story is the recollections of
Catherine Mc Donnell Schweers, born 1869 in Wisconsin. She was the wife
of John C. Schweers and the family made their home in the City of
Shawano County, Wisconsin. On the 1930 US Census, her aunt Flora Mc
McMurry who she refers to in the story, was living with the couple.
was 3 years old at the time of the Great Peshtigo Fire, which she did
personally experience, for it had not gone quite as far west as her
home. However, the members of the large extended Mc Donnell family
Catherine on their own stories of survival in town of Peshtigo, 1871.
is the 1931 obituary of her Aunt Flora, a survivor, and a chart showing
many probable relatives that Catherine referred to, living in town of
in 1870. This should include the grandparents she refers to in the
below. The Mc Donnell family originally came to English Canada from
England, settling in the St Andrews, Ontario, area.
THE PESHTIGO FIRE - 1871
Narrated by Mrs. J. C. (Catherine Mc Donnell) Schweers
Written by: Jeanette Frank
Date unknown - word spellings are as in the original doument.
Little did I know when I climbed into bed here at Shawano, that my relatives, before dawn, would witness the most devastating catastrophe of the state of Wisconsin.
My grandparents had drifted down near Peshtigo from Canada, and little by little the entire family had vacated Cornwell. At sixteen, my father, George Mc Donell (also Mc Donnell) a strapping energetic lad, ran away from home to take part in our great Civil War. He assumed the name of Harry Richards so that the Canadian officials could not trace him. After the war he too settled near Peshtigo, in Shawano.
For a livlihood my grandparents farmed, and in Peshtigo their children, among them Aunt Flora Mac Murry (also McMurry), were employed at either the saw mill or at various other stores.
Aunt Flora and her husband of one year, returning from vesper services of October 8, 1871, noticed the extreme heat of the windows and exclaimed, "Oh my, we're in for an awful siege!" Immediately Uncle Thomas buried his one prize trust, a tool chest, for he was a carpenter, thinking that at least he could salvage this. As things turned out later, it was his one and only possession.
By now the air was literally on fire, scattering its agony throughout the town. Men, women, and children, clad in nightgowns and caps, shrieked with horror when they saw their loved ones burned alive. The entire town was a blazing inferno; there was only one escape; the river!!
Thousands of people, carrying their most thought of possessions (usually a pitiful handful) pressed on with terror in their eyes, going further into the river, where they remained the next day and night. Families were separated; little babies tried desparately to secure footing in the mucky river. The lucky groups were huddled under blankets, immersing them occasionally in case a burning splinter would drop upon them. Yet the river wasn't even safe, for swooping sparks and bits of fire dropped out of the sky burning entire bodies with an instant sweep! Babies in the confusion were left motherless and wanting.
Among this mob of helpless, suffering people, were Aunt Flora and eleven of my kin. Stumbling upon a priest, she miserably asked for prayers. "I have enough praying to do for myself," came the reply, "without praying for you too!" Yes, you could hear above the groans of pain, prayers being lifted for rain; the only salvation.
Nearly five hundred people had assembled in the hall, nursing safety from the meager fire fighting equipment stationed there. It seemed ironic that everyone of these people should be burned alive, without a ghost of a chance; one moment safe, the next demolished. Their equipment was of little use against nature's uproar.
My grandparents, further out in the country, had fled to a freshly plowed field, beating flames with their hands as they ran. This earthen haven was the only thing that had saved them. The only remainder of a life of hard work was one calf they managed to salvage. This they ate the next day, for they feared the meat would spoil because of the great intensity of the heat.
Monday night the long prayed for rain came, hurling itself before the fires; stamping, flooding, and whirling it into lifelessness. Cries of gratefullness issued forth from every mouth; hope was restored.
The next morning the people, blinded from the smoke and ashes, were led out of the river. Bodies lined the bottom, and it was impossible to pass without coming into contact with them. Separated families believed these bodies to be missing members of their clan; missing persons who were never found.
People emerged broken in mind and spirit, reluctant to think, yet scrambled to meet friend and sympathizers.
