The Big Fire:
William Smith's Account of the Great Yaquina Fire of 1849
And then darkness fell all over the world. The surface of the sun just kept on getting red. The universe was not going to enact a good thing; (a) fire was beginning to approach. Then it got dark all over.
This is the story of William Smith regarding his family's experiences during the Yaquina Fire of ca. 1849. Smith was an Alsi Indian who told this story, in his native language, to anthropologist Leo Frachtenberg in 1910. Frachtenberg translated the story to English and published it--along with Smith's original Alsi version written in phonetics--in 1920 (Frachtenberg 1920: 213-219).
This is the only detailed first-hand account of the fire in existence. Smith seems to have a very good memory and his accounting sounds both plausible and accurate. The events he describes take place a few miles southward of Talbot's 1849 travels (Haskin: 1948), and may well have occurred only a few days or weeks after Talbot's departure from the Alsea River in late August of that year.
I have added some paragraph breaks and fixed a few minor typos for purposes of clarity, without note. Frachetnberg's original comments are enclosed in parenthesis (()). My subsequent editorial comments are enclosed in brackets ().
We were coming back from Siuslaw, when, long ago, the world was in flames. (The party consisted of) my father and my mother and also my elder brother, and my father’s mother and my father’s younger brother and his wives--he had three wives--and also one child of one of his wives, and likewise two children of (the other) one of his wives and moreover, three children of (another) one of his wives; (such) only was the number of (the party) [Smith is traveling with his parents, a brother, his paternal grandmother, a paternal uncle, three aunts--all wives of his uncle--and six cousins, all children of his uncle's wives: in all, two adult men, five adult women and eight children, including at least two older boys, spanning three generations of the same family].
Then it seemed to be getting dark all over. And I was young at that time [Frachtenberg says Smith was about 14 years old]. We kept on going. Although the sun stood high, nevertheless it threatened to get dark. Then they kept on saying: “We will not go far anywhere. What on earth is nature going to do?” Thus they would talk. “We will just go down to Ltowai'sk [Heceta Head, Tsp. 16 S., Rng. 12 W.] (and) we will build our own fire there.” Then, verily, they built their own fire there. And then darkness fell all over the world. The surface of the sun just kept on getting red. The universe was not going to enact a good thing; (a) fire was beginning to approach. Then it got dark all over. The fire seemed to be flying in all directions as soon as darkness enveloped the world. That spoken-of big fire was coming. It became dark all over; the world seemed to be getting red. The fire was falling (all around us). Wherever it would drop (another) fire would start there. The fire seemed to be flying in all directions; its crackling just seemed to make a roaring noise. “We will not got anywhere; we will just stay motionless right here.” Then my father kept on saying; “We will never go anywhere. The world is on fire.”
Then the fire came to the trail. It was just dark all over; the world just seemed to be getting red. But (it was) not long before some elks were seen coming downstream along that river. Thereupon my father took his gun for them. Then, on his part, my father’s younger brother reached for his gun (also). But the elks just stood there motionless. So, they two went there and began to shoot at them, whereupon they two killed one (elk) there. The elk’s hair was partially burned and also his legs were partially burned. Then (the elk) was skinned and all his flesh was distributed, whereupon it was carried to the fire.
The people did not remain near the woods. Everybody was staying (near) the ocean on the beach. The fire was flying around just like the birds. It was just dark all over. The sun had disappeared.
The people did not remain near the woods. Everybody was staying (near) the ocean on the beach. The fire was flying around just like the birds. It was just dark all over. The sun had disappeared. All the hills were on fire. Even the hills (that were near the) sea were burning as soon as the fire arrived at the sea. Everywhere even the blossoms of he highest trees burned down.
“What, indeed, can we do (to help ourselves)? Who is going to come here to tell us (of the conditions in other places)?“--“Yes, (I) wonder if anybody will be so void of sense that he will not (know enough to) go to the water?” Thus they would talk as soon as darkness fell over the world. The crackling of the fire just seemed to rear all over. “Now we are just going to stay (here). (I) wonder how we can go anywhere (else)?”
My grandmother was crying all the time. She was crying for her people. “All my people must have perished in the flames.” Her child would there speak to her continually. “Thou shalt not cry all the time (or else) my heart will become small. It is nothing (even if) we two only (myself) and my younger brother have survived.” Thus my father was continually speaking to his mother.
All sorts of (animals) were coming to the sea: elks, black bears, and cougars-the hair of all (of them) was just partially burned. My grandmother was singing, “(I) wonder, indeed, what nature is going to do.”
All sorts of (animals) were coming to the sea: elks, black bears, and cougars-the hair of all (of them) was just partially burned. My grandmother was singing, “(I) wonder, indeed, what nature is going to do.” When I slept, the fire never came to us. My grandmother would speak thus: “Your (dual) hearts shall not be small. It simply got dark all over. (I) wonder when it is going to get light again. Probably for five nights will the world be in flames.”
The crackling of the fire (was heard everywhere). Wherever a log lay on the beach (and) whenever the fire dropped there, it would (instantly) catch fire.
