building practices in reckonings with the vastly more destructive 1906 earthquake indicates that little care was taken to adjust after 1868.88 In the end the boosters won out but not before a range of structural and cyclical vulnerabilities were identified in the California market. These anxieties were voiced by prominent figures like Stillman but they were also latent in the very newspaper reports that trumpeted settler resilience.

In New Zealand, something like Stillman’s doubt surfaced more widely in the wake of the 1888 North Canterbury earthquake, which was the result of movement along the Hope Fault in the foothills of the Southern Alps and came after more than three weeks of foreshocks. The North Canterbury earthquake had its most noticeable effect on the landscape in the rural areas abutting the Hanmer Plain, which was, of course, one of the South Island’s gravelly expanses that had been a site of glacial revelation for Julius Haast just a decade earlier.89 Another geologist, the self-taught Alexander McKay, conducted an inspection of the area around the Hope Fault in the aftermath of the North Canterbury Earthquake.90 At Glynn Wye station near Hanmer Springs, McKay noted the rupture that occurred in the landscape on the 1st of September: “the recently formed fractures are on the face and brow of the high terrace, and a little to the west on the upper flat itself, where over nearly a quarter of a mile, the whole surface is a network of fractures, fissures, slips, and dislocations.”91 The fences on the station allowed McKay to measure horizontal movement, which was at the time a controversial subject among geologists and seismologists.92 According to the report published on the 7th of November, some fence lines in apparently undisturbed ground were shifted “5ft out of the true line” and other lines closer to fissures were “thrown to the east a distance of 8ft 6in.”93

Though the strength of the earthquake was somewhat mitigated sixty miles further south in Christchurch, settlers responded to rupture with more worry than those in Wellington in 1855. By 1888 the optimism that tinged accounts of rupture in Wellington had turned to doubt. Throughout the black 1880s, New Zealand had suffered through a series of financial crises that amounted to a “great bust.”94 These economic conditions provided a lens of doubt through which settlers understood their interactions with landscape. In Christchurch in 1888 this interaction was a threatening one: a collection of reports published by the Timaru Herald on the 3rd of September described houses creaking and rocking “like vessels at sea.” Though it appears that no people were seriously injured, the earthquake damaged important municipal landmarks in the center of town.95 Newspapers like the Star and the Lyttelton Times published melodramatic descriptions of the damage to Christchurch Cathedral, which lost the top six meters of its spire: “The spire of the Cathedral has come to grief. Its tapering, graceful outline…no longer cuts the sky. Twenty-six feet of the upper spire has given way, and the melancholy appearance of the wreck strikes every eye.”96 The wreck of the cathedral also became subject to photographic attention. The Burton Brothers captured the damage in Christchurch Cathedral, injured by earthquake, September 1 1888 which appears to have been taken on the day of the event.97

Imagery of the fallen spire proliferated in the aftermath of the earthquake and these simple black and white or hand-colored images often depicted milling crowds in the same fashion as the Burton Brothers. In the absence of large-scale destruction or massive landscape change, the collapse of the spire, fixed in the imagery of the Burton Brothers, became the central symbol of the damage that the earth inflicted on the settlers of Canterbury. Over time, it came to signify both the vulnerability of the settler project and the resilience of the settlers themselves.

Although the melancholy sentiment expressed in the Lyttleton Times appears to have been mitigated as the image of the fallen spire was transformed into a symbol of settler tenacity, this was necessarily a repair—imbued as much with the rupture of the event as the optimism of new beginnings. In a slightly different economic context, the San Francisco Customs House damaged in the 1868 earthquake was quietly pulled down after its foundations sank into the mud of the bay.98 Although most settlers were stoic in the face of the collapse of the Customs House, authors like Stillman could not help but read earthquakes as a threat that property speculators in the Bay should be more mindful of. Later in the century, after a series of economic shocks had repeatedly rocked the white settler world and after New Zealand’s own “black” decade, Cantabrians could not bring themselves to respond to the 1888 earthquake with the same optimism as their kin in Wellington in 1855. Concern was present in both contexts, but it was inflected by economic circumstances. Stillman’s anxieties in 1868 were mostly latent due to local confidence in the settler market while wider worries played out in Christchurch in 1888 because of troubling economic conditions.

