Number of fire deaths puzzles researchers

Karen Vincent Humiston, a family historian and author, is researching the fires of 1871 for a forthcoming book.

EagleHerald Staff Writer

MENOMINEE—How many people actually died in the fires of 1871 continues to be an ongoing question for researchers to investigate.

The answer depends in part on how many months or years from the fires the researcher is willing to deem the deaths related to the fires.

“It’s true there were people who were suspected of dying at an earlier age because of the smoke inhalation, but those deaths are not calculated as part of the numbers when they calculated the death toll,” said Julius Wagner, a cartographer at Bay Maps in Green Bay who has researched the great fires of 1871.

“It probably does become a more tenuous connection the longer someone survives a wildfire or an auto accident,” said fire analyst Robert Ziel.

Wagner said he has seen the death toll from the Peshtigo fires reported as high as 2,500, while others say the fire took 1,200 lives. “I personally believe those numbers are closer to 850 give or take some,” he said. “I did spend quite a bit of time trying to go through death toll numbers.”

Wagner believes some of the “deaths of the unknown” might have been counted twice.

The booming lumber industry attracted transient workers from the East Coast to Peshtigo, Marinette and Menominee. “This was a booming area with a lot of people coming here for jobs, pouring in, which is one reason it was hard to count the dead,” said Karen Vincent Humiston, a Sheboygan family historian and author. Her forthcoming book, “The sky was brass; the earth was ashes: the story of the Great Peshtigo Fire” will be released in 2022.

“People were burned beyond recognition—sometimes just to ashes,” she said. “Bodies were so completely destroyed that they either couldn’t be identified or they just left no trace.”

North of the Menominee River, in the township of Menominee, 27 people were killed, including 22 in the Birch Creek settlement, she said. But the number of Peshtigo losses is unknown.

Besides the workers in the cities, pioneers were presumably working in the forests, but no one knows how many.