The Peshtigo Fire

As I wrote in my last post, Wilder’s description of a forest fire near the Ingallses’ Wisconsin homestead captured my imagination. She wrote in the Bye revision of Pioneer Girl of “the trees. . . burning like great candles” (p. 14). This description compelled me to look deeper into the history of Wisconsin forest fires. Growing up in the state, I had heard of the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, but I hadn’t realized it occurred in the same year the Ingallses returned to Wisconsin from Kansas. The Peshtigo fire occurred two hundred fifty miles to the east of the Ingalls home, but news of the fire would have reached Pepin quickly.

Some readers may not be familiar with the Peshtigo fire, but most have likely heard of the Great Chicago Fire. Both fires occurred Sunday night, October 8, 1871. The Chicago fire burned dozens of buildings and killed five hundred citizens. Peshtigo’s lesser-known fire claimed the lives of twelve hundred of the region’s residents and leveled the town. Father Peter Pernin recounted a starker depiction of fire than the young Wilder did. “I perceived about the dense cloud of smoke overhanging the earth, a vivid red reflection of immense extent,” he wrote. “Then suddenly struck on my ear, strangely audible in the preternatural silence reigning around, a distant roaring, yet muffled sound, announcing that the elements were in commotion somewhere.”1 The priest escaped to the river, where he spent several hours dunking his body in the water. By Monday morning, the fire had burned itself out, but the town of Peshtigo lay in ruins.

Peshtigo Fire_jursspost_image

Illustration of Peshtigo residents being driven into the river for safety. Wisconsin Historical Society

The survivors of the Peshtigo fire pulled themselves out of the river and began the slow process of rebuilding their lives with the aid of residents of the nearby towns of Marinette and Green Bay. A mixture of elements had combined to cause the disaster. The dryness of the summer, debris left from logging, a few careless individuals who did not fully extinguish their cooking fires, and sparks from trains have all been listed as contributing factors. In any case, the Ingallses were fortunate that, unlike the fire that destroyed Peshtigo, the fire of Wilder’s memory headed away from the family’s homestead. Readers interested in learning more of Father Pernin’s detailed remembrance of the Peshtigo fire can access it online here.

—Jacob Jurss

1. Rev. Peter Pernin, “The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 54, (Summer 1971): 253.

Father Pernin in the Big Woods, 1871

“Trees, trees everywhere, nothing else but trees as far as you can travel from the bay, either towards the north or west.”—Father Peter Pernin 1

My research has taken me deeper into the woods of Wisconsin. The quotation above is from Father Pernin, a Catholic priest who was assigned to the parish of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in 1871. His descriptions of the Wisconsin woods are similar to those in Wilder’s remembrances. Early in the Wisconsin section of Wilder’s Bye revision to Pioneer Girl, she wrote, “The Big Woods began where we were, and ran on and on to the north, with not another house in them” (p. 14). As beautiful as both Father Pernin’s and Wilder’s woods were, there were dangers.

Father Pernin in the Big Woods_jursspost_imageIa_edited

Wood engraving of Father Peter Pernin, circa 1874. Wisconsin Historical Society

Near the beginning of Wilder’s Wisconsin section, she describes a forest fire close to the Ingalls home. As the family looked at the smoke in the distance, they heard a series of gunshots. Charles Ingalls quickly realized that someone was lost in the burning woods and fired his own gun to help them find their way out. Curious to learn more about the forest fires, I turned to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s wonderful digital archive. Through the site, I learned that the summer and fall of 1871 were particularly dry for the Big Woods, and fires were a continuous concern. In Father Pernin’s remembrances of the summer of 1871, reprinted in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, I was surprised to read a story similar to the one that Wilder recounted about the lost stranger. Father Pernin told of hunting one day in the woods near Peshtigo when he became lost. He, too, fired his gun as a plea for help and was able to exit the woods only after hearing voices shouting and directing him out.

Finding such coincidences and historical insights drives my research for the upcoming Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts. The hunting trip was not the only gripping story from Father Pernin’s narrative. Next week, I will delve into Father Pernin’s remembrance of the Peshtigo Fire of 1871.

—Jacob Jurss

1. Rev. Peter Pernin, “The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 54, (Summer 1971): 247.