Figure 2.

Photographer Unknown, ‘Christchurch Cathedral, injured by earthquake September 1, 1888’ Burton Brothers studio, 1888, Dunedin, registration number: C.011676, Photography Collection, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Figure 2.

Photographer Unknown, ‘Christchurch Cathedral, injured by earthquake September 1, 1888’ Burton Brothers studio, 1888, Dunedin, registration number: C.011676, Photography Collection, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

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Aotearoa New Zealand and California share more than just a comparable geological setting and a common economic origin story in the settler revolution. From the middle of the nineteenth century both places were also sites of settler/Indigenous conflict, and it is important to remember that the cultivation of settler connection to landscape was always conducted at the expense of Indigenous people. In this context settler colonial repair had implications beyond the infrastructural. After the Hayward and the Owens Valley earthquakes, which both occurred during the California Indian Wars that ran between 1850 and 1880, rebuilding was also partially erasure. The comparative period of racial conflict in New Zealand spanned from 1845 to 1872—surrounding the events of the Wairarapa quake of 1855 and defining the regional historical background of the 1888 Canterbury event. By going through the four seismic events chronologically it is possible to glimpse how these racial contexts articulated with the movements and thinking of settler observers. In Wellington and the Owens Valley in particular settler/Indigenous conflict is an unavoidable part of the historical context of seismic events and their reportage. In the case of the other two earthquakes however, these structural contexts are harder to identify. Instead, the forces that reliably shaped settler scripts appear to be the vicissitudes of the settler revolution. In all four events the geological understanding of rupture offered a timeless vision of landscape change. As economic conditions shifted, though, what geological instability meant for settlers in New Zealand and California also changed. Variances in economic conditions produced moments of geological awareness in which the shaky foundations of settlement were either promptly and rationally explained away or troublingly recalled.

Comparing the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake with the Hayward quake of 1868 reveals some geographical limits of settler optimism. Resonant in both cases is the settler confidence in land reclamation around the coastal areas of longest settlement. Stillman mentioned the “water-lots” that drove the expansion of terrestrial San Francisco into the Bay, but it was in Wellington that settlers gained new territory in their central business district as a result of fault movement.99 Both the speculative investors that Stillman decried in his article and the denizens of Wellington were more than willing to pursue expansion and were negligent of racial conflict. However, the tempered response to rupture in the highlands around Wellington raises the question of the limits of colonial control. We might explain this difference with recourse to the geography of racial conflict in the Wellington region around 1855. Although the Wairarapa quake was before the major conflicts of the Taranaki and Waikato wars, it occurred in the wake of violence in the 1840s across the south of the North Island that resulted in the death of a number of settlers and Māori. These events were compounded during the early 1850s by the escalation of tensions between the New Zealand Company, settlers, and Māori over land sales in the highland districts away from coastal settlements. Tensions led to Maori confederation in 1858 and the King Movement that asserted a version of sovereignty over the mountainous center of the North Island.100 The geography of anxiety in the wake of the Wairarapa quake, which heightened in a similar set of unevenly settled highlands on the eastern side of Wellington Harbor, matched an established geopolitics of settler doubt in an indication that optimism waxed and waned partly in accordance to local histories of territorial conflict.

