Encountering tragedy is common in family history research, and understanding the historical context can make the events even more personable to us. Learn how to research beyond names and dates to discover the stories of your ancestors.
In doing genealogical research, it’s extremely important to look beyond the bare-bones names and dates of your ancestors, and learn about the culture, history, and events that took place during their lives. If we neglect this vital piece of the puzzle, there will often be crucial elements to our ancestors’ story that we will miss. The tragic story of the Bruse family is a lesson in this principle.
The Bruse Family
In June of 1870, August Bruse and his wife Sophia lived with their five children, ages seven to twenty-one, in Peshtigo, Oconto (now Marinette), Wisconsin. German immigrants, the family were farmers and laborers, with Sophia keeping house and the younger children at school.
A little over one year later, life as they knew it was rocked to its core. The deadliest firestorm in history swept through the area on the same day of the infamous Chicago fire – 8 October 1871. Though less prominent in history, it was arguably the greater catastrophe of the two. The firestorm, probably started when small brush fires used for clearing land were whipped into a frenzy by a sudden cold front, was described as “…a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles per hour…” It was so hot that it could melt sand into glass, a temperature of over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Survivors described a tornado made of fire that threw rail cars and houses into the air. The fire burned so violently that it jumped rivers and even jumped several miles over Green Bay. At least 1.2 million acres were burned. The entire city was burned to the ground, except one building that was being built of green wood at the time.
Tragedy in Family History
The wall of fire was not the only deadly part of the firestorm. People who tried to escape the flames in wells, wet blankets, and brick buildings were killed by the immense heat and poison air. The best refuge was the water of the Peshtigo River and Green Bay. Although many people waiting out the raging fire in the water were struck by burning debris, died of hypothermia, or drowned, some survived. It is unknown exactly how many people were killed, but it was estimated between 1,200 and 2,500 victims spread throughout twelve communities. In comparison, the Great Chicago Fire on the same day killed about 300 people. Hundreds of those people were never able to be identified, and are buried to this day in a mass grave.
Living right in the middle of the worst of the destruction, the Bruse family suffered significantly. A stone marker at Mays Corners Cemetery memorialized Sophia Bruse, wife of A. Bruse, and her three youngest children: Sophia Bruse, age 16; Frederick Bruse, age 11, and George Bruse, age 8. All were acknowledged victims of the Peshtigo Fire.
It is unknown what happened to the father of the family, August Bruse Sr. He may have also perished in the fire, or shortly thereafter from its damaging effects.
The two eldest sons, Henry and August Jr., survived to rebuild after the fire’s sweeping devastation, having lost both family and friends. Both married and began families of their own. Henry even named one of his own sons Frederick, presumably after the little brother he lost in the infamous fire. For several decades, the brothers and their new families lived close to each other, though in the early part of the 20th century, Henry and his wife, Julia, eventually migrated to Brown County, South Dakota. August and his wife remained in the Peshtigo vicinity.
Going Beyond Names & Dates: Where to Look
Tracking the family in extant records is, as always, a good idea. But it was when the researcher stepped outside and began studying the town that she discovered this tragedy that changed the lives of the Bruse family members forever. The barely legible headstone of Sophia and her children states that all died on the same day, but without having a curiosity regarding the surrounding historical context, we would never have known why.
Deepen the results of your own family history research by giving this strategy a try yourself. A few tips:
- Check for county histories – books that typically include everything from agricultural practices to biographies of prominent citizens. Search for them through the Family History Library catalog on FamilySearch.org, Google Books, or your local library.
- Simply Google the town or county in question – Peshtigo was a perfect example of this, since the fire appeared in many top results. Even if there wasn’t one specific event that occurred in your county, you can find other details to help you flesh out your ancestors’ lives. Knowing the political feelings of the area, what crops were farmed, the predominant religion, and major migration patterns can tell you a lot about what life was like then. For tips on using Google search, check out our article, Google Searching Tips for Genealogists.
Legacy Tree Genealogists has experts trained to know where and how to look for your ancestors. Contact us today to let us know how we can help you learn more about your heritage.
 1870 U.S. Census (Population Schedule), Pesthigo, Oconto, Wisconsin, August Bruse household, page 331B, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed October 2014. Sophia Bruse is listed as “John Bruse, male.” However, the placement in the family immediately after the head of household, the occupation of keeping house, and the age of 47 indicates that this was really a female and the wife of August Bruse, Sophia.
 “Peshtigo Fire,” http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Peshtigo _Fire, accessed October 2014.
 Find A Grave memorials for Sophia Bruse (1823-1871), Sophia Bruse (1855-1871), Frederick Bruse (1860-1871), and George Bruse (1863-1871), Mays Corners Cemetery, May Corner, Marinette, Wisconsin, http://findagrave.com, accessed October 2014.
 1900 U.S. Census (Population Schedule), Warner, Brown, South Dakota, Fred H. Bruse household, ED 0060, page 5B, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed November 2014.