by Margaret Funk
In 1868 following the Homestead Act in the great plains of the US Samuel [Slaughter] and Matilda [Nee Webb] decided to move to the new country south of them. They settled for a year in Escanaba, Michigan. After finding no work they moved on and bought a piece of ground in Peshtigo and they cut trees off, part of it for the house, and cleared room for a garden. If they did as everyone else around them, they burned branches and bark. No one ever put out a fire unless it endangered their house. Barrels were kept near each door to catch rain water to fight these fires….and to wash the girls’ hair as rainwater was softer than well water.
The house was pretty well finished by October 8, 1871, when the worst fire (in numbers of people who died), in history occurred. Matilda (59) and the two girls who were still living at home Alice (16) and Amelia (9) ran down and got into the Peshtigo River, between the bridge and the dam. Samual (60) and Edward (14 ½) and Roderick (21) stayed behind to try to save their house. When it burned, Samual and the two boys started to go to the river. On the way a flying, burning two by four hit Sam in the head and he fell down unconscious. When Samual came to they decided to dig holes in the ground and cover themselves with sand. When the wind died down about 2:00 am, they pushed the sand away and went to the river hoping to find some of the rest of the family alive. They met Robert (32) who was carrying Jane (Jenny 3 ½), his oldest daughter. Robert and Jenny were badly burned and Robert was almost blind. They were looking for Margaret his wife and two year old Maggie. They had been separated from them as they were running over the bridge. They found Matilda and the two girls.
In the next few days before help came, many people died from exposure and starvation. Matilda had thrown a down comforter into the well on her way to the river (it is still in the family’s possession today), so they may have some protection on cold nights. Since Samual was a farmer they may have been able to eat roasted potatoes and other tubers in his garden.