The Owens Valley was also a site of settler colonial conflict during the middle of the nineteenth century. Beginning in the winter of 1861–62 tensions between Californian settlers and native Paiutes that had been simmering during incursions into the valley by surveyors and homesteaders overflowed when a group of settlers killed four men whom they found approaching cattle in February 1862. By April, the U.S. Army had occupied the valley and within a year had induced surrender from the Paiutes, who were “removed” from the valley and resettled at Fort Tejon north of Los Angeles.101 Although a number of Paiutes managed to make their way back to the valley over the following decade, by the time of Josiah Whitney’s visit in the aftermath of the 1872 earthquake the Owens Valley was ostensibly under settler control.102 The U.S. Army maintained a presence in the Valley—the Sacramento Daily Union drew on the reports of a Colonel Whipple, who was sent to San Francisco to plead for aid—and according to Joseph LeConte, of the two thousand or so people residing in the Owens Valley, at least three hundred “were Indian and colored.” Nevertheless, the Owens Valley clearly lacked the local “plurality in sovereignty” that constrained settlement in the highlands of New Zealand’s North Island and other parts of the Sierra Nevada around this time.103 The foundations of settler civilization in the Owens Valley were sure.

Unlike the previous three earthquakes, the 1888 North Canterbury event occurred after the period of most intense conflict. Not only this, but the most crucial theaters of the New Zealand Wars were located in the North Island. Despite these differences the expressions of melancholy that peppered the press in Christchurch in the wake of the earthquake must still be read as doubt in the settler project. Troubling settler responses to the Canterbury earthquake, too, were evenly distributed across urban and rural environments. The financial and imaginative capital that supported boosters in other contexts was clearly less available in Christchurch in 1888. While questions about the suitability of development in unstable geological spaces were ignored in Wellington in the 1850s and managed in California in the 1860s and 1870s, they proved harder to suppress in Canterbury in the 1880s. Unlike these examples, anxieties about rupture took root in urban spaces in 1888 and matched the dislocations at Hanmer Springs. The use of the intimate adjective “injured” in the caption to the Burton Brothers image of the toppled spire attests to the seriousness with which settlers approached the effects of this earthquake.104 Here, a different type of settler anxiety—one heightened by the economically uncertain 1880s—is observable in the proliferation of the image of the damaged spire of Christchurch Cathedral.

In considering these four case studies the entanglements of scientific encounter, spatial thinking, and economic conditions in the late nineteenth-century settler imaginary are clear. Over the course of the late nineteenth century, California and New Zealand were subject to a series of major terrestrial disturbances that were interpreted in varying ways by local settlers. Variances were produced by the interplay of economic conditions and the gradual accretion of local geological knowledge. Local contexts imposed certain constraints on settlers when they sought to assess the geology of new landscapes in times of terrestrial stability and instability. The emergent paradigm of geological time obliged settler scientists to read landforms as an archive that could reveal the fundamental essence of space and the conditions of its formation. As a result, settlers and scientists in earthquake country understood their landscapes comparatively. They were regularly drawing instances of instability together to better understand geological and geographical conditions. Here, a set of financial patterns related to booming colonial economies, swelling land markets, and listing levels of confidence helped determine responses.105 Sometimes, racial conflict intersected with these conditions and created situations in which settler optimism waxed and waned according to local balances of territorial power. Of course, settler power itself was heavily influenced by intellectual and financial conditions and the cases included in this article indicate that settlement was a multi-dimensional and intersectional process that was intimately projected onto landscape at every stage.

Indeed, the settler revolution was as much about local changes to landscapes, settler faith in favorable economic conditions, and the protracted apprehension of new spatial configurations as it was about which commodities were being transported across the world. It had as important implications for the Sierra Paiutes as it did for itinerant prospectors, settler boosters, and metropolitan businessmen. In moments of rupture these multiple dimensions were thrown into sharp relief and their directions and, occasionally, their intersections can be read in relation to one another. The geologies and geographies of settler colonialism then were simultaneously marked by opportunity and anxiety in a way that complicates linear understandings of settler growth and progress or any master explanations of colonial settlement. While responses to the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake and the 1872 Owens Valley event may attest to a robust settler colonial development, anxieties about the possibilities of settlement in places like San Francisco were real in the minds of those like Jacob Stillman in 1868 and even more troublesome after events like the 1888 Canterbury quake. Despite the complications that such a multi-dimensional process threw up, we can observe that settler colonialism eventually worked to resolve the ruptures that earthquakes revealed—at least in New Zealand and California. On its own this outcome fails to justify a linear narrative of settler progress though, and attention to moments of doubt can reveal the ways in which settlers remade troubling geographies. In these places broken landscapes were urgently resettled, images of damage became popular reminders of settler tenacity, and new environmental knowledge was cultivated and celebrated.

