Whether the three girls and their friend are buried at the site near Fallon is up for debate even today.
FALLON - - On a sunny winter day, a white cross along lonely Highway 50 shines like an eerie beacon beckoning travelers to stop. Drivers can spot the cross from many miles, as they speed across a salt flat, 26 miles east of Fallon. The curious stop, traipse a few yards across the muddy salt flat, and take a closer look.
Residents know this spot as the grave site of the legendary LeBeau sisters. It has become a shrine as travelers leave behind money, flowers, even scarves. Every few years, somebody prints another story about the grave site, and its fame spreads.
It is a place for quiet prayer. Not a sound can be heard. The flat is devoid of vegetation.
More than 125 years after the first grave markers were erected, the identities of the people buried at the site are said to have been determined. Three Le Beau sisters_Jennie, 9, Louise, 6, and Emma, 3_and their 3-year-old play mate, Turner Wilson_ were interred here in 1864, each a victim of diphtheria. At least that is the story advanced by Nevada descendants of the LeBeau family and Fallon's Johnnie Johnson, voluntary caretaker of the grave site for the past 11 years.
Yet there are those who maintain no LeBeaus are buried here, that it is a century-old hoax.
Disbelievers include Utah descendants of the LeBeau family. They claim the sisters died later, according to information copied from a family Bible.
Rather than sparking a family brouhaha, the disagreement has led those who consider the grave site hallowed ground to ponder the tragedy of not just the LeBeaus but all the settlers who made the trek to Nevada.
"The grave is symbolic of the whole era," said Mary LeBeau of Mapleton, Utah.
"Whether there are children out there isn't important. These people were courageous and wonderful."
Mary LeBeau said many families, not only her relatives, lost children to sudden death while they carved out a meager living in this most arid state. She favors erecting markers at the site to memorialize all such pioneer families.
In contrast, Johnson, 72, remains convinced that the fourchildren are buried in these sands. "I think we have the true story of it," he said. "I think these children are as real as any of my own children."
Over the years, he and his son, Johnny, hauled rocks to the site, cleaned it up and painted the fence. He is amazed by the money people leave. They place coins a glass jar that Johnson empties infrequently and gives to Fallon charities. No one vandalizes the site.
Johnson said the survival of the grave site is a miracle of God.
He learned through newspaper clippings that he is one in a procession of men that has kept up the site over the past century.
"Every 15 years or 20 years someone took it upon himself to take care of it," said Johnson, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supervisor. "It never has been broken.
He cares for the grave site out of love for the infant twin sister he never knew. She died in the flu epidemic in 1918 and was buried in a potter's field. "I hope someone puts flowers on her grave," he said.
Two of the voluntary caretakers, Sam Taylor and William Manley, reburied: the remains of two children after the original grave was washed out during a flood in 1940.
That has led Johnson to conclude the original grave site may have been a half mile to the north, on a hill. He conjectured the other bodies still are there. Johnson clasped a handful of newspaper clippings, dating back to the 1930s, all with a story about the mysterious grave site.
He accepts the version advanced by 75-year-old L.E. McKinney of Haw thorne. McKinney's wife, Peggy LeBeau, is a grandniece of the LeBeau sisters. About the time the McKinneys married in 1939, they visited the grave site, then nothing more than a hard-to-find marker with "LeB" written on it. They also talked with Peggy LeBeau's grand aunt, Elmaide LeBeau Drew (1871 1950), a daughter of Albert LeBeau, a horse trader who reportedly founded Frenchman's Station, about 60 miles east of Fallon.
"Aunt Elmaide said there were four graves out there in the flat," McKinney said. "The information was handed down through the years by the family."
According to McKirmey, the LeBeau sisters fell ill with diphtheria in 1884.
Albert LeBeau and his wife, Marie, frantically tried to save the girls. They saddled horses to a wagon and rushed to Stillwater for medical attention. With them was young Wilson, son of a cousin who was a soldier fighting in the Civil War.
On their return, the LeBeau wagon broke down. Albert took one of the horses and galloped toward Frenchman's Station to secure repair material. Marie LeBeau was left to care for the sick children. As she wait ed for her husband's return, each of the girls died. She buried them in the sand.
Albert LeBeau returned a day late because of a sandstorm. Soon after his return, Wllson died and was buried next to the sisters. "I know my story from talking with the older members of the LeBeau family," McKinney said.
In contrast to the McKinney story is one promulgated by
Mary LeBeau, whose husband, Ted, also is a descendant of the pioneer LeBeaus: She contends
their Aunt Matty _ Elmaide Free stone_talked with her cousin and namesake Elmaide LeBeau
Drew (the woman related to the McKinneys) during a family funeral in Broderick, California.
The aunt copied information from Drew's Bible that indicated Jennie LeBeau died at age 6, in 1871, Mary Louise at age 3, in 1864, and Emma at 9, in 1877, according to Mary LeBeau. Her records also show two other LeBeau sisters died as children. Of the six LeBeau girls, only Drew lived to adulthood.
"I did not see the Bible," said Mary LeBeau. "Aunt Matty saw the Bible. I have the sheet on which she took the informntion from Elmaide LeBeau Drew." Mary LeBeau said she also can back up her information with copies of census material indicating two sisters, supposedly buried in the grave, were alive after 1864.
Her evidence may appear stronger than McKinney's spoken version. Her records show the first names of the LeBeau sisters' parents were Michael and Louise, not Albert and Marie, as McKinney insists. Albert LeBeau was a brother of the sisters, according to Mary LeBeau.
Another census record lists Michael LeBeau as a hotel keeper and Louise as a housekeeper. They were French-Canadians, perhaps the reason why the arid spot where they lived was called Frenchman's Station. Louise died in 1900 after 44 years of marrisge, and Michael died nine years later. As a result of the census and Bible information, Mary LeBesu believes Drew's memory must have been hazy when she spoke to the McKinneys.
On thc other hand, Drew told essentially the same story to the Fallon newspaper in 1941 that
McKinney repeats. "The three little girls died from diphtheria in three days_one each day,"
she was quoted as say ing. "The names were Jennie, age nine; Louise, age sixj and Emma, age
three." Old newspsper articles even mention that settlers said the salt flat surrounding the
grave site once was known as LeBeau Flat.
Click here for a map page of the area.
Mary LeBeau insisted she does not want to debunk a noble Fallon myth. She is an amateur genealogist with a thirst for family history. Somewhere, perhaps in the records of an old Catholic Church in Austin, she imagines, she will find further evidence the sisters did not die of diphtheria on the salt flat. Still, Mary LeBeau does not want to disparage the suffering of Michael and Louise LeBeau. "That woman buried five little girls early in their lives," she said. "People buried many of their children, then. I cannot imagine having children out there, hauIing water and washing. It must have been terribly hard. It doesn't bother me that the grave is not right. I don't know who is buricd there."
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