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Great Chicago Fire of 1871: Topics in Chronicling America

A guide for researching the topic of the "Great Chicago Fire of 1871" in the Chronicling America digital collection of historic newspapers.


Map of the Burned District in Chicago. October 10, 1871, New-York Tribune (New York, NY), Image 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

"Millionaires rendered penniless in a day, the fire still raging,” read the October 10, 1871 New-York Tribune, one day after what became to be known as the Great Chicago Fire. The media blames it on Catherine O'Leary's cow, which purportedly kicked over a lantern. The fire destroys over 10,000 buildings and left the city in ruins. Read more about it!

The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America.

The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.


October 8, 1871 A fire begins around 9:00 p.m. near a small farm on 137 DeKoven St.
October 9, 1871 The fires continue burning.
October 10, 1871 The fires are finally extinguished in the early morning hours. President Grant orders donations to be shipped into the city.
October 11, 1871 A myth that the O’Leary cow caused the fire is circulated in the New-York Tribune. The city of Chicago is placed under martial law.
October 12, 1871 Business is able to partially resume.
October 17, 1871 Temporary structures are set up for occupancy, but 100,000 people remain homeless.
October 19, 1871 A writer for the Nashville Union largely discredits the Catherine O’Leary story after an interview with her.
November 11, 1871 The police and fire commissioner begin an investigation into Ms. O’Leary.