Friday, March 4, 2011

52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy & History - The Worst Fire in America

Peshtigo Fire by Mel Kishner

"Peshtigo Fire" and "Aftermath" were used with kind permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Thank you!

Week 10 - Disasters - Did you experience any natural disasters in your lifetime?  Tell us about them.  If not, then discuss these events that happened to parents, grandparents or others in your family.

As far as natural disasters go, in my lifetime, there really was only one.  Hurricane Agnes struck the year I was born.  I don't remember it and all I was told was that after the flood there were earwigs everywhere.  Um...gross...

I'm sure I'm being incredibly forgetful.  Perhaps there was another natural disaster that is just slipping my mind.  As it is, I've got a better story to tell.  I was going to save it for October, but since we're talking disasters, I can at least give a sampling of the October blog to come!

Now those history buffs out there may be a bit surprised or even incredulous at what I'm about to say, but the worst fire in US history, which occurred the evening of October 8th, 1871 is not the Great Chicago Fire.  There was another fire that occurred on that date...and while everyone was out to rescue Chicago, Wisconsin burned.

The Peshtigo Fire has often been described as a tornado or cyclone of fire.  There was no out-running it and when it struck it did so with little warning.  That year was dry and there had been numerous fires that were man and nature what made October 8th so devastating?  We hear on the news and/or the Weather Channel (I'm a weather geek at heart) about California fires and how devastating it would be if the infamous "Santa Ana Winds" were to strike at a time when fires burned there.  Well, Wisconsin was hit by tremendous winds the night of October 8th, 1871 due to a low pressure system moving into the area, not quite the duration of Santa Ana winds, but the comparison is apt and this was the exact circumstance that was needed to result in this terrible disaster.

Each one of us have seen storms move in.  It's hot outside and then the winds pick up as the frontal system moves through with colder weather, and usually thunderstorms and rain.  The winds can be severe depending on the rest of the weather conditions.  But what happens when you blow on a pile of smoldering ash?  Fire.  Fire needs oxygen to grow, spread, feed.  The winds took those smoldering piles left throughout the region and blew hard.  The fire that sprang from the ashes whirled around in the air like a tornado and fed on the dry, brittle trees all around.  The fires spread with such intense heat and rapidity that there were times that buildings burst into flames as did clothing on many people as they ran through the streets toward the one possible avenue of salvation...the Peshtigo River.

If you turned your back for a moment, if you paused for a moment, if you went back for one little thing, all could be lost.  This scenario was a reality for my husband's ancestors that night.

The Martin Joseph Villers family was struck by the fire in the small city of Rosiere, WI.  Martin, his wife, Octavia, his baby girl, Florence, and a boy that was living with them by the name of Joseph LaCrosse, prepared to flee.  Florence was in a basket and her parents turned to retrieve something from the house.  That brief moment was all it took for the fire to spread between them and their baby girl.
Aftermath of the Peshtigo Fire 1871

The 14 year old orphan that was living with them, Joseph, was near Florence when the fire separated them from the Villers.  He grabbed the baby and climbed into a well.  He held her that night as the flames raged above them.  I can only imagine the prayers he must have offered up to heaven during those terrifying hours.  The next morning, he clambered out of that well with baby Florence and saw that almost nothing remained of the city of Peshtigo.  As he wandered in search of the Villers and other survivors he came across a cow that was partially burned, but survived the fire (most likely the cow had been in a river or somehow sheltered from the flames at some point).  He drew milk into his hand and fed the baby.

Family lore had told of Florence and Joseph hiding in the well for 3 days, but as I've come to research the Peshtigo Fire (all areas affected by it) it became clear to me that this could not have been the case as the fire raged for hours.  Not days.  Perhaps the "three days" that people referred to was the time they were separated from the Villers.  It's the best theory I have so far.  As it turned out Martin Joseph and Octavia survived.  How badly everyone was burned from the fire is unknown...but they survived.

