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 (also spelled Pereault, Perault, Parrean, Parrane and Penault on researched records)

Peshtigo Fire Main Page

For many present day researchers, the trail of information on families suddenly and mysteriously ends. Only the fading memory of this Oconto County family survives in the minds of descendants in other branches of the family. These memories are included in the families with the surnames of Burgoyne, Martineau, Haynes and Girard.

The French In Wisconsin

Like many of that time, Nelson Parrane (Penault) first came to Northeastern Wisconsin from French Canada. He was attracted by the lure of jobs in the burgeoning lumber industry, and found himself working as a laborer in town of Stiles, Oconto County, Wisconsin beginning in 1859. Another young Frenchman, Louis Burgoyne of Brown County, Wisconsin, was also living at the Balcom and Eldred Mill Boarding House in the small settlement of Stiles at this time. The two struck up a friendship in this ethnically mixed community.

There were large French settlements in neighboring Brown County with close ties to their Canadian origins. These family connections had their roots in the once lucrative fur trade of the Upper Great Lakes during the 1700's and early 1800's. As the new reigning "King" of industry lumbering moved across the state and so migrated the French workers, some with families. Farming was taking hold on the logged land, giving the French of Canada and "New England" of United States an opportunity to homestead new property. The money earned in working the logging and lumbering was often used to buy homestead land.

Family Life Begins

On April 8, 1860, twenty nine year old Nelson Parrane (Perault) was married in Oconto County. He had taken the twenty year old Victoria Burgoyne of DePere, Brown County, as his bride. She was the sister of his friend, Louis Burgoyne. Her father, Pierre A. Burgoyne, had been born in Paris, France 1804, as Pierre A. Chevier. His father M. Chevier, had arranged a marriage for him that was not acceptable and in the following heated argument Pierre left home, changing his surname to that of his mother, Burgoyne. His travels brought him to the Caribbean where he is said to have met Angelique Girard, born to a French family in Cuba. The two were married and their first child was born  July 7, 1839 in Mantanzas, Cuba. The couple briefly returned to France. From there, they immigrated to De Pere in Wisconsin, hearing that there were French settlements to welcome them. Victoria was the youngest of their eight adult children, seven of whom were born in Wisconsin.  Victoria Burgoyne was born November 5, 1840.

According to the 1860 US Census enumeration taken July 31, 1860, Nelson and Victoria Burgoyne Perrane first settled in a small cabin near Stiles in Oconto County, where he worked as a laborer.  It was a mixed community of individuals and families originally haling from Canada, Holland, Belgium, Ireland, Massachusetts, Germany, New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Hampshire and Vermont. Over the next ten years the couple moved to a farm in town of Howard, Brown County. By 1870 they had added to the family, Edward age 10, Amelia age 6, Henry age 4, Odelia age 3, Laurie age 1 year and little Marie who was born in Brown County on September 10, 1870. Also living with them was adopted son Levi Haynes age 14 and Victoria's widowed mother Angeline Girard Burgoyne age 61. Her father Pierre had died before their marriage, on November 12, 1853, in nearby Duck Creek, town of Howard, Brown, WI.

Return To Oconto County

The Parrane family, along with the adopted son Levi and widow Angelique (Angeline) Girard Burgoyne, had moved in 1871 to a farm in town of Peshtigo, Oconto County. This took them much closer to Victoria's married sister Hermine Ellenora Burgoyne Martineau, wife of Antoine Moise Martineau, in city of Oconto. The Martineau family had old connections with Burgoyne family. The Perrane, Martineau and Burgoyne families had kept close over the years, sharing celebrations and frequent visits.

The Drought

It had been a disastrous time for living in the Upper Great Lakes. A severe three year drought had worsened to the point that there were almost no field crops to harvest in the Fall of 1871. There had not been even one rain the entire Summer, following so little snow in the Winter of 1870 -71 that logging had to be suspended because there was no snow on which to more easily move the heavy logs. Spring had offered enough moisture to sprout the newly planted seeds, which then withered and died with no rain to follow. Even the many cedar marshes and wetland bogs had completely dried up, leaving vast forests carpeted with dried leaves and pine needles surrounded by tinder dry prairie grasslands and deeply smoldering peat bogs. The temperatures had been consistently high, in the 90's and 80's through September and into early October. Heavy smoke almost continually blanketed the region, produced by by the many small smoldering fires that dotted the land. Lamps were burned in the daytime due to the smokey darkness and ships on the Upper Great Lakes blasted their fog horns day and night, often dropping anchor for fear of collision. Lighthouses for navigation were lit 24 hours a day, but were nearly useless. Schools were closed due to the choking smoke. It was too hard on the children to walk through on their way there and home. Farm animals labored just to breath and wells went dry.

October 1871

It was in this environment that Nelson and Victoria Burgoyne Parrane made a new home for their family in town. It had been a hard summer for Victoria, she was pregnant again and due early in Fall. This time had seemed more tiring, but having her mother living there to help with the family of 6 children was a great comfort. The first week in Oconto found her in labor. She gave birth to twins. There were now 8 children.

The night of Sunday, October 8, was more windy and warmer than previous days. But it did clear some of the smoke, making bedding the family and animals for the night a bit easier. Sleep was welcome.

Late that night, the family was awakened suddenly by the sound of a roaring inferno gaining upon their home. The ski was bright orange as the flames jumped along the tops of the trees, driven by 60 to 70 mile an hour tornadic winds and seen from miles away. The estimated 2000 degree heat generated by the huge forest fires had created the preceding oxygen sucking winds, so strong that buildings, animals, trees and people could not remain standing. Smoke rose for miles into the air, and burning wood from exploding forests traveled long distances, starting ships far out on Lake Michigan afire.


By morning the firestorm had passed, traveling north along the lake. city of Oconto, though damaged,  had somehow been spared the almost total devastation found all around it. Antoine Moise Martineau started north from his home in city of Oconto to help the Perrane family in town of Peshtigo. The carnage that he encountered along the way was beyond human description. The land was blackened and bare of structures. The few survivors were in great misery from burns to their skin, lungs and eyes, and in need of water due to dehydration. Blinded by the heat, most were lead along the dirt roads by those left with some vision. Rescue workers from west of the fire offered immediate care and attempted to take the survivors away to medical help and safety. For others who had come to help, it was a matter of finding the dead and immediately burying them where found, or waiting for hours in long wagon lines to bring them to the few cemeteries that opened to all. Such was the fate of Antoine Moise Martineau, for no one in the Perrane household was spared.

A chilling rain and rapidly dropping  temperatures followed the fire. The deeply grieving Antoine Moise Martineau dutifully wrapped each person in what few fabric remains he could find. Victoria was found cradling her newborn twins in her arms. His mother-in-law Angelique was found nestled with the youngest grandchildren. They were each gently placed in the wagon and after several hours of searching in the cold rain without a hat or warm coat, Antoine learned that a cemetery was open to burials in the village of Peshtigo. He then traveled and like so many others, waited with their deceased loved ones and found strangers in long lines while graves were dug. The Perrane family was placed in a mass grave since there was no time for individual burials. The Cemetery is now known of the Fire Cemetery, and there is a museum dedicated to the event housed in a rebuilt church beside it.

Antoine Martineau returned home to tell his wife of the great loss. What he had seen was more than he could endure describing .  He had caught a chest cold during the trip, which lasted through out the winter of 1871 - 72, sapping his strength and keeping his spirits low. On April 11, 1872 he died of "walking pneumonia" at the age of 55 yrs, 2 days, leaving his family with another loss to the fire.