Oconto County WIGenWeb Project
Collected and posted by RITA
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FAMILY STORIES
OF
THE PESHTIGO FIRE


Survivor Stories of the Peshtigo Fire

This page is dedicated to the people who lived to tell of their survival and stories of the Peshtigo Fire.
All submissions from the family members are welcome for posting.
 RITA

 Descendant contact: Gerry McDonald
We had the Tax Rolls for 1866 and 1870 checked at U of W, Green Bay, and the location, part of the NE of the NW 1/4 of Section 4, Twsp. 3" in Range 22 in Oconto Cty. was identified as John McDonald's.

We are certain this is "our" John McDonell because a James Ramsay appears on the same Tax Roll and James Ramsay is shown as a neighbor of the McDonells in the 1871 census.

Living with John in 1871 were his parents, Hugh & Kathryn, brothers Duncan H. and Dougal H., and Duncan H. 's twin sister, Sarah.
A couple of major errors in the article by Jeanette Franks Miller which are of concern. One is that the father of  Mrs J. C. (McDonell) Schweers was George McDonell. Her father was without question, Duncan A. (Alexander) McDonell and her mother was my Great Aunt Mary Ann McDonell. George was her brother, b. 1878, died 1904 of appendicitis. She had several brothers, one of whom was Wm. A. McDonell, Police Chief of Shawano for many years.

In addition Flora (McDonell) McMurray whose experience is also detailed in the article, and whose obit. follows the article, is sister to Mrs. J. C. Schweers' mother Mary Ann and is also my Great Aunt. Her obit contains an error also in naming Duncan McDonell as her father. Her father was Hugh McDonell (see 1870 Peshtigo census) and Duncan was her brother. The original obit was in Shawano paper and was written by a young niece. I would like to add a correcting postscript to her obit as it appears in the website if only to assist some future researcher.   
 
If you wish to know for your records what happened to all of the McDonells who went through the fire I can supply the information to time of their death. The life of the youngest, Dougal H. McDonell who spent his life after 1871 in the Black Hills area of South Dakota is a great story.
 
The other is the origins of these folks. They all originated in the Highlands of Scotland and their only exposure to England would have been in the various and many wars between the countries which culminated in the final defeat of the Scots at Culloden in 1745. Many of these families went to the Mohawk Valley (Johnstown near Albany) and some direct to Ontario. When the American Revolution began, oddly enough these former Jacobites headed back to the British colonies in Glengarry and Stormont Counties, Ontario. Our McDonells settled in St. Andrews West, Cornwall Twp., Stormont Cty. (Not Cornwall, England)   Stormont and Glengarry was and still is an  enclave of Scottish Catholic folks who were still speaking the Gaelic into the early 1900's and beyond. Even today every second person is  a McDonald, McDonell, McPhail, McMillan, McIntosh etc.
 
All 9 of my Grandfather's siblings emigrated around 1866 to Wisconsin. We have traced all to their final resting place except for one who emigrated to New Zealand. We have contacted amajority of their descendants.
 
I have a complete history before and after the fire for each of them and you are welcome to all information.  Descendant contact: Gerry McDonald
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The following 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, Shawano County, Wisconsin. On the 1930 US Census, her aunt Flora Mc Donnell McMurry who she refers to in the story, was living with the couple. Catherine was 3 years old at the time of the Great Peshtigo Fire, which she did not personally experience, for it had not gone quite as far west as her parent's home. However, the members of the large extended Mc Donnell family raised Catherine on their own stories of survival in town of Peshtigo, 1871. Below 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 Peshtigo, in 1870. This should include the grandparents she refers to in the story below. The Mc Donnell family originally came to English Canada from Cornwall, 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 (McDonell) McMurray whose experience is also detailed in the article, and whose obit. follows the article, is sister to Mrs. J. C. Schweers' mother Mary Ann and is also my Great Aunt. Her obit contains an error also in naming Duncan McDonell as her father. Her father was Hugh McDonell (see 1870 Peshtigo census) and Duncan was her brother. The original obit was in Shawano paper and was written by a young niece. I would like to add a correcting postscript to her obit as it appears in the website if only to assist some future researcher.   
Descendant contact: Gerry McDonald

Flora McDonnell McMurray

:
THE LEADER ADVOCATE
Thursday, March 12, 1931
RESIDENT, 83 YEARS, DIES THURS. A, M.
RESIDENT OF SHAWANO FOR FOR 24 YEARS.

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 Cora McDonell, Mrs. John Stewart, Mrs. Clara Culbertson, Mrs. Chas. Prosser, Mrs. Gehling, all of Seymour; Miss Catherine Schweers, Miss Belle Masterson and Charles McDonell, Milwaukee, and Miss Dorothy McDonell, Appleton.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mc Donnell/McDonell/Mc Donald Households
in town of Peshigo
1870 Census
Surnames were all (mis)spelled as seen below.

(BOARDING HOUSE)
K K Mc Donald 
Allen Mc Donald
Arch Mc Donald 
Alexandr Mcdonald 
August Mc Donald
Year Of Birth
1834
1847 
1849
1852
1857
Place of Birth
Canada
Canada
Canada 
Canada 
Canada 
Randal Mc Donald
Crista Mc Donald 
Janett Mc Donald 
Francis Mc Donald 
# Flora Mc Donald (1871 Mc Murray)
1838
1844
1866
1870
1851
Canada
Canada 
WI
WI
Canada
Hugh Mc Donald
Kathrine Mc Donald
John Mc Donald
Dugal Mc Donald
Duncan Mc Donald
Sarah Mc Donald
1802
1810
1840
1853
1852
1852
Canada
Canada
Canada
Canada 
Canada 
Canada 
John Mc Donald 
Harriet Mc Donald 
Flora Mc Donald 
Charles Mc Donald 
also
George Wood
Frank Wood
Mary Wood
Adison Wood 
Wm Wood 
1831 (age 89)
1831
1866
1869
`
1849
1856
1858
1860
1872
Canada
New York
WI
WI
`
New York
NY
NY
NY
NY
John Mc Donald
Margaret Mc Donald 
Robert Mc Donald
Alexander Mc Donald 
Donald Mc Donald 
Mary Mc Donald 
1861
1840
1830
1864
1867
1869
Canada
Canada
Canada
WI
WI
WI


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