The Great Chicago Fire

Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

While touring the Chicago History Museum it suddenly occurred to me that my husband had two sets of several time great grandparents that had experienced the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Adding historical perspective to your family narrative is important and I completely missed this event!

What I learned was that over 100,000 people became homeless. Using old tents left from the Civil War, they were set up along the Lake Michigan waterfront while new homes were being built.

I also had completely missed the fact that there were many aid organizations from around the world that sent funds to help the displaced. I was interested in finding a list of organizations and if they had any records of who they had helped.

It seems in my husband’s family’s case, the families relocated on their own.

I always knew that Drusilla Williams DeWolf Thompson went back and forth between her birth location of Lansingburg, Troy, New York and Chicago. After marrying her first husband in 1850 Calvin DeWolf (not to be confused with the famous lawyer of the same name at the same time in the same place) the couple left for Chicago. I have not found where Calvin was buried but while in Chicago, I was able to discover where early residents of Rock Island were interred. I’m hoping those clues will lead me to his burial site.

Dru remarried widower Thomas Coke Thompson in Chicago in 1857 and the couple had three children. Well, four if you are looking at the 1880 US census which lists child Nellie, born in 1869. Nellie does not appear with the family in 1870; instead, she is living in a household in Rock Island with a different family. I suspect that Dru knew the family from her time living in Rock Island with her first husband and took over as Nellie’s guardian for a time. I haven’t found adoption paperwork or what became of Nellie.

So, where was Dru when the fire roared through town in October 1871? Likely, Chicago as she was found there in the 1870 census. Interestingly, she was next discovered back in Lansingham in 1875 in the New York State census. Dru evidently went back to her birthplace once she lost her home in Chicago.

I blogged a few weeks ago about Mary O’Brien and her husband, John Cook. Both of those individuals were in the Chicagoland area when the fire broke out. The problem is they are not found in the 1870 US census. By 1880 they were found again in Chicago. Were they one of the displaced? Until I discover their address in 1871 I won’t know that. Since there are so many John and Mary Cooks in the area during this time this will take a bit of work. I’m saving this one for next winter.