Oconto County WIGenWeb Project
Collected and posted by RITA
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This site is exclusively for the free access of individual researchers.

THE PESHTIGO FIRE

THE YEAR BEFORE THE FIRE -

researched and written by Rita

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THE WORST NATURAL DISASTER 
IN THE HISTORY 
OF THE UNITED STATES

THOUSANDS OF LIVES WERE LOST

On a late Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, as pastors in small towns closed the church doors, boarders played their final hands of cards before "turning in" for the night, and parents put their children to bed, "all Hates broke loose" in over a dozen places of Northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.

The weeks before that dreadful night had been filled with smoke to varying degrees, sometimes so much so that schools and shops had to be closed for the day. Lamps burned even during the days. Occasionally a hot wind would suddenly engulf an area, and then move onward just as quickly as it had come. Livestock were suffering from the poor air as much as the people they depended on. At times the smoke was so dense that ships on the Green Bay of Lake Michigan blasted their fog-horns day and night, occasionally even having to set at anchor right in the shipping lanes because it was impossible "to see your hand in front of your face". But this October Sunday night had seemed no different than the others recently before it. Some folks even thought and mentioned that the air seemed more clear that night. And pretty soon the late fall rains, followed by winter snows would put an end to these harsh days.

The terrible drought had begun with the end of the last soaking rain on July 8th of 1871, but there had been little of the ususal 4 feet of snow the winter of 1870-'71, so it did not take long for the dryness to set in. A promising front of clouds moved in once in September, but the light sprinkle did not wet the surface of the earth, even in the few spots that the rain reached the ground before evaporating. Not that everyone saw the dry land as bad. That year the railroad was being built between Green Bay and Marinette and would become the major competition for the regular steamships that visited to Oconto County coastal towns of Peshtigo, Oconto and Marinette. There were large stretches of swampy peat bogs between those cities and the line builders were not looking forward to the muck, black flies, and mosquitos that they had to face while erecting the long tressles over the bogs. These areas completely dried up, turning the "swamps" into the best areas to work in the scorching sun; once the railroads brought in enough water for drinking and coffee. According to several accounts, for the men building the line, bathing was not a real consideration anyway.

The Native American population was feeling the effects of this dought. Particularly the many Menominee residents of Oconto County. The "Old Ones" had never seen the area so dry, with the tall pines snapping like kindling in the wind, and the meadow grasses brown many weeks before usual. Many thought the white settlers with their plows, saws, dams, and mills had done the damage that caused the drought. That spring the maple sap had been thin and ran in small amounts without the winter snows. And the maple sugar produced was far less than had prepared for market in previous years. There was not enough water in the marshes to float the canoes used for gathering the wild rice. The plants had produced small amounts that ripened early and fell quickly to the ground where hungry birds, mice, and other wildlife waited to carried it away. There would be little for the winter to use as food, and none for sale or trade. Indian children and women easily walked out into the cranberry bogs to pick the few small, withered fruits, and it was the same with the black raspberries, blueberries, wild grapes and plums.

The fowl were migrating south in large numbers and hunting was good, but very special care had to be taken with the fires used to smoke and dry the meats. Young children were posted with leather bags of water and instructed to watch carefully for any sparks that might fly onto the areas surrounding the firepits. It was their important duty to make sure these sparks were immediately extinguished, for any one not dampened was capable of causing disaster and death. The ground around the Indian homes was turned over in fresh, deep furrows for as far as was possible to decrease the chance of any spark or lightening causing a fire.

Life in general, went on in spite of the heat, drought, and perpetual smoke. Food had been harvested and either stored for the winter or taken to market. There were always several fires burning, but for the most part, they had been small and somewhat confinded. Field, leaf and brush burning, fires for smoking meats, making soap, scalding chickens, rendering lard, blacksmithing, cooking, and such continued just as before. Not many precautions were taken. Sparks from train engines and steam machines as well as many unextinguished campfires from hunters and travelers contributed to the many small, numerous fires. Lookouts were often posted near villages and settlements, both day and night, to watch for flare-ups in the woods. The 4 to 5 feet of compressed peat, that lay tinder dry in the swamps and marshes, held deep smoldering hot masses several feet beneath the surface, unknown to the inhabitants nearby. Those days saw a large number of families who lived in relative isolation in tiny clearing where they struggled daily to clear enough land to plant crops. At best, their homes and outbuildings were only a few hundred feet, and completely surrounded by the great dry forests of white pine and fallen leaves. Most had only a 2 to 3 acre clearing with miles of forest between them and the next farm. To this day, there are no sure records of who these people were, how many they were, or exactly where they were on that October night in Oconto County.

The mills had taken special precautions for there had been several fires during this time. The workers had been given assignments in teams to man the "pumpers" and water bucket lines. To get things quickly underway, buckets of water had been filled and hauled up to the peak of the mill rooflines and set in a line along the top ridge where they stood ready at a moments notice. In the settlements of Oconto, Peshtigo the mills were the lifesblood of the people. It was understood that a man's first duty was to his employer, then to his family. So at the first alarm, day or night, the workers ran to the mills to protect them at all cost. Women and children, even those of the wealthy and prominent mill owners, were left to their own devices in coping with any oncoming flames. A substantial number of men had been survivors of the worst disaster known to the US population , the US Civil War. Certainly nothing more powerful could befall them. Their deep sense of duty and teamwork would undoubtedly be enough to withstand whatever was to come.

After weeks of tiring, smoke-filled breathing and ever-present danger, is seemed that some of the alertness, awareness, and caution of the population had been muted. Anticipating the ever nearer cold, wet, winter helped to reduce the fears of many, and the struggle to prepare months of food for family and livestock diverted most others from the dangers surrounding them all. Many of the local and itinerant clergy who offered Sunday services to the population, had directed their sermons toward "hellfires and damnation", with special emphasis on the end of the world's firey catyclism. This forboding vision settled deeply in the back of many minds. After the fire, there was considerable speculation on how much of the lost population would have been able to manage an escape and survive, if they had not been convinced that this was the end of the world.

All was set for the tragic and fatal night of Sunday, October 7, 1871, and at least 1300 people would not see the next day.

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