I would like to thank the referees for their comments and suggestions, and Kate Fullagar and the editors of the Pacific Historical Review for their guidance and advice. Thank you too to the Laureate Centre for History & Population at UNSW, where this article was workshopped in 2021: Alison Bashford, Michelle Bootcov, Emma Christopher, Chi Chi Huang, Naomi Parkinson, Stephen Pascoe, Aprajita Sarcar, Emma Thomas, Amy Way, and Joel Wing-Lun.


Gaye L. Downes, “The 1855 January 23 M8+ Wairarapa Earthquake—What Contemporary Accounts Tell Us About It,” in The 1855 Wairarapa Earthquake Symposium Proceedings, ed. John Townsend, Rob Langridge, and Andrew Jones (Wellington: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2005), 1–10. To avoid confusion and anachronism, I use the settler colonial “New Zealand” to refer to the colony and dominion and “Aotearoa New Zealand” to refer to the modern-day national entity. Where both may be appropriate, I have used “New Zealand” as this is an article about settler understandings of natural disaster.


Quoted in Rodney H. Grapes and Gaye L. Downes, “Charles Lyell and the great 1855 earthquake in New Zealand: first recognition of active fault tectonics,” Journal of the Geological Society 167, no. 1 (2010): 36.


Grapes and Downes, “Charles Lyell and the great 1855 earthquake in New Zealand,” 46.


Tony Ballantyne, Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past (Bridget Williams Books, 2012), 19.


Tom Griffiths, “The Nature of Culture and the Culture of Nature,” in Cultural History in Australia, ed. Hsu-Ming Teo & Richard White (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2003): 67–80, 71.


Libby Robin and Mike Smith, “Australian Environmental History: Ten Years On,” Environment and History 14 (2008): 136. On New Zealand environmental history, see Tom Brooking and Eric Pawson, eds., Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2013); Graeme Wynn, “Remapping Tutira: Contours in the Environmental History of New Zealand,” Journal of Historical Geography 23, no. 4 (1997): 418–46. On American environmental history, see William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” Journal of American History 78 (March 1992): 1347–76; Paul Sutter, “The World with Us: The State of American Environmental History,” Journal of American History 100, no. 1 (2013): 94–119; Richard White, “From Wilderness to Hybrid Landscapes: The Cultural Turn in Environmental History,” The Historian 66 (Fall 2004): 557–664; Donald Worster, “History as Natural History: An Essay on Theory and Method,” Pacific Historical Review 53 (February 1984): 1–19. On Australian environmental history, see Tom Griffiths, “Environmental History, Australian Style,” Australian Historical Studies 46, no. 2 (2015): 157–73; Ruth A. Morgan, “AHS Classics: Rural History and Environmental History,” Australian Historical Studies (2017): 1–15. Theorists of space and place, too, have developed useful ways of thinking about landscape. For an introduction to this work see, W.J.T. Mitchell, “Imperial Landscape,” in Landscape and Power, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002, 2nd ed.).


Thomas R. Dunlap, Nature and the English Diaspora: Environment and History in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 98. On comparative environmental and settler history, see Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895–1945 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001); Tracey Banivanua-Mar and Penelope Edmonds, eds., Making Settler Colonial Space: Perspectives on Race, Place and Identity (London: Palgrave, 2010); James Beattie, Empire and Environmental Anxiety: Health, Science, Art and Conservation in South Asia and Australasia, 1800–1920 (London: Palgrave, 2011); Don Garden, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific: An Environmental history (Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara University Press, 2005); Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 16001860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 18601930 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999).


