Hotel keeper’s family struck by lightning
Story told by hotel keeper in Pioneer Girl when Caroline Ingalls and girls stop at the hotel in Tracy.
…He and his wife and the twin boys, with his wife’s sister and her sweetheart had gone for a drive one Sunday afternoon. A storm had come up and they were trying to get home before it struck. That was the last he knew until he waked up in his bed not able to move seemingly paralyzed. – Pioneer Girl
In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript, a lengthy tale is told to Caroline Ingalls and daughters while waiting for Charles Ingalls at the hotel in Tracy, Minnesota. The story does not appear in published By the Shores of Silver Lake or its surviving manuscripts. The story related is the tale of what had recently happened to the hotel keeper and his two little boys, and Laura Ingalls feels that it explains why the hotel is so “quiet and gloomy.”
As told, the hotel keeper, his wife, their two sons, along with his wife’s sister and her beau, all went for an afternoon drive, hurrying to get home before a storm struck. Nothing was known about the family’s fate until the little boys came walking back to the hotel, disoriented and saying that everyone else was “asleep out there in the road.” Two miles from town, all were dead except for the hotel keeper… they had all been struck by lightning.
This is not the Tracy, Minnesota hotel keeper’s story. It is the story of the hotel keeper in the railroad town of Canby, Minnesota (in Yellow Medicine County to the north), and what happened to his family in early August 1879. One of the hotel keepers in Tracy – Myron Fitch (of the Exchange Hotel) or Henry Welch (of the Commercial Hotel) – may have related the story to the family, or Laura remembered it from news circulated in Walnut Grove at the time. There’s a remote possibility that Ma and the girls continued on the train from Tracy to Canby, and Pa, who was working on the grade west of Lake Benton, met them there. During the surveying and construction of the railroad, this inactive line was put in use to ship goods and mail west until the rails were laid and trains running along the Dakota Central to the south. As recorded in his work diary, Charles Irish, head railroad surveyor for the line from Tracy to Pierre, instructed his family to send letters to both Canby and Lake Kampeska (Watertown was located at this stop) during the summer of 1879. In letters to daughter Rose about the railroad camps, both Laura and Almanzo mention Watertown and Lake Kampeska, and Laura’s well-known quote that it was “strange how my memory fails me on all but the high lights” [letter dated October 8, 1938] was made when writing about this period.
The story of the hotel keeper’s family being struck by lightning wasn’t used in published By the Shores of Silver Lake, but it was used by Rose Wilder Lane in Free Land. See Chapter 44 for Rose’s version of her mother’s Pioneer Girl tale.
The story made the newspapers at the time, from the Redwood Gazette all the way to the San Francisco Bulletin. About two miles from Canby, the Erastus LeSuer family and friends were making their way back to town in a wagon when a horrible storm came up, and lightning struck the wagon. Nothing had been thought about the family until about 7 p.m. that night, when two of the LeSuer children, ages about 8 and 5, came walking into town, dazed. They said that the whole family had been killed by “the wind hitting them.” Men and teams started out in search, knowing the direction in which the family had originally traveled from the hotel which Mr. LeSuer operated.
Will Date, one of the passengers, had meanwhile crawled three quarters of a mile to a nearby house, where he gave the alarm. A light wagon was soon found by the search parties, containing the bodies of Annie LeSuer, her two-year-old daughter Mabel, and the body of a friend’s child, Rosa Dricken. Mr. LeSuer was found unconscious nearby, and their third son was found lying in the grass, crying but unhurt. The LeSuers’ dog was found dead a quarter of a mile away, near the baby girl who had been thrown from her mother’s arms, also dead. One horse was dead near the wagon, the other had apparently broken free and ran from the accident.
It was later determined that Erastus LeSuer had been sitting on the right side of the wagon, driving, and that Will Date sat at his left. The three boys who weren’t killed were sitting in the back of the wagon beneath a buffalo robe. Mrs. LeSuer was sitting on the right side of the wagon behind them, the baby on her lap. Mabel sat to her left, with Rosa Dricken beside her. The second seat had a sun-shade over it, made of a steel frame covered in silk. Mrs. LeSuer received the greatest part of the shock, which struck Mr. LeSuer on the left shoulder. The lightning melted an iron bolt on the wagon seat and traveled across the axle and to the ground.
Erastus LeSuer later related his experience: “I was singing, or rather humming, to myself; Mrs. LeSuer was joking and making fun of my singing, when all at once I heard a sudden crash, and then I seemed to go off into a trance or slumber; I then saw the nicest kind of colored stars and heard the sweetest strains of vocal and instrumental music, and then I thought I was floating down, down into the air; it was the softest seat I ever had; I would like to experience the same sensation as that again; I should judge it was about two hours and a half before I came to; I found myself in tall grass and I tried to get up, but could not; had no use of my legs and only the partial use of my right arm; could not raise my body from the ground; laid on my back and turned over on my face; could go no further, and then I seemed to float off again into the air; then I came to, and looking up I saw a house, and then floated off again… I could not speak, as my jaws were set close…” When he later found he could open his jaws, it was only to whisper. – September, 1879, Canby, Minnesota, News.
Erastus P. LeSuer was born in Jamestown, New York, and was enumerated on the 1880 census in Canby (Yellow Medicine County) Minnesota, a boarder in the hotel being run by O.J. Holt. According to Rev. Edward D. Neill’s History of the Minnesota Valley: Including the Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota and Charles S. Bryant’s History of the Sioux Massacre (page 904), E.P. LeSuer came to Minnesota in 1856 and was in the hotel business at Rochester for two years, then went to St. Louis and learned photography; from there he went south and was engineer on the Mississippi Central Railroad until the Union Army took possession. In 1864 he returned to Rochester and ran hotels in different places until 1877, when he built a hotel in Canby, the village being laid out on land owned by the railroad company in August 1876.
LeSuer recovered from his lightning strike; he married Julia Olson in 1881. Erastus LeSuer died June 23, 1910, and is buried in Jasper (Pipestone County) Minnesota. His wife Julia died in 1940 and is buried beside him. He is enumerated with his first wife, Sarah, on the 1870 census in Rochester, Minnesota. He married his second wife, Annie Smith, in 1872.
Erastus LeSuer family struck by lightning (PG)