We like to think we are the masters of fire, but as events of this week have proven, that's not always the case.
Nineteenth century Texans had a far different relationship with fire than we do today. Fire provided their light, cooked their food and kept them warm in winter. It was an indispensable servant, but one ready to strike and punish the unwary overseer.
Pioneer accounts are filled with stories of women and children being burned badly...even killed...when a spark from the hearth set their homespun clothes ablaze.
A chimney not maintained...a candle or lantern unattended...could turn a cabin into an inferno.
On July 8, 1860, a fire destroyed most of the business district of the growing town of Dallas. That same day, half the town square burned at Denton. The mercury had reached 110 that day, and the fires were first blamed on the hellish heat and improper storage of matches at dry goods stores.
But rumors soon fingered abolitionist Methodist ministers for recruiting slaves to burn the towns. Before tempers cooled, at least thirty-five men, black and white, were lynched.
A yell of '"fire" brought immediate action from all within earshot. Bored Texas Rangers in their winter camps turned this fact into a way of having fun at the expense of their campmates.
Ranger Jim Gillett recalled:
"A couple of rangers would post themselves outside a neighbor's cabin and begin to yell, Fire! Fire!! at the top of their lungs. If the cabin owners did not stand in the doorway to protect it, all the rangers in camp would rush up and throw bedding, cooking utensils, saddles and bridles, guns and pistols outside as quickly as they could. In a jiffy the cabin would be cleaned out and the victims of the joke would have to lug all their belongings back in again."
Not all of the Ranger's experiences with fire where joking matters. The same month Dallas and Denton burned, three hundred Rangers of various companies set out after a band of Kickapoo that had been depredating in Parker County.
To slow the Ranger's pursuit, the Indians set fire to the prairie. Within a few days, most of Northwest Texas was scorched. The Rangers had to give up the chase, as it was now impossible to feed their horses.