Their prayers were undoubtedly answered...everyone that made it to rivers and various shelters did not necessarily survive.  In cities that had rivers only meant that they now had to fight the currents and had to continue to submerse themselves in the water or throw it on themselves as the fire jumped the river only to continue scorching the other side and well beyond.  Jumping into a well was no guarantee of survival either.  There were stories of people that sought safety in wells only to be baked alive (gross, I know).  This family was watched over that night and every person's survival was a miracle.

The fire became known as the Great Peshtigo Fire.  There are varying accounts among scholars as to the total acres scorched by this monstrous fire.  Regardless of how they quantify the destruction of land, the fire was named after the town of Peshtigo (a boomtown at the time due to logging) because it was hardest hit.  It was not the only city/area hit, in fact it is only a small portion of what burned that night, but the city was decimated. In all 1,152 people are known to have died in the fire and an additional 350 were believed dead, but not confirmed.

The fire is listed on several lists as one of the greatest American natural disasters, fires, etc...too many lists to cite.  One item of interest (at least to me) was that on many of the "lists" I found, was that the Chicago fire, while more famous, was not even mentioned.  The Great Chicago Fire is talked about in history classes throughout the United States, while almost nothing is mentioned about the Great Peshtigo Fire that started at almost the same time and took many more lives and burn much more land.

Memorial Brick at Lambeau Field

To honor the young boy that saved Florence Cayemberg nee Villers' life, her descendants paid for a memorial stone to be placed in the walkway outside Lambeau Field.  Due to the courage of Joseph LaCrosse there are now over 500 descendants of Florence and her husband Eli Cayemberg!  Without the courage of Joseph LaCrosse, my life would be completely different. 

There are several excellent books out on the Peshtigo Fire:

Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History by Denise Gess and William Lutz

Peshtigo by Bill Bergstrom (a historical fiction that gave me chills and made me cry more than once!)

The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account (Wisconsin) by Reverend Peter Pernin (a survivor of the fire that gave his account of the tragedy)

Ghosts of the Fireground : Echoes of the Great Peshtigo Fire and the Calling of a Wildland Firefighter by Peter Leschak (I just ordered this one and look forward to reading it)

That's just a taste of what's to come in October at the time of the fire's anniversary.  There are so many stories, and miracles that need telling!  I may not be able to wait until October to share some more!

I discovered upon transcribing Florence Cayemberg nee Villers' obituary that she was not actually in Peshtigo during the fire.  Now to be clear, she was saved from the Peshtigo Fire but the location is wrong.  It turns out (as reported in her obituary) that she was in Rosiere, WI when what became known as the Great Peshtigo Fire raced through.  Same terrifying events.  Same night.  Different location.  Another reason to watch out for family lore (although just because something is in an obituary doesn't mean that it's true either)!  I've done my best to update my post to reflect that she was not actually in Peshtigo.


  1. Thank you for sharing this amazing story of disaster survival. I know in 2009 when we had the Black Saturday fires in Victoria, Australia I heard this disaster in Wisconsin in 1871 mentioned in comparison by someone, though I thank God there were not near as many deaths here in 2009. Such an awful tragedy, but such a wonderful story of survival/heroism. Thanks again for sharing it.

  2. Holy moly!! That is n amazing story!!!! Thank you for sharing!

  3. @Aillin - You know it's just sad that the Black Saturday Fires aren't well know (at least I had to look them up)! Isn't that crazy. Something so serious should make more of a permanent impression. I'm sure they'll be remember in Australia for a very long time, but you'll have to make sure any stories get passed down! :)

  4. Great post. Thank you Joseph LaCrosse.
    Sincerely, a direct descendant of Florence Cayemberg nee Villers

  5. Thanks for sharing this. Very interesting!

  6. I don't think I had heard of this fire before. Thanks for sharing about it!

  7. Wow. Amazing and interesting story. Thanks for sharing!

  8. That is an awesome story! I wrote a paper on the Peshtigo Fire this past spring for a graduate class I was taking and am presently working on a presentation on the subject for the Midwest Popular Culture conference in October. I live in Marinette and have really enjoyed all of my research, though so many stories did not end as happily as yours.

  9. I actually discovered that Florence was in Rosiere and not Peshtigo. The family stories clashed and when I transcribed her obituary I discovered that bit. I need to go back and do an update I suppose! :)

    This is her obit: