The Long Shot Hits Home

“One blizzard came just before time for school to close. . . .

At a country school eight miles north of De Smet, the teacher [had] brought his children to school in a sleigh. . . . [Going home,] the teacher, with his load, was lost on the prairie.

When he knew that he couldn’t find his way, he . . . turned the sleigh bottom up over them. Then he crawled underneath the sleigh himself and there they huddled together while the snow blew and drifted over the sled keeping out the wind. . . . No one was frozen except the teacher whose hands and feet were frozen, but not badly.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 315

There were a lot of long shots in the research for Pioneer Girl. We look at Wilder’s life through a double pane of frosted glass, trying to overcome both the shortfalls of her memory and our own distance from the subject. Not all of our long shots hit the target. But today, to tide you over until the book arrives, I’d like to tell you about one long shot—perhaps the longest one of all—that did.

Wilder places the story of the schoolteacher and his improvised igloo in the winter of 1884–1885, but the setup is strongly reminiscent of the “children’s blizzard,” a storm that struck without warning on a warm day in January 1888 and killed more than a hundred schoolchildren as they struggled to get home. Wilder did not always remember events in their true chronological order, and it seemed likely that she misplaced this one. But she does not give the teacher’s name, and the Kingsbury County newspapers that could complete the story have been lost, so there, it appeared, the matter would rest.

The scene: it’s about 10:30 one morning and a deadline looms. Enter Pioneer Girl Project director Nancy Tystad Koupal with a grin on her face and a book in her hand.

“Rodge. See if you can find that schoolteacher in here.”

“Wait, are you kidding me? We don’t even have a name.”

“We have a hunch. We follow it.”

“It’s not like I can look him up in the index. This could take all day.”

“It’s a good book. Humor me. I sign your paychecks.”

It is a good book. It’s The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin, and it is a fantastic and heart-stopping book. I read most of it that day, too quickly, like a man tearing through a haystack looking for a glint of metal, and this is all the glint I found:

“Mr. Stearns, a Dakota schoolteacher, had taken his three children to the school he taught near De Smet the day before and still had not returned home” (Laskin, Children’s Blizzard, p. 218).

Unfortunately, there’s no footnote and no follow-up. We still had laughably little information to work with. What were the odds? Still, the circumstances were tantalizing: here was a schoolteacher, near De Smet, whose own children were among his students. And critically, he had a name. It was federal records time.

Census first. Ready? No Stearns in the area in 1880. 1885 territorial census for the county is lost. 1890 federal census is melting the ice caps. 1895 state records are lost. 1900 federal census—stop!—there’s one.

Orion E. Stearns. Spirit Lake Township, Kingsbury County. Farmer. Born Vermont, August 1847. He and his wife have had five kids, of whom three survive; two are still in the household.

Now we’re cookin’ with Crisco. We have his name and his year and state of nativity, and we can follow this man, whether he’s Wilder’s man or not, wherever we want to. Orion’s daughter Bessie is a schoolteacher; does it run in the family?

Back to 1880.

No.

Back to 1870.

Yes.

Orion Stearns is teaching school in 1870 in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. It doesn’t prove that he taught in 1888. But let’s say you’re a homesteader and you have teaching experience. What would you do in the winter to earn a little extra money to help prove up your claim?

Maybe this wasn’t a fool’s errand after all. I look at the clock. Between this and other tasks, it’s now 6:30, and I am not going home until this is settled.

But have I gotten ahead of myself? We still don’t know if Orion Stearns was even in Dakota Territory in 1888. But the U.S. General Land Office might.

Guess what: it does. On August 16, 1889, Orion E. Stearns was issued a patent under the Homestead Act for a quarter section seven miles northeast of De Smet. At this point my heart finally says: this is the guy. But that’s not enough. It’s a pretty safe bet that he was there in 1888, but I can’t be absolutely sure unless I order the paper land-entry records, which will take a month to arrive.

Wait. I have other evidence right under my nose. Remember his two kids living with him in 1900? The census shows that his son Sumner was born in Dakota Territory in 1885. Again, I can’t be certain they were in Kingsbury County, but we’re building a strong preponderance of evidence. This is the guy. While we’re at it, what other evidence can we glean from the kids’ census entries?

Little Sumner would have been too young to go to school in January 1888. Orion’s four other kids appear in the 1880 census: Lewis, Guy, Nellie, and Bessie. And then I remember that by 1900, only one of the three eldest kids was still alive. That’s when I start checking grave records.

Ten minutes later I’m in the State Archives library. This started with a book; let it end with a book.

Ten minutes after that, it’s over.

Beyond a doubt, Mr. Stearns was the man Wilder remembered, and I know exactly what happened to him and his kids on January 13–14, 1888. The long shot slams right into the bullseye.

And all I can think is, No. That isn’t how the story is supposed to end.

 

The story ends with annotations 90–91 on pp. 315–16 of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. It’s a book full of long shots, gunshots, schottisches, and everything else from the world of Wilder, and it finally ships out next week. Thanks for your patience, thanks for reading our blog, and stay tuned for more.

RGH

From our warehouse to your house, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is coming soon

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Pioneer Girl coverThe long wait for Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is almost over.

The official word from our printer is that books will arrive at the South Dakota Historical Society Press warehouse on Friday, November 14.

On Monday, November 17, the first books to leave the warehouse will be shipped to individuals who pre-ordered directly from the South Dakota Historical Society Press. Pre-orders can still be made through Thursday, November 13, at www.pioneergirlproject.org/order/, www.sdhspress.com, or by calling (605) 773-6009.

On November 20, staff will begin to fill orders for Press distributors and retailers.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography should arrive on store shelves and be available through Amazon.com by Wednesday, November 26.  The date may vary slightly, depending on factors outside of the Press’s control.

All orders will be filled in the order in which they were received. Orders made during the week of the November 17 may not be filled until the following week. If you have any questions, please email info@sdshspress.com.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography will continue to be available through the Press at www.pioneergirlproject.org/order/, www.sdhspress.com, by calling (605) 773-6009, or emailing orders@sdshspress.com.

Thank you for your patience as we bring you the first-ever comprehensive, annotated volume of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl.

Dates in November to remember:

  •  13th—Last day to pre-order
  •  14th—Books arrive at the Press warehouse
  •  17th—South Dakota Historical Society Press pre-orders begin to be processed and shipped
  •  20th—Distributor and retail orders begin to be processed and shipped
  • 26th —Projected in-store availability date

—JMc

Mary Ingalls Goes to School

In our work on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we found an interesting series of documents illuminating Mary Ingalls’s path to the Iowa College for the Blind.

When Mary suffered the illness that led to her blindness in the spring of 1879, she was fourteen years old. Her education prior to that time had been inconsistent, interrupted by her family’s various moves across the country. More dramatically, she had no training in how to function as an adult without vision, making her totally dependent on others for most of her basic needs. Compounding the situation, her father, Charles Ingalls, had just taken a job on the remote Dakota Territory frontier. What would become of Mary far from doctors and specialized schools?

Charles Ingalls was a resourceful man, and he soon found helpful colleagues in the new town of De Smet. One, attorney Visscher V. Barnes, mentioned frequently in Pioneer Girl, set to work to find resources for Mary Ingalls. In a series of letters to George Hand, the secretary of Dakota Territory, in the summer and fall of 1881, Barnes described Mary as “a young and intelligent lady,” who “ought to be provided for in some way.” Barnes outlined the situation—“her parents are unable to make much provision for either her treatment or mental culture”—and he inquired about any territorial laws that might apply (Barnes to Hand, Aug. 29, 1881).

Hand apparently responded that the territorial council had passed relevant legislation in 1879 that authorized the governor of the territory to enter into a contract for five years at a time with an institution in one of the surrounding states of Iowa, Minnesota, or Nebraska to provide education for a blind resident, “keeping in view economy” as well as the welfare of the student. A letter in the Rose Wilder Lane Papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library indicates that in 1881 the Iowa College for the Blind in Vinton charged $216 per out-of-state student per year. The student had to provide transportation to and from Vinton and his or her own clothing, and in some cases, students were unable to do even that (Robert Carothers to Wm. C. Cort, Dec. 21, 1881). Once the Iowa College for the Blind accepted the contract with the territorial governor to educate its blind students between the ages of five and twenty-one, the school became for all intents and purposes “the institution of the blind of [Dakota Territory]” (D.T., Compiled Laws, 1887, sec. 272).

Amos Whiting, the Kingsbury County superintendent of schools, began the necessary paperwork to certify that Mary Ingalls, age sixteen, was “blind and unable to obtain an education in the common schools” and was therefore “entitled to the benefit of the Institution for the Blind of Dakota for the term of five years, she not having passed any time in a like institution” (Whiting, certification, Oct. 3, 1881). For his part, Visscher Barnes continued to push for additional support, asking if there were any way for the territory to provide for transportation for her and her parents, as well. “The young lady has been blind only a short time,” he wrote in October, “and not long enough to learn to help herself. She is, in fact, at present left almost helpless, and it will be necessary for her parents to attend her” (Barnes to Hand, Oct. 7, 1881).

The records do not show whether or not the plea for additional support was successful, but on October 15, 1881, Dakota territorial governor Nehemiah G. Ordway approved Mary A. Ingalls’s certification of eligibility for five years of schooling (presumably through age twenty-one). She carried a copy of the signed document with her to Vinton when she entered a month later on November 23, 1881. The need to raise funds for transportation may have caused the lag in time. In These Happy Golden Years, Wilder vividly recorded the difference the education made in Mary’s circumstances. During Mary’s first visit home about two years later, a trip that she accomplished on the train by herself, Mary “moved easily around the house,” Wilder wrote, “instead of sitting quiet in her chair.” She was “gay and confident,” and when Pa brought in her trunk, “she went to it, knelt down and unlocked and opened it quite as if she saw it” (pp. 124–26). In Pioneer Girl, Wilder noted that Mary had “pleasant college memories to dwell upon” and was “able to sew and knit and make beadwork, to read her raised-print books and to play the organ that Pa and I together had bought for her as a surprise” (p. 295).

Mary Ingalls in 1889, the year she graduated from the Iowa College for the Blind

Mary Ingalls in 1889. Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

Mary Ingalls would actually attend the Iowa school for a total of seven years from 1881 through 1889, two more than the five she was originally eligible to receive. In 1885, the territorial council had amended the law to read that each blind student was entitled to a total of eight years of schooling. When Dakota Territory became the two states of North and South Dakota in November 1889, however, the state of South Dakota took a different approach to the education of its blind citizens, putting the burden for payment on individuals or individual localities. When Mary Ingalls sought to return to the Iowa College for the Blind in 1892, she was informed that it “would be impossible” because the state of South Dakota had “appropriated no money for the education of the blind” (Mrs. Robert Carothers to Mary Ingalls, Dec. 7, 1892, RWL Papers). The state would not establish a school for the blind until 1900; by that time, Mary Ingalls was thirty-five years old.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

 

 

First Peek at “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography”

­9522-1.1.inddPioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography contains over one hundred images, eight maps, and hundreds of annotations that use primary source documents to enhance Wilder’s words. Earlier this year we announced that Pioneer Girl was in design, and we now have page proofs of the book—one step closer to publication!

Page proofs, or first pages, are the pages of the book laid out by a professional typesetter. For me, they mark a visible change from manuscript to book. The pages I am sharing with you will give you a good idea of what the final book will look like. However, they are from an uncorrected proof and the text and final layout may be different.

At the beginning of the project, we decided to stay true to Wilder’s document, so you 9522-1.1.inddmay notice misspelled words or incorrect grammar in Pioneer Girl. Don’t be too hard on Wilder—this was her rough draft. Anything in brackets, i.e. [ear hurt], is an addition made by the editors of the Pioneer Girl Project to maintain the readability and flow of the document.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography shares the Ingallses’ world and Wilder’s writing with a modern audience. From beginning to end, it is non-fiction, a historical recounting of the pioneer era and the Ingalls family’s journey through it.