The entire community and countryside was destroyed. The scorched earth bore remanants of such a menace! Once virgin forests and fertile soil was devastated. The known death toll of 1,152 persons, and property loss of $5,000,000 has never been paralleled. The forest fire took its toll.
People who tried to salvage trunks containing clothing and money found them gone. They were burned in the river. Penniless, hungry, and naked, they faced the future, the coming of winter.
It was remarkable how the surrounding countryside resounded to its call for help. The commissary at Marinette gave supplies free of charge to each family. Collections were taken, and in Shawano, a mere millage (small cluster of cabins built around a mill), eighty-five dollars was collected. Houses were thrown open to the refugees. Clothing and food were supplied.
My grandparents returned to Canada, but despite many handicaps, the greatest percentage of people remained in Peshtigo, reviving the community and rebuilding the saw mill.
These courageous people survived the cold, windy winter by living in meager shacks and tents. Due to the total destruction of grain and seed, they lived on borrowed property but eagerly fought every inch of the way and slowly regained pre-fire status.
It is impossible to imagine the destruction that would have befallen Shawano if it were not for the Peshtigo River, for it was here that the fire was checked and was prevented from encircling the millage. We would also like to point out to you at this very same time the gigantic Chicago fire was raging, but it cannot possibly compare to Peshtigo's catastrophe. Yes, forest fires take their toll.
Flora McDonnell McMurray
Funeral services were held Saturday morning at the Sacred Heart Catholic church for Mrs. Flora McMurray, 83, who died on Thursday at the home of her niece, Mrs. J. C. Schweers, where she had been living for the past 8 years. Mrs. McMurray had been ill for two weeks previous to her demise, suffering with general infirmities due to old age.
The deceased was born at St. Andrews, Ont., on March 24, 1847. She was the daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Duncan McDonnell and came to the United States with them at an early age. They made their home on a farm near Peshtigo until 1871 when fire destroyed all their possessions, and the parents returned to Canada. Mrs. McMurray had married a young carpenter, in 1870, Thomas McMurray, both survived the fire. Mr. McMurray helped rebuild the city and a few years later they moved to Seymour, then to Cecil where they lived for 20 years and where Mr. McMurray was village president for a number of years. After the death of her husband, 24 years ago, Mrs. McMurray came to Shawano, making her home with a sister and brother, Mrs. D. A. McDonell and John McDonell. Upon their death she moved to the Schweers home where she lived since.
Surviving her are 5 nieces, Mrs. Schweers, Miss Belle Masterson, Milwaukee, Miss Clara McDonnell and Mrs. George Fiedler, Seymour, Mrs. Pearl Nichol, Marinette, and three nephews, W. A. McDonell, Shawano, Charles McDonell, Milwaukee and Frank McDonell, Oshkosh.
Rev. J.J. Loerke officiated at the funeral and burial was made at the Sacred Heart cemetery. Pallbearers were John Long, W, F. Tobin, George J. Schultz, Walter J. Dolan, Anton Lieg and Otto P. Olson. The Christian Mothers Society of which the deceased was a member, attended in a body.
Among those from out of town attending the funeral
were Mr. &
Mrs. I. H. Miller, Gillett; Mr. & Mrs. George Fiedler, Miss
Mrs. John Stewart, Mrs. Clara Culbertson, Mrs. Chas. Prosser, Mrs.
all of Seymour; Miss Catherine Schweers, Miss Belle Masterson and
McDonell, Milwaukee, and Miss Dorothy McDonell, Appleton.
in town of Peshigo
Surnames were all (mis)spelled as seen below.
K K Mc Donald
Allen Mc Donald
Arch Mc Donald
August Mc Donald
|Year Of Birth
|Place of Birth
|Randal Mc Donald
Crista Mc Donald
Janett Mc Donald
Francis Mc Donald
# Flora Mc Donald (1871 Mc Murray)
|Hugh Mc Donald
Kathrine Mc Donald
John Mc Donald
Dugal Mc Donald
Duncan Mc Donald
Sarah Mc Donald
Harriet Mc Donald
Flora Mc Donald
Charles Mc Donald
|1831 (age 89)
|John Mc Donald
Margaret Mc Donald
Robert Mc Donald
Alexander Mc Donald
Donald Mc Donald
Mary Mc Donald