Even before Laura Ingalls Wilder had written the final novel in the Little House series, readers were researching the background of her books. In 1942, the mother of two girls from Kansas City wrote the mayor of De Smet, South Dakota, to ask “if there is really a Silver Lake and a Big Slough here.” Aubrey Sherwood, the editor of the De Smet News, answered the question for the mayor: “The News is happy to vouch for the authenticity of the books by Mrs. Wilder—that she actually experienced the pioneer days here with her family, on the shores of Silver Lake by a large slough, since drained, living on the claim throughout the Hard Winter and many more winters afterward, though many years ago she and her husband and daughter Rose moved to southern Missouri.”1 The editor sent Wilder a copy of the newspaper.
A view of the Big Slough in De Smet, S.Dak., that was so prevalent in Laura’s life
In the same issue, Sherwood, who would be the keeper of the Wilder legacy in De Smet for many years, inadvertently verified another Wilder story, one that did not appear in one of her books until the next year. Under the headline “Traveling the Same Old Prairie Road Brings View of Lakes with Expanse Water,” the editor took readers over the road that Laura and Almanzo travel on many a summer afternoon buggy ride in These Happy Golden Years, published in 1943. Lakes Henry and Thompson, which had been nearly dry through the 1930s, were full once again, Sherwood announced, adding: “If you like, you can drive around the west side of the lake [Henry] by the old road that winds from the west point to the old Grothe farm, and on up on the bluff, and then down into the meadow and south to the road that goes between the lakes. It is the same old winding prairie road. . . . [I]t is worth while to stop on the bluff to look over the lake from this highest bank.” A month later, Wilder, who was writing These Happy Golden Years at the time, requested another copy of the paper “telling of the Old Prairie Road” because she had sent hers on to Lane and “would like to have a copy to keep.”2
Nancy Tystad Koupal
1.) “Is There a Silver Lake? Asked after Children Read Mrs. Wilder’s Books,” De Smet News, July 16, 1942.
2.) Wilder to Sherwood, Aug. 17, 1942, IIA 59, Box F, Bell Collection, Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, S.Dak.
Teenage girls “dragging main” in 1957. Nina Leen, Getty Images
When I was a teenager, my friends and I spent endless hours “dragging main” in my hometown of Mitchell, South Dakota. Sometimes we paired off with our boyfriends, but many times a bunch of girls piled into a friend’s car, say a 1957 Ford, or a borrowed family car—a Chevy sedan with no style whatsoever—and drove from the railroad depot on the south end of Main Street to the bowling alley on the north end in endless circles. We might stop window-to-window with friends in the bowling alley parking lot and chew over the latest gossip or drive into the root beer stand for burgers and fries, but mostly we cruised up and down main looking for our boyfriends, or hoping for a peek at our latest heartthrobs, or speculating about who was going with whom. In our little town, even the sheriff and his deputy could be seen in the parade of cars on the main drag, keeping an eye on us. As a teenager, I never tired of this activity. I thought it was a product of the automobile era until I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl and learned that the practice was much older than that.
Cutter in Cedar Creek, Dakota Territory. South Dakota State Historical Society
Rather than automobiles, Wilder and her friends employed cutters and sleighs to ride up and down Calumet Avenue, the main thoroughfare of De Smet, South Dakota, during the winter months. “With all the rest of the gay crowd,” Wilder reported, she and Almanzo “were going the length of the street, around a circle on the prairie when the street ended, back down the length of the street, around a circle at the other end, and repeat, laughing and shouting from one sleigh to another.”1 When transferred to These Happy Golden Years, this appealing image led Wilder’s literary agent to comment that he “would like to go back to the days when the Sunday sport was to drive up and down Main Street in a cutter with your best girl tucked snugly in beside you.”2
In 2003, a writer for Deseret News in Utah noted that dragging or “cruising” main had “been passed down for generations” as a “staple of social life in the small rural towns.”3 The ritual, which “involved driving a central stretch of road in loops,” had become “a rite of passage.”4 Whether the participants drove automobiles, sleighs, or buggies, the activity itself always involved socializing while driving up and down the main street in endless circles. Dragging main may have reflected the fact that small towns offered little for young people to do. Driving back and forth on the main thoroughfare allowed them to take over public space and make it their own. For my part, I recall my endless circles of Mitchell’s Main Street with fondness, remembering old friends and good times, just as Wilder remembered “that charmed circle” of De Smet sleigh riders.5
Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, forthcoming 2021), p. 376. See also Wilder, These Happy Golden Years, 1953 ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1943), p. 92.