Margaret Cook, “‘A River with a City Problem, not a City with a River Problem’: Brisbane and Its Flood-Prone River,” Environment and History (forthcoming): 2.


Rebecca Rice, “Making Tracks: Photography and Trade in the Nineteenth Century,” in Early New Zealand Photography: Images and Essays, ed. Angela Wanhalla & Erika Wolf (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2011): 86–91, 88–89.


Margaret Cook, “Damming the ‘Flood Evil’ on the Brisbane River,” History Australia 13, no. 4 (2016): 540–56; Tom Griffiths, “The Language of Catastrophe: Forgetting, Blaming and Bursting into Colour,” Griffith Review 32 (2012); Eric Pawson, “Environmental Hazards and Natural Disasters,” New Zealand Geographer 67 (2011): 143–47; Stephen Pyne, Fire: Nature and Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2013); Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Christof Mauch and Christian Pfister, Natural Disasters, Cultural Responses: Case Studies toward a Global Environmental History (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2009).


“The Earthquake Sensation,” Daily Alta California, November 9, 1868, 2.


Brooking and Pawson, Making a New Land; Ben Schrader, The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 18401920 (Bridget Williams Books: Wellington, 2016); Steinberg, Acts of God; Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (Metropolitan Books: New York, 1998). Recent work in Māori history has also considered indigenous adaptation to earthquakes and catastrophic natural disasters in pre-settlement times: Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney, and Aroha Harris, Tangata Whenua: A History (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2015), 103; Bruce MacFadgen, Hostile Shores: Catastrophic Events in Prehistoric New Zealand and their Impact on Maori Coastal Communities (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007).


Herbert Guthrie-Smith, Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station (1921), 4th ed. (Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Ward, 1969), 43–44.


John McPhee, Annals of the Former World (New York: Strauss and Giroux, 1998), 435; Tom Brooking, The History of New Zealand (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004), 3.


Katie Pickles, “Postcolonial Environments,” in Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand, ed. Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2014): 261–76; Rodney Grapes, Magnitude Eight Plus: New Zealand’s Biggest Earthquake (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2000); Rodney Grapes, The Visitation: The Earthquakes of 1848 and the Destruction of Wellington (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2011); Joanna Dyl, Seismic City: An Environmental History of San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019); Davis, Ecology of Fear; Pawson, “Environmental Hazards and Natural Disasters.”


James Belich, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 17831939 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2009), 261–78, 306–19.


Belich, Replenishing the Earth, 177–85, 548–61; Noam Maggor, “To Coddle and Caress These Great Capitalists: Eastern Money, Frontier Populism, and the Politics of Market-Making in the American West,” American Historical Review 122, 1 (2017): 55–84, 78.


James Belich, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1986); Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Bantam Books, 1972).


Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 387–408, 388.


Josiah Whitney, “The Owen’s Valley Earthquake—Part Two,” Overland Monthly 9, no. 3 (September 1872): 266–78, 266.


“Financial and Commercial,” Daily Alta California, October 31, 1868, 4.


“Local Intelligence: After the Earthquake,” Daily Alta California, October 23, 1868, 1.


Regulation building codes were only introduced in New Zealand after the Hawke’s Bay earthquake that destroyed the town of Napier. Pawson, “Environmental Hazards and Natural Disasters,” 143–47.


Philippa Mein Smith, A Concise History of New Zealand (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 79.


George Gordon, “Local Intelligence: Chamber of Commerce. The Earthquake Subject—Important Suggestions,” Daily Alta California, November 11, 1868, 1.


William H. Prescott, “Circumstances Surrounding the Preparation and Suppression of a Report on the 1868 California Earthquake,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 72, no. 6 (December 1982): 2389–93.


Steinberg, Acts of God, 25–44.


Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (London: Verso, 2016), 34–36; Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” 388.


Katie Pickles, “Postcolonial Environments,” in Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand, ed. Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2014), 261–76, 271.


