The occurrence of three earthquakes with moment magnitude (Mw) greater than 8.8 and six earthquakes larger than Mw 8.5, since 2004, has raised interest in the long-term global rate of great earthquakes. Past studies have focused on the analysis of earthquakes since 1900, which roughly marks the start of the instrumental era in seismology. Before this time, the catalog is less complete and magnitude estimates are more uncertain. Yet substantial information is available for earthquakes before 1900, and the catalog of historical events is being used increasingly to improve hazard assessment. Here I consider the catalog of historical earthquakes and show that approximately half of all Mw ≥ 8.5 earthquakes are likely missing or underestimated in the 19th century. I further present a reconsideration of the felt effects of the 8 February 1843, Lesser Antilles earthquake, including a first thorough assessment of felt reports from the United States, and show it is an example of a known historical earthquake that was significantly larger than initially estimated. The results suggest that incorporation of best available catalogs of historical earthquakes will likely lead to a significant underestimation of seismic hazard and/or the maximum possible magnitude in many regions, including parts of the Caribbean.