January 2012

The Great Peshtigo Fire

 Most people have heard of the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871 that destroyed a large part of that city. But most people have never heard of the Great Peshtigo Fire, which happened on the very same day. That there were two “great” fires was not a coincidence. It was the result of a nasty weather phenomenon, a cyclonic storm, that swept across the upper midwest. A fierce wind, high temperatures and very dry conditions created a maelstrom that swept over Peshtigo, surrounded as it was by forest, completely destroying the town, with much greater loss of life than in Chicago.

Chicago lost around 250 people, but Peshtigo lost 1200 of its 2000 population. Chicago was a great industrial city, of course, and Peshtigo was unknown except to those who lived in the northern areas of Michigan and Wisconsin.

Peshtigo, Wisconsin, is located practically on the border of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan on the Peshtigo River, which empties into Green Bay. A large area on both sides of Green Bay, the arm of Lake Michigan that reaches into Wisconsin, were burned; some reports say a swath 10 miles wide and 40 miles long. Several other towns in the path of the fire, Menominee, MI, for example, had many buildings burned, but no loss of life. Peshtigo was directly in the path of the fire and nothing could have saved it from its fury. Small settlements to the west of Peshtigo were completely obliterated and never heard from again.

You can read a first hand account by a minister who survived the Peshtigo fire at wisconsinhistory.org.

It is hard to even comprehend how there were any survivors. They went into the river, of course, but they had to stay there for hours, and keep their heads showered with water, or covered with wet clothes, the heat was so intense. Then there was the risk of hypothermia, and many could not stay above water. Those that survived were dazed, half blind from the smoke and heat, and it was days before help began to trickle into the town.

When word arrived at the Wisconsin Governors’ mansion, two days later, Gov. Fairchild was away in Chicago assessing damage and offering assistance there. His wife, however, sprang into action, and in a short while, sent carloads of supplies to the survivors in Peshtigo. The Governor diverted some of the aid for Chicago to Peshtigo to help rebuild the town. He also sent an appeal in the newspapers across the country for donations to a fund to help the burned area. Then, as now, people gave generously in the face of disaster.

The Cramer Connection to the Peshtigo Area

 I “discovered” the Great Peshtigo Fire when I was researching the family of Almira Cramer Colborn. I had looked for years for additional children of Mary Ann (Douglass) and Samuel Cramer who settled in Merrimac, Wisconsin. I knew of only seven children but Mary Ann’s obituary in 1885 said that she had born 14 children and nine were still living when she died.

A few months ago I received an email from Gretchen, a great great granddaughter of Mary Ann Douglass Cramer. Gretchen had what I had been searching for: a death certificate that stated Almira Colborn was the daughter of Sam and Mary Cramer. She sent me a large descendants tree (well over 150) for Almira and William Colborn which I have added to that family branch and have spent many hours fleshing out information about Almira’s descendants.

Almira Cramer, oldest of Sam and Mary Ann’s children, born 1825, married William Colborn in 1842 in Blenheim, Oxford County, Ontario. Most likely they moved to Sauk County, Wisconsin, when her parents, Sam and Mary Ann Cramer did, between 1852 and 1856. Five of Almira’s children were born in Canada, the youngest in 1852; then the sixth child was born in Sauk County, WI, in Jan. 1856.

William Colborn, Almira’s husband, died of disease during the Civil War in 1863. Almira did not remarry. Her oldest daughter, Melissa, married Samuel Clark in 1861. At the time of the Great Fire in 1871, Melissa (Colborn) and Samuel Clark and their three children lived in Menominee, Michigan, which suffered loss of many buildings but no loss of life and certainly not the extreme loss of Peshtigo.

Peshtigo, Wisconsin, is a neighboring town only a few miles to the south of Menominee, Michigan, with the Michigan-Wisconsin state border running between them. Stories of the Great Fire of Peshtigo and Menominee must always have remained a part of their lives. Even if the children were too young to understand it all when it happened, they would have heard the stories retold throughout their lifetimes.

Sam Clark was a carpenter by trade and certainly would have had work in rebuilding the burned out areas. I do not find Sam Clark in the 1880 census but he was still living in 1900, listed with his married daughter. Melissa Clark died in 1877 and her two children, Grace and Frank, are living in 1880 with their grandmother, Almira Colborn, in Sauk County, WI.

Subsequent records show that both grandchildren moved back to the area where they were born. Grace married Frank Salzeider. They farmed in Menominee County. Frank Clark married and farmed in Norway, Dickinson County, MI, to the NW of Menominee.

Marinette County, Wisconsin, which includes Peshtigo, is a large county. Several of Melissa’s siblings married in Marinette County: Amos Colborn married there two years after the fire; Lydia Colborn and George Palmer married there in 1874: Alexander Colborn married Martha Washburn there in 1879. Perhaps the lumber industry which was the core of Peshtigo’s economy, drew them there for work.

Their mother, Almira Colborn, widowed, is shown in Sauk County, WI, in both the 1870 and 1880 census, but there is a possibility that after her husband died, she lived in Marinette County, nearer to her married daughter, Melissa, and that her younger children grew up there. That would account for so many of them marrying there. She could have moved back to Sauk county before 1880 when she was caring for Melissa’s children. This is all supposition on my part, but Merrimac, Sauk County, WI is 180 miles from Peshtigo, WI, so I am assuming that the Colborn children were living in Marinette County, at least at some time, since that is where several of them married.

The wholesale destruction of Peshtigo and surrounding area is akin to the huge natural disasters of our time. The scars, physical and emotional, remaining with the survivors, can not but have changed them as people, and affected their lives in a multitude of ways.

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