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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 contributions are welcome for posting

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Contributor and descendant Contact: 
Tim Helnore

The people of Sweden  were experiencing several years of crop failure, job shortages for craftsmen and laborers and economic hardship in the mid and late 1860's. During these years, when a job presented itself, there was so much competition ready to fill it, that labor came with very cheap wages. Taking advantage of the opportunity to attract the economically depressed population, representatives of various land companies in North America descended on the Swedes' homeland to promote resettlement in the "New World". There a man could start with almost nothing and build his own farm, business, raise and educate a healthy family, and live among those of his own culture.  At the time that Samuel John Helnore decided to immigrate in 1866, these recruiters from America met hard disapproval and strong consternation from the Swedish government and the upper economic class. The belief that success in America was certainly a nasty myth carried down the economic classes to those who had fewest options, making it an even more difficult decision to leave the homeland. Anti-emigration propaganda was rampant and showed fearful dangers faced by settlers to the "New World" foreign lands, including horrifying, savage attacks by man and beast, from all sides.

However, the first Swedish emigrant guidebook and
general information handbooks were published from the late 1840's and well into the 1850's before government pressure stopped the printing in that country. Printing in Swedish was quickly taken over in America and smuggled into Sweden. Lumberjacks and iron miners were recruited directly in large numbers by company agents in Sweden. Agents for American railroad companies, which were greatly expanding across the huge continent, also needed and recruited construction builders. The first group of settlers from Sweden settled in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1841 and by 1865 an estimated 25,000 Swedes were settled in America. The yearly numbers increased  to a mass exodus immediately after the end of the US Civil War in 1865 when territorial lands opened to lumbering and farming.

 In Sweden, these emigrants were constantly portrayed in the press and from the church pulpits as unpatriotic,  lazy, ungrateful to their families and  immoral
. Only the the most ignorant and feeble minded were taken over by the agents of the crazed mania to emigrate from Sweden. Families were often forever split and many examples in settlers' letters and diaries show the hurt of being unforgiven.

John and Matilda Helnore were both born in Sweden. Matilda was born in Gothenburg, Sweden. John and Matilda were married in Stockholm, Sweden. They began their journey across the Atlantic to in 1866 to Wisconsin
in America. According to the 1900 census their oldest child, a son named Thor was born "on the sea." Tore (Thuer) was actually born on shipboard in the English channel on the way to America.

European immigrants arrived on sailing ships which took, on average, from one to three months crossing the Atlantic. Crossings taking 6 months have been recorded. They were required to bring their own food for the trip. The water provided was often diseased and undrinkable. When steam-powered ships became common in the 1860s the voyage lasted only about ten days. The shorter crossing time meant cheaper tickets, less chance of danger from bad weather, and a lower incidence of shipboard diseases caused by poor living conditions.. If the Helnore family came by steamship, chances for their infant's birth and survival were greatly improved. To give birth at sea must have been a tremendous struggle under any conditions. (Thor lived from 1866 until 21 Apr 1930 and is buried with his first wife Mary and second wife Mayme at Woodlawn Cemetery - East Green Bay, Wisconsin.)

By 1870 the family had been joined by Charles A. Helnore in 1868 (until his death 5 Nov 1934); born in Wisconsin. The
family of four was living in town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin.  John worked in a lumber mill in Peshtigo, and making brooms from switches for extra family income. For weeks during the hot Summer drought, there had been sporadic fires and days of dense smoke in the air from smoldering dried peet beds and scorched meadows. The massive amounts of tinder dry sawdust and bark wastes from the many mills filled the air on those hot, windy days and piled up in drifts against buildings and trees. Hunters, travelers and fishing parties often left campfire sites smoldering. Steam driven railroad and farm engines spewed out dangerous sparks as they worked.

In one unusually very hot Sunday night on October 8, 1871, absolute terror seized thousands of sleeping residents and brought total destruction to countless acres of land in four upper Great Lakes states. The destruction of more lives than will ever be known still haunts us from the distant past.  Family history passed down through the generations tells us the Helnores threw their immigration papers into the well so when they came back after the fire they had proof of immigration so they could stay here. Then the fled for their very lives to the mud flats at the bridge over the Peshtigo River, as the massive fire raced toward them.

