A Thrilling Escape from a Prairie Fire: 1860s


Fighting a Prairie Fire, c. 1880s

Fighting a Prairie Fire, c. 1880s

The following account of being overtaken by a furious prairie fire is well authenticated by all the early settlers and many others who have often seen the scars made upon the persons of Evan D. Evans and his wife, Jane Evans.

Mrs. Evans having occasion to go to the house of her nearest neighbor then eight miles away, had it understood by her husband that he should, on the next day, meet her at a certain place on her return. The neighbor to whose house she went for butter and some other articles was the family of Edward Ricord, then living near the Johnson county line, in Green township. The distance was too great to return the same day, so having made the visit and obtained the articles, among which was a cat given her by Mrs. Ricord, on the second day met her husband near the present Green township line.

They were cheerfully returning together, carrying the butter, cat and other articles, when, in the distance, beheld a prairie fire. The smoke rolled up in clouds, and as the brisk wind swept across the ridges, they could see the red-tongued fire leaping across the tops of the tall wild grass. They thought there was nothing serious for them to experience in the near future and nothing to fear. Neither of them had seen a prairie fire, for it was the next fall after their arrival here. They did not understand the terrible fury with which fire sweeps across the prairie when the tall grass is dry and the fire agitated by a fierce wind.

They observed that the fire came nearer and they hastened their footsteps, as if by premonition of the fate that awaited them. The fire gained upon them, leaping across slough and footpath with equal facility. Mr. Evans lighted a fire to burn a little spot in which they might take refuge, for before he left Cincinnati and even in England he had heard of this mode of procedure when in danger from fire on the plains. This afforded them no relief, for before their set fire had sufficiently cooled down, the awful deluge came upon them.

They ran to the first tree, which fortunately had boughs near the ground, and Mr. Evans, after aiding his wife to climb, passed up the articles they were taking home, including the cat. Scarcely had he time to grasp the first limb to ascend the tree when the fire struck them. It blazed many feet high in the air, as if an angry beast leaping up to devour them. For a few moments they were completely enveloped in the flames, whose angry billows reached far above their heads. They were suffocated and crazed by the blistering heat, and as if with the grasp of death, still clung to the tree. In a few minutes the raging, crackling monster had passed and left the choking smoke which was driven before the wind.

They descended the tree and made haste to reach their hut and obtain relief, for cold night was coming on and they were fearfully burned. Finally, with great difficulty, they reached their cabin and received such attention as could be given them by William Evans and family. Mr. Evan D. Evans wore severe scars on both sides of his face, and carried a deformed hand to his death, which were only slight marks compared with the intense suffering he experienced in that terrible fire. Mrs. Evans was badly burned and although it was thirty-five years ago when this happened, she still bears marks of these burns. The woolen clothing which they wore somewhat protected their flesh, except hands and face, and was the means of saving their lives. It may be remarked that the butter was melted, and the cat, never after heard of, doubtless became a “singed cat.”

History of Iowa County, Iowa 1881

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Perhaps Mrs Daffodil’s readers have seen news of the large brush fires ravaging the state of California. Like cholera, wild-fires were a constant summer threat to the settlers of America’s western territories. This is a rare and vivid eye-witness testimony of the horrors of prairie fires that could outrace man and beast, leaving charred desolation in their wake.  It is astounding, given the quickness of the fire, that Mr and Mrs Evans were not left, as were some of the victims in the Peshtigo fires in Wisconsin, little heaps of ash and garter buckles.

Putting on her Relentlessly Informative hat, Mrs Daffodil explains that the term “singed cat” usually means someone who is better in character than his or her appearance would indicate. The author seems to be trying to make a pun, but the joke is an obscure one.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



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