George T. Bye to Wilder, Sept. 29, 1942, James Oliver Brown Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York, N.Y.
Jason Olson, “Dragging Main,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), Aug. 21, 2003.
Andrea Tudhope, “Hey Small-Town Kansas, Whatever Happened to Cruising,” KCUR.89.3, Oct. 20, 2015, kcur.org.
Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, Aug. 17, 1938, Box 13, file 194, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library,
When I was young, white bread—the softer, the better—was all I ate, but as an adult I have grown fond of nutty brown bread. As I crunch away, I imagine that its gritty texture is similar to the whole-wheat bread that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family ate during the Hard Winter of 1880–1881. Of course, Wilder ground her wheat in a coffee mill, and her mother used sourdough starter to make it into bread, while I have the luxury of grabbing a prepackaged loaf off the grocery-store shelf. Wilder’s brown bread was a triumph over privation; mine is a matter of choice.
Advertisement for coffee mill featuring a balance wheel, 1888. Alamy
When Wilder’s family turned to making bread from hand-ground wheat in early 1881, almost everyone in and around De Smet was having to do the same. But it was not as automatic as Wilder made it seem in her novel The Long Winter, where Ma simply “reached to the top of the cupboard and took down the coffee mill” (p. 194). Such devices were at a premium in De Smet and do not appear to have been standard equipment in every pioneer home. Luckily, homesteader Delos Perry and his family had two: “One had a balance wheel and we took that one to town and they used it for their city flour mill. The other one we put up at home and the neighbors ground several bushels of wheat in it.”1 The “city flour mill” appears to have been in Daniel Loftus’s grocery store. In February, the Kingsbury County News noted that Loftus “makes a good miller,” having turned out “the first wheat ground in De Smet.”2
Resident Neva Whaley Harding reported that her neighbor Robert Boast shared both his seed wheat and his coffee mill. Harding, whose family made muffins from the whole wheat flour the Boasts supplied, observed in 1930, “Not knowing so much about the beneficial qualities of whole wheat then as we do now we were not so appreciative as we should have been.”3
That surprised me. Harding was aware of the benefits of whole wheat in the thirties when I was still eating processed white bread into the 1960s? Well, not surprising as it turns out. By the late 1920s, “the modest, ordinary loaf of white bread had been accused of some extraordinarily immodest deeds,” such as causing a whole list of diseases including anemia, cancer, and diabetes, as well as “criminal delinquency.”4 White bread resurged in popularity after it was enriched during the World War II era, but today whole grains are once again in the ascendancy.
Nancy Tystad Koupal
Perry to Editor, De Smet News, Mar. 17, 1922.
Quoted in Aubrey Sherwood, Beginnings of De Smet: “Little Town on the Prairie” Locale of Six Books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (De Smet: By the Author, 1979), .
Harding, “Daughter of Homesteader,” De Smet News, May 30, 1930.
Aaron Bobrow-Strain, “Kills a Body Twelve Ways: Bread Fear and the Politics of ‘What to Eat,’” Gastronomica 7 (Summer 2007): 45.
While Nellie Oleson is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s archrival and the antagonist of many of the Little House novels, Eliza Jane Wilder also plays a spoiler role. In Little Town on the Prairie, Eliza Jane as “Miss Wilder,” the teacher, and Nellie as teacher’s pet team up to make Laura and Carrie Ingalls’s schooldays a misery. As a result, readers find Eliza Jane hard to like. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder explained that Eliza Jane “was well educated” but “had no idea how to govern a school. She had no sense of fairness and was uncertain as to temper. What she allowed one day she might punish severely the next.”1 In researching Eliza Jane for Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, I have had the opportunity to gain some insight into “Miss Wilder.” In proving up on her homestead in 1886, Eliza Jane Wilder painstakingly penned three lengthy versions of her experiences to justify time spent away from her claim, including her departure to Minnesota in 1882 after her disastrous teaching experience in the De Smet school. Based on her own accounts, Miss Wilder must have been, at the least, a distracted teacher.
Eliza Jane Wilder. Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum
To begin with, Eliza Jane had multiple responsibilities. She was farming a homestead claim a mile or so west of De Smet, planting and monitoring a tree claim farther north, and often taking care of her six-year-old niece, Laura Wilder Howard’s daughter. Then, in August 1882, Eliza Jane recorded, “the director of the school board in De Smet came to me urging me to take the town school as no good teacher could be found. . . . In September my sister came and brought baby, other friends came at the same time. And I found I could not entertain guests, teach school, and attend to household duties [together] with a walk of three miles per day. I therefore rented rooms in town for a time. But at the close of the school term I found my health so poor that I dared not renew the engagement for the remainder of the year.”2
In a subsidiary account written to the land commissioner in Washington, D.C., Wilder claimed that many De Smet parents “requested” the school board president “to secure my services if possible,” continuing: “I knew my strength was failing and feared but finally accepted the position for one term. . . . School, home, and farm work together with exposure to the harsh cold winds told rapidly upon a system that had had no rest from toil often beyond its strength for nearly two years. . . . I closed school two days before the expiration of the term. Worn out.”3 In her third telling of events, Eliza reiterated the message: “When the term of school ended I was worn out. And unfitted for any labor.”4 After Thanksgiving 1882, Eliza Jane and her sister Laura went to Marshall, Minnesota, where Laura and her children stayed with a third sister, Alice Wilder Baldwin, and Eliza visited other family and friends until the spring of 1883, slowly regaining her health.
In her own accounts, Eliza Jane often comes across as self-serving and egocentric, but it is also clear that she was a woman of amazing energy and focus who valued friendship and family. She is the Eliza Jane of Farmer Boy—bossy yet tenderhearted. As his older sister, she goads Almanzo into throwing a blacking brush at her but then patches the blotch it made on the parlor wall with wallpaper scraps and flour paste. Eliza Jane may be of “uncertain temper,” but she is also the one who tells Almanzo: “I guess I was aggravating, but I didn’t mean to be. You’re the only little brother I’ve got” (p. 227).
Nancy Tystad Koupal
Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 246.
Eliza Jane Wilder (EJW) to J. F. Chaffee, (Dec. 1886), Homestead Entry File #2263, Land Entry Files, U.S. Department of the Interior, Records of the General Land Office, Record Group 49, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
EJW to “Hon. Land Commissioner,” ibid.
EJW, Homesteading Account, [ca. 1886], Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, S.Dak.
Snow has fallen softly all day, and my thoughts have turned to keeping warm and burrowing in for the winter. My freezer is full of chopped tomatoes from my vegetable garden, stacked alongside gallons of tomato juice made according to my mother’s recipe. All summer long, my family and I feasted on cold soups, especially gazpacho replete with cucumbers, peppers, onions, celery, and toasted bread cubes. But now, as the temperature dives, my thoughts turn to hot bean soup and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Prior to the Hard Winter of 1880–1881, the Ingalls family painstakingly cut their garden plot from the tough prairie sod on their claim outside of De Smet. As we learn in Pioneer Girl, they harvested a meager amount of potatoes, which the family supplemented with milk from their cow. They moved to town for the winter so that they could acquire supplies from the local shopkeepers, who relied on the railroad to replenish their shelves. Once snow blocked the trains, food shortages began. In The Long Winter, the Ingalls family’s garden yielded a more satisfying but still scanty harvest of five sacks of potatoes, “lots of turnips,” six ripe pumpkins, nearly a bushel of beans, ten shocks of corn, and enough tomatoes to make a gallon of sweet preserves and “almost two quarts of green tomato pickle” (pp. 28–30). The stretching of this limited food supply over eight months provides a good deal of the drama both in Pioneer Girl and the novel, which one reviewer called a story “without much of a plot” but nevertheless “a good pioneer record.”1
Starting with her creation of a green pumpkin pie, readers watch Caroline Ingalls nurse her small harvest and a few store-bought staples (tea, flour, sugar, salt codfish, salt pork, canned oysters) through the Hard Winter of 1880–1881. Even during the early October blizzard, when supplies seem plentiful, Ma makes a batch of beans serve double duty as both soup for lunch and baked beans with salt pork for supper. The domestic details punctuate a cold and blustery day with warmth and coziness: “Now and then [Ma] spooned up a few beans and blew on them. When their skins split and curled, she drained the soda-water from the kettle and filled it again with hot water. . . . The cold crept in from the corners of the shanty. . . . But the steamy smell of boiling beans . . . seemed to make the air warmer. At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove” (Long Winter, pp. 39–40). As the winter deepens, bean soup becomes a distant memory as the family’s rations dwindle to a single whole wheat biscuit per person or a bowl of mush with water.
With temperatures headed into the single digits this past week, it seems that the winter of 2020–2021 has started early here in South Dakota. I think I’ll soak a batch of beans tonight.
Nancy Tystad Koupal
Nebraska Education Journal, Feb. 1941, quoted in “Copies of Reviews of ‘The Long Winter,’” Box 15, file 241, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
Last year about this time, we reported that the Pioneer Girl Project team was hard at work on Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts. And we have made progress, laying out the various sections of the manuscript as we complete work on them. Much remains to be done, however, and effective the first of July 2020, I will begin to focus closely on completing that book and the one that will follow: Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction.
I am leaving my position as director and editor-in-chief of the South Dakota Historical Society Press and as director of the State Historical Society’s Research and Publishing office. I will continue as director and editor-in-chief of the Pioneer Girl Project. As you might suspect, wearing all those hats has kept me rather too busy to focus on the Pioneer Girl Project. That is about to change, and I am looking forward to the transition.
Illustration for By the Shores of Silver Lake, drawn by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle, 1939
I realized how germaphobic I had become when I found myself wincing as I reread the opening chapters of By the Shores of Silver Lake. In chapter 3, Ma and the Ingalls girls board a passenger train for the trip from Walnut Grove to Tracy, Minnesota. Looking around at the railroad car and its inhabitants, Laura notices that a drinking fountain of sorts is available at one end. She watches a tall man with a bobbing Adam’s apple drink deeply from a cup and decides to check it out. A “fascinating” spigot and drain with a shelf for the cup lead her to drink her fill from the selfsame vessel before refilling it “part way, in order not to spill it” (p. 24), and carrying it back for Carrie and Grace to drink. Gasp. Think of the droplets they are sharing. But it gets worse.
Once the family arrives at the end of the line, they go to the hotel for dinner. They wash up at a communal wash basin, where a pitcher held “only a little fresh water for each of them.” A twenty-second handwashing routine is clearly not in play here. After a soapless rinse, they wipe off on a roller towel, the ends of which were “sewed together and it ran around on its roller so that everyone could find a dry place.” Freshened up, Ma and the girls head into the dining room, where “some how Ma found empty chairs,” and they joined the many men “sitting in a row at the long table” (p. 33). No social distancing whatsoever!
By chapter 5, the family’s ever-present danger of exposure to disease on top of the current stream of current Covid-19 news has exhausted me, and I put the book down to read another day.
John E. Miller, historian and Wilder scholar, died on May 1, 2020, well before he finished the work he had outlined for himself. He had an active mind that found the Midwest, especially the history of its small towns and the people who called them home, endlessly fascinating. He studied Laura Ingalls Wilder’s De Smet and most of the communities along U. S. Highway 14 in South Dakota. Small-town residents who distinguished themselves in art, architecture, entrepreneurship, or, like Wilder, literature, piqued his historical curiosity, as did big-picture concepts such as democracy, literacy, and transportation. Miller, who received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin, taught twentieth-century American history and other history courses at South Dakota State University for thirty years. He became a full-time researcher and writer in 2003. Prominent among his many books are three about Wilder: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town: Where History and Literature Meet (1994); Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (1998); and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: Authorship, Place, Time, and Culture (2008).
John E. Miller speaking at Laurapalooza, 2019
Unlike many South Dakotans who met Miller during his years as a history professor, I was never his student. Instead, I proudly served as one of his editors, beginning with his first article on Wilder back in 1986. “Place and Community in the Little Town on the Prairie: De Smet in 1883” appeared in South Dakota History, Volume 16, no. 4, and was the start of a professional relationship between the two of us that extended for almost thirty-five years. We sat on panels about everything from Wilder to George McGovern to publishing in South Dakota. Miller, who was also a shutterbug, followed up any such events with pictures so that I have a photographic record of many of these occasions, including the LauraPalooza last summer in Wisconsin. In recent months, Miller and I spoke several times over the telephone about research and writing that he was planning to do. At 75 years old, he still had much he wanted to accomplish.
Miller left us with a lot to celebrate, not least of which are two additional articles in South Dakota History that feature De Smet or Wilder. His “End of an Era: De Smet High School Class of 1912” appeared in 1990 and explores the close-knit nature of high-school activities in the Little Town on the Prairie. “American Indians in the Fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” published in 2000, explores a topic that is still much discussed today. When asked in 2014 why he had gotten involved in Wilder studies, Miller said that his work grew “incrementally and serendipitously over time,” but that he “saw the Wilder books as a way to get some insight into the life and culture of small towns and the Midwest.”1 In 2017, he shared his analysis of Wilder as a midwesterner in an essay and blog for Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Thank you, John, for all your insights into Wilder and the region. We wish there had been time for much more.
In publishing, timing is everything. Take, for instance, the case of William Holmes McGuffey. In the early 1830s, a Cincinnati-based publishing firm asked the famed educator Catherine Beecher—who had moved to Ohio to advocate for frontier schoolteachers—to write a set of schoolbooks. She declined but recommended McGuffey, a Presbyterian minister and philosophy professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The resulting textbooks, commonly referred to as McGuffey Readers, were wildly popular, collectively selling more copies than any book other than the Bible over the course of the nineteenth century. In the process, they reshaped school methods and informed students’ understanding of the world.1
Laura Ingalls Wilder was likely one of the millions of nineteenth-century Americans that picked up a McGuffey Reader. In the Wisconsin section of Pioneer Girl, Wilder described being “horrified” after reading a story in an unnamed schoolbook that began with the line, “Laura was a glutton.” “I could hardly be comforted,” she wrote, “even when [her mother] said the story did not mean me, and that I need not be a glutton even though my name was Laura.”2 The story Wilder referenced first appeared in an 1828 issue of Lydia Maria Child’s educational journal The Juvenile Miscellany. Child, who became a well-known abolitionist and advocate for American Indian rights, wrote many of the journal’s stories, including “Little Laura,” which began reaching a wider audience in 1836, when McGuffey reprinted it in his Second Eclectic Reader.3 In that volume, the tale begins: “Laura is a greedy girl. Indeed she is quite a glutton.” The author then contrasts Laura’s intemperate eating habits with those of several animals, each of which practice restraint and balance their meals with copious physical activity. The narrative ends: “I do not love little girls that eat too much. I do not think they will have such rosy cheeks, or such bright eyes, or such sweet lips, or such happy tempers, as those who eat less. Do you, my little readers?”4 Leading questions of this sort peppered the McGuffey Readers, which aimed to mold students’ characters while enhancing their reading and writing skills.
“The Greedy Girl,” McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Reader, 1920
While turn-of-the-century progressive educators would deride McGuffey’s pedagogical and moral style as old-fashioned, many at the time considered the readers’ deliberate approach to teaching literacy innovative. McGuffey compiled four volumes—his brother later produced two more—calibrated to children at different stages of their education, furthering the then-novel notion that students should be separated into different grades. The books, which often doubled as history texts, brimmed with patriotic tales and brief sketches of national figures.5 The first two readers went to press in the early years of the common school movement. The Yankee reformers who spearheaded this crusade aimed to make a basic education free to all students. They also worked to create statewide departments of education that would unify standards for curriculum and teacher training. As the reformers’ vision spread, so too did the readers. Revised versions appeared regularly, helping the books stay relevant in an increasingly crowded market. For the bulk of the nineteenth century, the readers were a fixture in schools and homes across the nation.6
Faithful adherents continued to buy the readers well into the twentieth century. A school board in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, even voted to readopt the texts in 1961, a decision that sparked considerable controversy. Around the same time, a “back-to-basics” educational movement began touting the readers as superior to modern textbooks, which largely eschewed the rote instruction and heavy-handed moralizing that characterized McGuffey’s tomes.7 Regardless of whether or not the readers have stood the test of time either in terms of content or function, they hold a key place in the history of American education.