—JMc

When a Man (like Almanzo) Goes Courting—1876

As readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books know, courting was a special time in Wilder’s life—a time when the set of her clothes and the condition of her hair were especially important to the young Laura Ingalls. The same is true in Pioneer Girl, where Wilder lovingly describes her poke bonnet, her brown poplin, and her lunatic fringe, among other fashion details. We see Laura primping before the mirror and sewing items of clothing with care. Almanzo’s perspective during the same time period, meanwhile, is left pretty much to the reader’s imagination. Did he primp and preen before he went to visit Miss Ingalls, or was that solely a woman’s prerogative?

Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder, circa 1885. Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association

One of the joys of newspaper research is the light it sheds on the habits and customs of people in different eras. In the course of our work with Pioneer Girl, we came across a wonderful column in the Decorah Iowa Republican of December 8, 1876, that illuminates the ritual of courting as a man experienced it:

We have in our family [at] present a young man who is deeply, we trust successfully, engaged in going a-courting. . . . When Sunday afternoon arrives it is plain to see that something is about to happen. Our young man is fidgety and non-communicative and cannot sit in one place half a minute at a time.  He is continually interviewing his watch and comparing it with the old eight-day, coffin-shaped clock in the corner. He looks in the glass frequently, and draws his forehead locks first back and then forward, and combs them up and puts them down, and is unsatisfied with the effect throughout.

The smell of bay rum and bergamot is painfully apparent. When he shakes out his handkerchief musk is perceptible. His boots shine like mirrors. There is a faint odor of cardamom seeds in his breath when he yawns. He smooths his . . . mustache with affectionate little pats, and feels his . . . side whiskers continually. . . . He tries on all his stock of neckties without finding just the thing; and he has spasms of brushing his coat, that commence with violence and last till one grows nervous for fear the broadcloth will never be able to stand it. . . .

And at seven, he sets forth, clean and tidy from top to toe, looking precisely as if he had just stepped out of a bandbox.

The image is so vivid that one can almost feel the anxiety of a young man like Almanzo as he worried over his appearance.

While allowing that a woman had the same issues in getting ready to greet a suitor, the writer was more sympathetic with the young man, who had to “walk up in the cannon’s mouth” of a young woman’s family, “consisting of father, and mother, and grandmother, and maiden aunt, and half a dozen brothers and sisters, and inquire in a trembling voice: ‘Is Miss Arabella at home?’”  Poor Almanzo.

The Republican column is not just entertaining; it is an invaluable historical resource that provides important clues about male grooming habits during the period, and it also gives modern readers a better appreciation for Almanzo Wilder’s perseverance in courting Miss Ingalls.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

A Day Trip to De Smet

The staff of the Pioneer Girl Project is about evenly divided between the two great classes of humanity. There are the morning people—upstanding folks who wouldn’t mind getting up early with Charles Ingalls to shovel snow off their families—and then there are those who would prefer to chat with the Boasts until the moon rises in the wee small hours. I am one of these latter types; it was with a dull eye that I piled into the car early on a Wednesday morning in May with project director Nancy Tystad Koupal (another like me) and Jennifer McIntyre (not one of us). Soon we were off toward the rising sun on a research pilgrimage to a certain little town on the prairie.

As we traveled along U.S. Highway 14, we stayed generally in sight of the old Chicago & North Western Railway line, which raced across Dakota Territory to the Missouri River in 1879–1880. Charles Ingalls moved west with the railroad, taking a bookkeeping job for a contractor working on this very line.

In the car, we contemplated our goals. Specifically, we had two objectives:

First, we wanted to look at records pertaining to a murder in the Bouchie family.

Second, and more importantly, we wanted to look at various records to see what light they might shed on Laura’s school days as both student and teacher.

And if we had any time left over, perhaps we could twist some hay.

