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Curiosity Corner: Ella Lanouette, Beloved pioneer woman
December 02, 2016 Gretchen Deter   

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The story of the Lanouette family is one that could have been taken straight out of the old western movies; the ones of John Wayne, Clark Gable, Clint Eastwood, or Randolph Scott; co-starring: Jane Russell, Marlene Dietrich, Amanda Blake, or Barbara Stanwick. But this is not the case. It is an amazing true story of a French-Canadian family pioneering in the Black Hills. This story was told to me by Sally Sylvester, the great-grand-daughter of Frank and Ella Lanouette. There are two parts to the story, the one of Frank and Ella Lanouette and the second one of their son Frank Jr. and his wife Mabel.
Ella Lanouette was born in Quebec, Canada in 1858 during the British Victorian Era. However, in the outreaches of Quebec, the Canadiens were of French descent. The strict moral code of Queen Victoria was of no concern to the French pioneers. Queen Victoria’s “moral police” would be an anomaly in the rugged frontier of French Quebec. Imagine an ethical code that required a woman to be cinched up in a frilly corset, walking around the muddy streets in white leather shoes, wearing a long lacy dress, hat, and white gloves. Most likely, the men would not ride around in fancy carriages and walk the streets with high top hats and a walking cane. They would have on rugged woolen clothing, riding a horse, or drawing a wagon pulled by mules.
Life was harsh for the French Canadians in Quebec. The soil was poor, the weather was harsh, and hope in the northern outer regions of the Western Hemisphere was frustrating. In 1877, three years after the beginning of the gold rush in the Black Hills, Ella’s new husband, Frank Lanouette, left his new bride and baby girl, Vinnie, to go to Lead, South Dakota in search of a new, more prosperous life in the gold mines around Deadwood and Lead. Within three months his wife took the Bismarck Express from Quebec to Bismarck, South Dakota. She was anxious to join her husband and start a new life with him and their baby daughter, Vinnie.
After the relatively comfortable train ride to Bismarck, Ella had to join a group in a covered wagon to reach her husband in the gold mining area around Deadwood and Lead. This trip took them through hostile Sioux Indian territory. Only a year earlier, the Sioux had been promised the Black Hills as an autonomous region for their use as hunting grounds. No sooner had the treaty been signed, than gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the rush began. So much for the rights of the Sioux Indians.
The 310-mile trip to Lead was treacherous. The Sioux were always in ominous view. They saw a horrifying sight of a burned covered wagon and seven slaughtered white people. Ella was so frightened that she sewed her baby’s little blanket into the inside of her jacket hoping to keep the Indians from stealing tiny Vinnie while Ella slept. The terrifying trip ended as they arrived in Lead with no further incident but it left an unusual impact on Ella. She had hopes for the town and yet wanted safety and peaceful interaction with the Sioux upon whose land they were infringing.
She began helping to build a little town. She loved the beautiful Black Hills and saw so much potential in the area. She and Frank “settled in” and Ella, the first white woman, helped to turn shacks and tents into a town of 10,000 with churches, schools, businesses, lovely homes and a city government that protected the citizens of Lead.
Frank and Ella lived in the beautiful Black Hills area for forty years, raising their six children each of whom had their own life stories about life in the Black Hills. She was lovingly known as “Grandma Lanouette” by so many of the settlers in the Black Hills where they were one of the most esteemed families.

The wedding photo of Frank and Ella Lanouette
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