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

Rare Charles Ingalls Letter Discovered

In working with newspapers as we conducted background research for Pioneer Girl, we ran across a letter, dated February 2, 1880, from Charles Ingalls to the Brookings County Press that has gone unrecorded until now.

In the 1870s and 1880s, newspapers relied on “correspondents” for news of outlying towns. For example, the Redwood Gazette of Redwood Falls, Minnesota, published newsy letters on a weekly basis about Walnut Grove from a number of different writers, one of whom was a member of the Ensign family. The Ingallses lived briefly with the Ensigns when they moved back to Walnut Grove from Iowa in 1877.

In the short period before De Smet acquired its own newspaper in the spring of 1880, Charles Ingalls appears to have tried his hand at corresponding with the Brookings County Press. Appearing in the February 12, 1880, issue, Ingalls’s letter was headlined “From Kingsbury County” and is datelined “De Smet, Feb. 2d. 1880.” It is signed “C. S. I.”  At first glance, this signature does not appear to match Charles P. Ingalls, but several clues indicate that it actually does. First, De Smet had few residents in February 1880 and only one man with the initials “C. I.” Second, the letter mentions another county resident, “W. H. Seck,” who can only be W. H. Peck, the man whose livestock Walter Ogden, a boarder at the Ingalls home, had been caring for through the winter. Clearly, the typesetter was misreading Ingalls’s capital “P” for a capital “S.”

But it is the content of the letter that most clearly reveals its writer:

From Kingsbury County.

                                  De Smet, Feb. 2d., 1880 .

   Editor Press.—Thinking a few lines from this vicinity might be interesting to your readers I take the liberty of sending them to you.

   De Smet is situated in the center of Kingsbury county, on the Chicago & N. W. R. R. and on the bank of Silver Lake. It is surrounded by as fine a country as can be found in the west. There are some claims to be had here yet; some very fine chances for stock-raising.

   Times are lively here again. W. H. Seck has removed his herd of stock from this place to his homestead 15 miles east. D. I. Egleston and party gave us a call last week. They seemed very much pleased with the country and its prospects; they were a jolly good natured party and seemed determined to have a good time. We hope they will call again.

   Trappers and hunters have been on the go to and from the “Jim” all the winter. They seem to have had a poor success in both vocations.

   The wolves, foxes, coyotes, and keeping warm have made lively times for your correspondent this winter; he has made a successful warfare and hopes to bring more stirring news when next he enters your sanctum.                         

C. S. I.

As Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels and Pioneer Girl clearly show, Charles Ingalls did successfully trap foxes and coyotes, among other animals, during the winter of 1879–1880. Having settled at De Smet, rather than thirty-some miles farther west on the James, or Jim, River, Ingalls was not only broadcasting his own prowess but advertising the greater bounty of the De Smet vicinity at the same time.

—Nancy Tystad Koupal