I was fully awake by the time we arrived at De Smet’s high school, where we pored over old school-board minutes. They didn’t extend as far back as we had hoped, and we broke for lunch without having achieved much.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe reconvened at the Kingsbury County Courthouse, a lovely Italianate-influenced structure built in two segments (1889 and 1898) for a fast-growing county. Charles Ingalls worked there at times in various roles, such as justice of the peace and bailiff of the court. Here we hoped to find the records of the county superintendent of schools. Our first stop was the auditor’s office, and from there we were led down to “the vault,” a room I can only describe as the perfect place to read “The Cask of Amontillado” by flashlight. Rusty, musty, and cramped, this is where records go when they are too old to be of any practical use to a county, and there are a lot of them. The room was lined—up, down, and across the middle—with shelves full of often dank and discolored tomes. And in this haystack, we had to find the pin. Never mind; it was game time. Off with the jackets, on with the dust masks, and in we went to divide and conquer.

The ebullient mood of optimism didn’t last long. It turned to strained choruses of “I am as happy as a big sun flower,” &c., &c., and finally to grim resolve, as it became clear that our quarry wasn’t where it should be. Was it possible that the superintendent’s records had been kept in a book that was labeled as something else? We continued to work down the shelves until—

There it was! It had fallen behind a row of completely unrelated record books. We recognized our luck in finding a source were it ought never to have been, but we still had no idea if it would tell us what we wanted to know. Nevertheless, with a jaunty step we took the book into the hallway, donned our cotton gloves, and with Nancy reading the text, Jenny taking notes, and me standing by with a camera, we dived in. I am happy to say that it went a long way to answering many of our questions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe took the book back up to the auditor’s office (“This is a treasure—don’t lose it!”), then continued up the stairs to the clerk of courts, where we were ensconced in the judge’s chambers with the documents we needed.

I wonder what one of the Bouchie women would have written to explain her family’s troubles. Readers will remember Oliv Bouchie as Mrs. Brewster, the woman who got a little too expressive with a butcher knife in the claim shanty where Wilder spent a miserable winter while teaching her first school. But it was not this Bouchie who ended up on trial in 1887 for manslaughter; instead, Oliv’s stepmother-in-law, the mother of Wilder’s students, was one of the defendants. Wilder does not mention this incident, but the records of the case, including the depositions of witnesses, paint a picture of a strange and tense family.

We spent another hour lost in this troubling tale. As the courthouse closed for the day, we stopped for a brief visit behind the scenes at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society to scan some archival images. We did not make any hay twists—but we did photograph one.

And then it was back to Highway 14 and home, a full day of digging behind us and another step closer to the publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.

rgh

“New Characters” in Pioneer Girl

There is nothing quite like seeing a photograph of someone you have read about. Melding the writer’s words with the physical image can give a rush of recognition or, in some cases, wonder. In our research with Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we have worked to find images of the people, places, and events that fill Wilder’s manuscript. Because Wilder wrote about an era when not many people had a camera, the task was, at times, difficult. However, we also had our share of serendipitous moments.

The adorable Masters children and their dog (name unknown). Standing (left to right) Alex and Arthur Masters; sitting (left to right) Vere, Nita, and Claude Masters. From the photo collection of Lucille (Masters) Mone. Used with permission.

The adorable Masters children and their dog (name unknown). Standing (left to right) Alex and Arthur Masters; sitting (left to right) Vere, Nita, and Claude Masters. From the photo collection of Lucille (Masters) Mone. Used with permission.

One such incident came when, through this website, we were able to contact a descendant of Samuel Masters and his son and daughter-in-law George and Maggie Masters. Although Wilder did not put George and Maggie in her book The Long Winter, in her autobiography, the presence of these two boarders and their infant son intensified the Ingallses’ hardships during the winter of 1880–1881. As Wilder documents in Pioneer Girl, Arthur Kingsbury Masters was actually born in the upstairs room of the Ingallses’ home in De Smet during the Masters family’s stay.

While Wilder’s portrayal of the family is not flattering, the extreme winter tested everyone’s endurance and may help to explain her unpleasant memories. Imagine how thin Pa must have been in real life with nine people to feed, compared to the six in the novel. As the photograph shows, George and Maggie Masters would go on to have more children, and George and Charles Ingalls would remain friends, for Masters served as a witness for Ingalls’s 1886 homestead-patent application. And I can certainly say that it was a pleasure to work with the modern-day Masters family.

—JMc