Quoted in Grapes and Downes, “Charles Lyell and the Great 1855 Earthquake in New Zealand: First Recognition of Active Fault Tectonics,” 36.


Belich, Replenishing the Earth, 261–78, 306–19.


James Hutton, “Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe,” Transaction of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1, no. 2 (1788): 209–304, Read March 7 and April 4, 1785; James Hutton, Theory of the Earth (Weinheim: Engelmann, 1959).


McPhee, Annals of the Former World, 70–80; Martin Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Martin Rudwick, Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 3–5, 69–73, 120–127.


Rudwick, Worlds Before Adam, 535–539; McPhee, Annals of the Former World, 54–75.


Tracy Salcedo-Chourré, Historic Yosemite National Park: The Stories Behind One of America’s Great Treasures (Lyon’s Press, 2016), 159–62.


Josiah Whitney, The Yosemite Book: A Description of the Yosemite Valley and the Adjacent Region of the Sierra Nevada, and of the Big Trees of California, illustrated by maps and photographs (New York: Julius Bien, 1868), 75–80.


Whitney, The Yosemite Book, 77.


John Muir, “Yosemite Glaciers,” New York Tribune, December 5, 1871. For a more substantive treatment of Muir’s geological thinking and the controversy between him and Whitney see, Donald Worster, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 366–400.


Clarence King, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (Boston: James Osgood & Co, 1872), 70–78.


Salcedo-Chourré, Historic Yosemite National Park, 159–62.While it took until the 1930s for experts to settle on the glacial formation of the Yosemite Valley, theories such as Muir’s were hardly marginal in the late nineteenth century. On the obsession with glacial geology in the high Sierra’s in 1872 see Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (New York: Viking, 2003), 75–101.


Solnit, River of Shadows, 95.


Peter B. Maling, “Haast, Julius von,” Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 1990.


Julius von Haast, Geology of the Provinces of Canterbury and Westland, New Zealand, a report comprising the results of official explorations (Christchurch: Printed at the Times Office, 1879), i–iii.


Ibid, 396–97.


Ibid, 398–401.


King, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, 73.


Muir, “Yosemite Glaciers.”


Alfred Burton, “Wintering on Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri,” Otago Daily Times, September 28, 1889.


Jarrod Hore, Visions of Nature: How Landscape Photography Shaped Settler Colonialism (Oakland: University of California Press, 2022).


Solnit, River of Shadows, 95; Alfred Burton, Lake Hankinson, North West Arm, Middle Fjord, Lake Te Anau, 1889, Burton Brothers studio, Dunedin.


Whitney, The Yosemite Book, 38.


James Beattie, Empire and Environmental Anxiety: Health, Science, Art and Conservation in South Asia and Australasia, 18001920 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 57.


Rebecca Burke, ‘“Friendly Relations between the Two Races Were Soon Established’?: Pākehā Interactions with Māori in the Planned Settlements of Wellington, Nelson and New Plymouth, 1840–1860” (PhD diss., Victoria University of Wellington, 2014), 95.


Ibid, 175.


André Brett, Acknowledge No Frontier: The Creation and Demise of New Zealand’s Provinces, 185376 (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2016), 25–26.


Byron Drury, “Wellington,” New Zealander 11 (March 1855).




“The Great Earthquake,” The Argus, October 22, 1868.


“Local Intelligence: The Great Earthquake of 1868,” Daily Alta California, October 22, 1868, 1.


“The State of the Province of Wellington,” Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, June 9, 1855.




“The Earthquake in New Zealand, of 23rd January 1855,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 12, 1855.


Grapes and Downes, “Charles Lyell and the great 1855 earthquake in New Zealand,” 35.


Ibid, 36.


Steinberg, Acts of God, 28–30.


“The Earthquake in Inyo County and Other Places: Loss of Life and Property,” Sacramento Daily Union, April 1, 1872, 2.


John Muir, Our National Parks (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1901), 1.


