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June 25: Lightning Death

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Settlers in the Dakotas faced many challenges as they crossed the plains. There were the financial pressures as they attempted to forge a living from the prairie soils, and of course the extreme weather conditions, with a great range in both temperature and weather patterns. The state’s record high and low temps occurred in the same year, 1936. The high, 5th highest in the U.S., was an astounding 121 degrees, and the low was -60, a 181-degree difference.

Life generally improved as more amenities found their way across the grasslands, however, there were still dangers, and the worst of them might surprise you. The Washburn Leader on February 2nd, 1901, stated that “many more people have been killed by lightning than have been run over by stampeding buffalo herds, or killed by unwounded grizzly bears, or by all the other animals of the prairie put together.”

Later that year, the Dickinson Press reported that John Hanson of Willow City had been killed by lightning while driving cattle on horseback. The horse was also killed. The Bottineau Courant added that everyone had been rejoicing over the rain fall, but with that rain had come tragedy.

Most of the reported incidents happened out on the open prairie where there was little tree cover for protection, but lighting could also be menacing in town. On this date in 1901, the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican reported that Steven Baumgartner, a Hungarian immigrant who had moved to the United States in 1899, had been killed in his home by lightning during a storm that hit the Tower City area. The elderly farmer’s death was “instantaneous and nearly all his clothes were torn from his person.” Two other men in the house were shocked, but suffered no serious injuries.

In modern years, North Dakota lightning deaths have been exceedingly rare, with only one death in a recent ten-year period. (2013-2022)

Dakota Datebook by Jacob Clauson


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.