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Abraham and Elizabeth Place | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Place, Abraham, and Place, Elizabeth

Survivors of the Peshtigo Fire

Abraham and Elizabeth Place | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


In 1871, some considered it not proper for a white man to be married to an Indian. Yet, Abraham Place cared for his wife, Elizabeth, a Menominee Indian. Despite rampant prejudice against native people, Elizabeth's family was always welcomed in their home, which was set on 800 acres outside of Peshtigo in the Sugar Bush settlements.

In the fall of 1871, Abraham's neighbors noticed, with some suspicion, the strange activity going on at the Place Farm. Having been warned by Elizabeth's family that fire was a real possibility in the hot, dry conditions that had prevailed since July, Abraham and his sons plowed great circles in the fields around the house, making a fire break between the house and the nearby woods. They also removed leaves and brush from around the house, as these things could serve as fuel should there be a fire.

As summer gave way to autumn and the rains steadfastly refused to fall, the danger of fire became more apparent. Small fires broke out in sundry places around Peshtigo, yet these were usually contained before becoming too widespread. Abraham's neighbors dismissed his precautions as more foolishness from a man who had not merely lived with an Indian, but had married her.

Then, on Sunday, October 8, 1871, the long-dreaded fire broke out, fueled by tinder-like vegetation and stoked into a veritable firestorm by high winds. As the fiery tornado approached the Place Farm, twenty of Elizabeth's Menominee relatives came to help. Grabbing blankets soaked in water, they laid them on the shingle roof of the home and trading post. As the heat dried the blankets, Place's sons and relatives kept soaking the blankets with water drawn from the well. Incredibly, one of the Indians kept pumping steadily for nine hours. The Sugar Bushes, the village of Peshtigo, and several nearby settlements were devastated by the relentless fire that destroyed most of what it touched. On the morning of October 9, the Place Farm was the only one still standing in the three Sugar Bush settlements.

The Sugar Bush settlements saw a higher proportion of residents killed than did the village of Peshtigo. Many of those neighbors who had scoffed at his activities before the fire tried to reach Place's clearing the night of October 8. More than one hundred refugees gathered at Place's property after the fire; most stayed for weeks, having nowhere else to go. The Place Farm also became a field hospital for over 50 victims who managed to make their way to the homestead. During and after the fire, Elizabeth Place opened her home and offered help to people who previously had treated her unkindly or unfairly. The Places were a pioneer family in the true meaning of the word.

Topic suggestion courtesy of Beverly J. Doucette, Peshtigo, Wis.

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