Memorial to the life of
Mrs. Matilda Olson Helnore
at the time of her death August 14, 1931

Posted with the permission of descendant Tim Helnore

transcription of left:
   Mrs. Matilda Helnore, daughter of John and Marie Olson, was born on the 8th of March, 1840, in Gothenburg, Sweden. She spent her childhood and youth in her native land, where, also, she married to S. John Helnore. In 1866 she emigrated with her husband to America. Their son Thor being born on shipboard in the English Channel on the way over. Arriving in this county in the summer  if 1866, they made their home in Peshtigo, where Mr. Helnore found employment in a lumber mill. Those were pioneer days and the young couple experienced many of the struggles of the frontiersmen. Mr. Helnore sought to supplement his income at the mill by making brooms out of switches. After some years of hardship and privation better times came and the new settlers got along nicely.

   Then came the terrible and disastrous fire of 1871, which completely wiped out the entire town of Peshtigo and devastated much of the adjacent territory. The Helnores, like so many others, lost practically all their possessions, but were at least able to save their lives, by seeking refuge with their three children in the waters of the Peshtigo River. For many hours they remained partly submerged, lying upon mattresses that were hastily dragged to the riverside and covering themselves with quilts that were kept drenched with water. After the fire had spent its fury, they found their home in absolute ruins, but fortunately their cow had somehow also managed to escape with its life and now returned to the spot where once its stable had stood. All household goods and most of their clothes were lost.

   A relief train was dispatched from Green Bay, and the destitute people were brought to the city and given shelter for two weeks in Turner Hall. One of the children died soon after the family came to Green Bay, having contracted Typhoid Fever as a result of exposure in the water. Another child had previously died in Peshtigo.

   In Green Bay the family took up their abode on the West Side of the (Fox) River in what was then called Fort Howard and built a house at the corner of Eighth Street and South Broadway, which has remained the family residence ever since.

   Mr. Helnore found employment in the "St. Paul" shops, working for the company for about 45 years. He died on April 2, 1921. Altogether eight children were born to Mr. and Mrs. Helnore, five of whom survive. Thor having died in 1930 and two other, as already stated, dying in early life. The five3 living children are John, of Duluth, Minn., Charles (also a fire survivor), Mrs.  Peter Peckinpaugh, Mrs. John Burgeson and Miss Esther Helnore, all  of Green Bay. There are also 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

   Mrs. Helnore was blessed with a happy and cheerful spirit. It was ever a joy to visit her and to find her uniformly grateful for God's many mercies. She also enjoyed remarkably good health throughout her life, even down to old age. Only two weeks ago she waled about in the rooms of her home. God also spared her any pain or suffering during the final days of her earthly pilgrimage, and on the afternoon of Friday, August 14, 1931, she passes away gently and peacefully at the age of 91 years, 5 months and 6 days.


Fire Survivor
Here is a photo of  survivor Thor and wife Mayme (Mamie)
Thor was actually married twice, Maymie is his second wife. Mary was his first. Mary died along with one of their children, a daughter named Iowa, in about 1918 during a flu epidemic.
All of Thor's children were with Mary.

Children of S.J. Helnore (b: 25 Sep 1837 in Sweden, d: 2 April 1921 at age 83 years) and Matilda (Olsen) Helnore (b: 8 Mar 1840 in Sweden, d: 14 Aug 1931 at age 91 years) (both buried  at Woodlawn Cemetery in Green Bay, Wisconsin): ( 8 births with 6 living in 1900)

One child yet to be found. Died in Peshtigo before the Oct. 8, 1871 Peshtigo Fire according to family history
1. Thor (
pronounced Tour) Helnore b:1866 "on the sea", d: 21 Apr 1930, buried with his wife, Mary, at Woodlawn Cemetery - East Green Bay, Wisconsin
2. Charles A. Helnore b: 1868 in Wisconsin,
d:  5 Nov 1934, buried with his wife, Jane E., at Woodlawn Cemetery - East Green Bay, Wisconsin
3. Morris Helnore b: sometime between 1870 and the Peshtigo Fire of Oct. 8, 1871, d: 1871 shortly after the Peshtigo Fire on Oct. 8, 1871 according to family history.
4. Jennie M. Helnore
b: Feb 1874 in Wisconsin, d: 1934, buried in Ft. Howard Memorial Cemetery, Brown County, WI, married Peter Peckinpaugh (1871 - 1945)
5. Ida Amanda Helnore b: 26 Nov 1878 in Wisconsin, d: 28 Sep 1956, buried
buried in Ft. Howard Memorial Cemetery, Brown County, WI, married John Burgeson (30 Jun 1867 - 9 Jan 1845)
6. Esther S. Helnore b: 17 Sept 1882 in Wisconsin, d: 5 Jul 1838 in Green Bay, buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Green Bay, WI. Single, lived with parents.
7. Herbert Morris Helnore b: 28 Jul 1889 in Wisconsin, d: 28 Feb 1864;  printer for the railroad 1917, Medium height, Meduim build, blue eyes, dark brown hair

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