Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Peshtigo Fire - Illustrating an Absence of Ancestors

The Appleton Post Crescent 08OCT1963, pg 12
As I blog through the week on the Great Peshtigo Fire, I am reminded that there were many disasters, plagues, and even small accidents that could explain why we can't find an ancestor we are searching for.  It is always good to know a bit about great disasters and plagues, but don't forget to troll through those reels of newspaper microfilm that may have hints about what happened to ancestors.

This won't solve every problem as this article on the 92nd anniversary of the Peshtigo Fire illustrates in the final paragraph.  If an ancestor was transient during a period, you may never find them.  Many of the transient workforce killed in the Peshtigo Fire may never be accounted for and therefore we may never know the true loss of life experienced.

"Peshtigo Scene Of Devastating Fire in 1871

1,200 Persons Died In Blaze Which Swept Lumber Town

PESHTIGO (AP) - Today is the 92nd anniversary of the great Peshtigo fire, on of the worst disasters in Wisconsin history.

Twelve hundred persons died in the terrible conflagration that destroyed the small lumbering town in northeastern Wisconsin - 800 in Peshtigo, another 400 in the surrounding area.

The destruction was complete.  Flames devoured every building in town save one - a house that was under construction.

An accident of history prevented the Peshtigo fire from receiving the attention it deserved.  For it was on the same day, Oct. 8, 1871 - a Sunday - that Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern to start the great Chicago fire, or so the oft-repeated story goes.  The Chicago fire claimed 250 lives.

Slow Burning Fire

The Peshtigo fire was an outgrowth of a series of slow-burning blazes in pine needle blankets and peat bogs.  The acrid smell was in the air for weeks before and volunteers had been in and out of the woods trying to extinguish them.

Fanned by galelike winds, the small fires merged, forests were soon ablaze and flames roared into the village.  This was a Sunday night.  The time:  about 10 p.m.

Ran for Lives

Within 20 minutes the entire town was ablaze and residents were running for their lives toward the Peshtigo River in the center of the community.  Many made it:  some did not.

The fire raged through the night.  At daybreak when the wind had died down the flames abated, and the heart-rending task of searching for the missing began.

The death toll continued to rise for days as fever and shock claimed additional victims.

Officially, Peshtigo's population was listed at 1,750 at the time of the fire.  But historians say hundreds of transient workmen, many of them immigrants, also were living in the village or nearby.  Many were trapped and died in the flames."