Josiah Whitney, “The Owen’s Valley Earthquake—Part One,” Overland Monthly 9, no. 2 (August 1872): 130–40; Josiah Whitney, “The Owen’s Valley Earthquake—Part Two,” Overland Monthly 9, no. 3 (September 1872): 266–78.


Whitney, “The Owen’s Valley Earthquake—Part One,” 134.


Ibid, 135.


Ibid, 136.


Ibid, 135–40.


Whitney, “The Owen’s Valley Earthquake—Part Two,” 271–72.


Whitney, “The Owen’s Valley Earthquake—Part One,” 130–40.


Whitney, “The Owen’s Valley Earthquake—Part Two,” 272.


Joseph LeConte, “Earthquakes,” Mariposa Gazette, April 19, 1872, 1.


Whitney, “The Owen’s Valley Earthquake—Part Two,” 276.


LeConte, “Earthquakes,” 1.


Belich, Replenishing the Earth, 317.


Solnit, River of Shadows, 27–39.


“Overland Reminiscences,” Overland Monthly 1, no. 1 (January 1883): 1–6.


Steinberg, Acts of God, 25–44.


C.W. Stover and J.L. Coffman, Seismicity of the United States, 1568–1989 (Revised) (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1993), 73, 104.


J.D.B. Stillman, “Concerning the Late Earthquake,” Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine 1, no. 5 (November 1868): 474.


“Local Intelligence: After the Earthquake,” Daily Alta California, 1.


Stillman, “Concerning the Late Earthquake,” 475.




David Starr Jordan, “The Earthquake Rift of April, 1906,” in The California Earthquake of 1906, ed. David Starr Jordan (San Francisco: A.M. Robertson, 1907), 61; for the continuation of risky patterns of urban development in the wake of 1906 see, Dyl Seismic City, 129–163.


von Haast, Geology of the Provinces of Canterbury and Westland, New Zealand, 396–401.


Roger Cooper, “McKay, Alexander,” Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 1993.


Alexander McKay, “The Late Earthquakes,” Press 45, no. 7198 (November 8, 1888).


Rodney Grapes, “Alexander McKay and the Discovery of Lateral Displacement on Faults in New Zealand,” Centaurus 48, no. 4 (October 2006): 298–313.


McKay, “The Late Earthquakes.”


Belich, Replenishing the Earth, 364.


“The Earthquake,” Timaru Herald, September 3, 1888.


“A Severe Earthquake,” Star, September 1, 1888; “The Earthquakes,” Lyttelton Times, September 5, 1888.


Christchurch Cathedral, injured by earthquake September 1, 1888, 1888, Burton Brothers studio, Dunedin.


“Removal of the U.S. Custom House: The Building on Post Office Square to be Taken Down,” Daily Alta California, October 24, 1868, 1.


Stillman, “Concerning the Late Earthquake, Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, 475; Eileen McSaveney, “Historic Earthquakes—The 1855 Wairarapa Earthquake,” in Te Ara—the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (2006),


Belich, The New Zealand Wars and Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict, 73–75; see also Jarrod Hore, “Capturing Terra Incognita: Alfred Burton, ‘Maoridom’ and Wilderness in the King Country,” Australian Historical Studies 50, 2 (2019): 188–211.


William J. Bauer Jr., California through Native Eyes: Reclaiming History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), 80–87.


Ibid, 86–87; The headquarters of the U.S. Army at Camp Independence was closed in 1863 and reopened 1865 because of intermittent conflict in the area which persisted until about 1867. As a result, the garrison was continuously occupied until 1877.


Zoë Laidlaw, “Breaking Britannia’s Bounds?: Law, Settlers and Space in Britain’s Imperial Historiography,” The Historical Journal 55, no. 3 (2012): 829.


Christchurch Cathedral, injured by earthquake September 1, 1888, 1888, Burton Brothers studio, Dunedin.


Belich, Replenishing the Earth, 261–78, 306–19.