As family historians, we need to document more concerning our ancestors’ lives beyond the vital records. When we come across significant events that occurred in the area in which they lived, we should incorporate these events into the narrative of the family. A wartime or military experience or a description of what an immigrant ancestor faced are examples of this type of narrative, but other events also should be recorded.
Recently, I located an obituary for Frank E. Bosley, my 2nd great grandfather, in which his children had written, “In the fire of 1881, he was burned out. At this time, there were four small children. To keep his wife and children from perishing in the heated atmosphere, he dipped water from a well and threw it about them.” I wondered how much time he had to get his family to safety; were they able to protect or save any of their valuables, such as the family Bible; did he rebuild on the property? At first, I thought the fire had only affected his farm, but as I reread the obituary later, I realized that the family had been victims of a significant event in the thumb area of Michigan, the Great Fire of 1881.
Frank and his family were listed with his parents in the 1880 census for Clinton County, New York, but arrived in Michigan later in the year, settling in Elmwood Township, Tuscola County. During the fire in September, Frank was trying to protect his four young daughters, ranging from 18 months to almost seven years old, and his wife, Eliza, who was pregnant with their first son, Frank. The fire lasted only two to four hours, but the property of more than three thousand families was destroyed, leaving 15,000 people homeless and in need of public aid, which averaged $746 per family. I learned that yes, Frank did rebuild in Elmwood Township. Since the information about the fire was in Frank’s obituary, I wonder if the two oldest daughters remembered or if their parents had talked about how close they came to losing their lives. I searched for more information and found that the Clarke Historical Library has manuscripts about the fire, and I hope to visit and read them someday, and perhaps learn more about the terrifying experience that my family survived in 1881.