But (at last) the crackling of the fire seemed to be dying out. It seemed to have the appearance of birds. The fire was flying in all directions. The fire seemed to be of such a size. The fire was dropping close to where we were staying. (My mother) was watching the children carefully, she never allowed one (to go away from our camp). The children just (had to) stay together. Then they two [probably smith's father and uncle] began to talk: “We shall not go anywhere, we have plenty of food.” Then they two spoke (again): “What are we two going to do (to help) ourselves? Something bad has happened to the universe. We two will just stay here for a long time. Only after the fire shall have disappeared will we two go to see whence it had started.” Thus they two would talk among themselves. Then all would speak thus: “None of us will go anywhere; we will just stay together.”
All the black bears went toward the sea; all kinds of deer went toward the ocean. And also cougars, likewise wolves, and, moreover, foxes and wildcats; the hair of all (of them) was partially burned and also their legs. (Such) of their number (as were) partially burned were coming to the water from the east. “No one shall touch (them); they fared poorly. We two will just leave them alone.”
The fire was just terribly hot. The smell of the smoke made an awful odor all over. (But) not far away it was getting light. Where that trail was leading, the ground had burned entirely. All the black bears went toward the sea; all kinds of deer went toward the ocean. And also cougars, likewise wolves, and, moreover, foxes and wildcats; the hair of all (of them) was partially burned and also their legs. (Such) of their number (as were) partially burned were coming to the water from the east. “No one shall touch (them); they fared poorly. We two will just leave them alone.” Thus they two would talk among themselves. “Never did nature act thus,” thus my grandmother kept on saying. “No matter how long (back I can remember), nature did not act like that.” When her two children heard her (speak thus), they would say: “Now we two will just stay here. When the fire will disappear, at that time will we two depart.”
Then they two were counting for how many days darkness prevailed all over. For probably ten days it was dark all over. “Not long (afterward) the fire is going to disappear; then, indeed, we two will go away to-morrow.” Now, verily, all (the people) were speaking (thus). “(You two) shall watch yourselves carefully when you two will go now,” thus my grandmother would speak. Then after it got dark again the fire disappeared right there. Then they two kept on saying, “Now we two will go tomorrow in the morning to have a look.” Then in the morning they two ate. “After we two shall have gone, you shall not go far away. You shall just stay (here) Motionless.” Then they two were speaking to their (dual) wives. “We two are going to come back to-morrow”--“You two shall take good care of yourselves,” thus said my grandmother.
Where there was a mountain, that place there did not burn. So they two kept on going on that trail, and they arrived at where there was a place (covered) with grass. And only there did the fire reach.
Then they started. Where there was a mountain, that place there did not burn [possibly Cape Mountain, Tsp. 17 S., Rng. 12 W.]. So they two kept on going on that trail, and they arrived at where there was a place (covered) with grass. And only there did the fire reach. Then they two ascended. Now it was gradually getting light all over; just a little (light) showed far away. At last they came below, whereupon they two started to walk on that beach. Then they two kept on going along the beach. Everywhere even the blossoms of the highest trees had burned down, (as could be seen) after the water came with them to the beach. Now not long (afterward) they two saw a bear walking along the edge of the water, just partially burned.
At last they two arrived at the mouth of the Siuslaw River. All the pine trees (there) were partially burned [see Map 4.09]. Only ashes (could be seen) all over, because all the pine trees had caught fire.
Then they came to a village; whereupon they two were spoken to. “Did you two survive?”-“Yes, we two survived; we just stayed at Ltowai'sk [Heceta Head]. (It is) from there that we two have arrived; we are on our way to have a look.”--“Yes, we have fared (here) very poorly. We just stayed close to the sea; we brought all our belongings to the beach. All the people stayed close to the ocean. The people stayed close to the water with (their) canoes (in readiness). Thus we stayed. Even the trees (that) lay in the water caught fire. Thus we did it. Nobody (from here) burned; everybody is well. There were two medicine men who were just dancing every night. For that reason those two medicine men were dancing, because they two wanted to find out (what happened) all over the world, (especially) whence the fire originated. Thus we acted.” Thus they two were told by a number (of people).
And (only) two people stayed (there). All (the other) people stayed near the ocean. “We two have come here to have a look (at our home). Nobody was burned: all the people are well. Nature (seems to have been) doing its worst thing. Never (before) did nature act like that.”
Then it kept on clearing off far way, and the fire disappeared again. For probably ten days darkness prevailed all over. Then the two were going to return the next day. No matter how large a place was, nevertheless that place burned down (entirely); the mountains caught fire everywhere. Then they two went back. Then they arrived again at where they two were living. And (only) two people stayed (there). All (the other) people stayed near the ocean. “We two have come here to have a look (at our home). Nobody was burned: all the people are well. Nature (seems to have been) doing its worst thing. Never (before) did nature act like that.”
Then they started from there and kept on going back (to the place where we stayed). Then (after a long walk) they said, “We will camp here. “All sorts of things were seen close to the water partly burned, but walking around. Then they camped there (at) Ts !Aam [Tenmile Creek, Tsp. 15 S., Rng 12 W.]. Then, as soon as daylight appeared again, they started from there. They had very (heavy) packs. Then they kept on going back. “We will camp at Yahach [a prairie slightly north of today's town of Yachats].” Then, verily (after) the sun set they camped there, at Yahach.
And when daylight appeared they started out. Then they kept on going along the previously mentioned beach. And (it was) not long before they came back to the Alsea River. Then all settled down at the mouth of the river after they came back (there).
And now it comes to an end.