1878 Prairie Fires

Annual prairie fires would visit the prairies in the autumn. The settlers who had pushed out from the timber took great precaution to prevent their crops, houses and barns from being destroyed, yet not always did they succeed. Many incidents are related of prairie fires. In 1831 Thomas Maxwell had succeeded in getting his wheat threshed and stored into a rail pen, when a prairie fire came along and totally destroyed his grain. His son, Henry, in attempting to save it by “burning ahead,” or “back-firing,” got his back badly scorched. A more serious case was that of Mr. William Lake, of Fraker’s Grove, who was returning from the mill at Hennepin, Putnam County, when he was overtaken by a prairie fire. His horses turned and run with the fire. Mr. Lake, seeing he could not save his team, as they had become unmanageable, jumped from his wagon upon the burnt and blackened ground. He ran on to recover the horses if possible, and, after going some two or three miles, came up to them and found one horse dead, and the other so badly burned that his usefulness was greatly impaired. His wagon and its contents were entirely consumed. The fire, though presenting a scene of sublimity, was as if the destroying angel had flown abroad, crying in terror-stricken tones while breathing tempests of fire and smoke from his nostrils, changing a scene of so much brilliance, which the prairies presented but a few minutes before, into a dark, charred mass.
The great conflagrations were caused either accidentally, or designedly from wantonness, or with a view of bewildering the game. We find on the Circuit Court records that David Ogden and Mathew Herbert were indicted on the 21st day of December, 1845, for burning prairies. The following day John Matlock and Nelson Case were indicted for the same offense. Bail was given to the amount of $100 each. Herbert jumped his bail, but was subsequently brought to trial, and with the other three fined $5 and costs. This was not an uncommon offense for which men were brought before the court to answer.
The fire often spread further than it was intended it should. Whereever were extensive prairie lands, one-half was burned in the spring and the other half in the autumn, in order to produce a more rapid growth of the naturally exuberant grass, destroying at the same time the tall and thick weed stalks. Violent winds would often arise and drive the flames with such rapidity that riders on the fleetest steeds could scarcely escape. On the approach of a prairie fire the farmer would immediately set about “burning back,” – that is, burning off the grass close by the fences, that the larger fire upon arriving would become extinguished for want of aliment. In order to be able, however, to make proper use of this measure of safety, it was very essential that every farmer should encompass with a ditch those of his fences adjoining the prairie. When known that the conflagration could cause no danger, the settler, though accustomed to them, could not refrain from gazing with admiration upon the magnificent spectacle. Language cannot convey, words cannot express, the faintest idea of the splendor and grandeur of such a conflagration during the night. It was as if the pale queen of night, distaining to take her accustomed place in the heavens, had dispatched myriads upon myriads of messengers to light their torches at the altar of the setting sun until all had flashed into one long and continuous blaze.
“O, fly to the prairies and in wonder gaze,
As o’er the grass sweeps the magnificent blaze;
The earth cannot boast so magnificent a sight, --
A continent blazing with oceans of light.”
The following graphic description of prairie fires was written by a traveler through this region in 1849:
“Soon the fires began to kindle wider and rise higher from the long grass; the gentle breeze increased to stronger currents, and soon fanned the small, flickering blaze into fierce torrent-flames, which curled up and leaped along in resistless splendor; and like quickly raising the dark curtain from the luminous stage, the scenes before me were suddenly changed, as if by he magician’s wand, into one boundless amphitheater, blazing from earth to heaven and sweeping the horizon round, -- columns, of lurid flames sportively mounting up to the zenith, and dark clouds of crimson smoke curling away and aloft till they nearly obscured stars and moon, while the rushing, crashing sounds, like roaring cataracts mingled with distant thunders, were almost deafening; danger, death, glared all around; it screamed for victims; yet, notwithstanding the imminent peril of prairie fires, one is loth, irresolute, almost unable to withdraw or seek refuge.”

Contributed by Pat White and Charlotte Babicki, extracted from the 1878 History of Knox County, Illinois, published by Charles C. Chapman & Co., Chicago, pages 110-114.

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