1. William J. Reese, America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), pp. 30–31; Johann N. Neem, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), pp. 39–40.
2. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 50. The influence of the readers can be glimpsed elsewhere in the Wisconsin section of Pioneer Girl. In several editions of the Second Reader, “The Greedy Girl” directly precedes a story titled “The Guide-Post,” which resembles Wilder’s account of Pa mistaking a burned stump for a bear while walking home in the night (PGAA, pp. 46–47). In “The Guide-Post,” however, a boy mistakes the titular sign for a ghost. In both cases, the lesson was to not let one’s imagination get the best of them, a standard McGuffey trope.
3. Julia Maria Child, “Little Laura,” Juvenile Miscellany, Nov. 1828, pp. 203–5.
4. William Holmes McGuffey, ed., The Eclectic Second Reader (Cincinnati: Truman & Smith, 1836), pp. 23–24.
5. Neem, Democracy’s Schools, pp. 41, 44–46, 49–50.
6. For the main achievements of the common school movement, see Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780–1860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982), pp. ix–x.
7. For more on this episode, see Campbell F. Scribner, The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016), pp. 141, 145–53.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s earliest memory of hearing a railroad whistle is documented in the Minnesota section of her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript. “I thought it was calling me,” Wilder claimed of her initial response to the engine’s distinctive wail.1 In one of the revised versions of the manuscript, however, her daughter and editor Rose Wilder Lane aimed to make this moment more instructive. In that version, Wilder’s father uses the train sighting to inform his children of the “building of railroads across the Great American Desert,” a grand project indicative of the fact that the family lived in “an age of wonderful invention and enterprise.”2 This bit of exposition reflected the way that many early twentieth century historians had come to view the settlement of the Great Plains. Prior to the devastation of the Dust Bowl, Americans’ ability to thrive in this allegedly uninhabitable region was a testament to their pioneering spirit.
A hand-colored wood engraving depicting settlers moving west across the Great American Desert, ca. 1875. Library of Congress
Edwin James coined the phrase “Great American Desert” to describe the vast prairies of present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska in his chronicle of Stephen H. Long’s exploration of the region in 1820. James proclaimed this area “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture for their subsistence.” Zebulon Pike had come to a similar conclusion following his journey across the Great Plains in 1806, declaring that Americans would have to “leave the prairies . . . to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines of the country.”3 Clearly, these early explorers had little knowledge or appreciation of the ways that Plains Indian tribes used the land. Further, these descriptions had a limited impact, as only a few northeasterners bought into this view of the region. Still, this expansive “desert”—a term used at the time to describe any undeveloped lands—appeared on at least a few mid-nineteenth century maps.4
While interlopers from the verdant northeast balked, those living closer to the Mississippi River viewed the region’s prospects favorably. Following the Civil War, railroad expansion and a humid weather cycle made the area appear ripe for settlement. Boosters touted the Great Plains as ideal for farming, claiming that the recent spate of favorable weather proved rain “follows the plow.”5 In an 1878 report to the United States Congress, however, geologist John Wesley Powell cautioned that the area beyond the one-hundredth meridian—which comprised both the “sub-humid” or semiarid Great Plains and the arid lands west of the Rockies—could not be farmed without irrigation and would see periods of debilitating drought.6
Few heeded Powell’s warnings; instead, many romanticized the Great Plains as a man-made garden, using the idea of the “Great American Desert” to suggest that hardy pioneers had conquered what was once thought to be a barren land.7 Lane’s edits reflected that celebratory trend and foreshadowed the family’s move west to Dakota Territory, where they would settle between the ninety-seventh and ninety-eighth meridians. Belying boosters’ promises, however, their success as homesteaders would be uneven to say the least. Moreover, Lane’s 1930 revisions came at the beginning of a sustained drought that coincided with the worst economic downturn in the nation’s history. All told, the 1930s were a disastrous decade for farmers in the region. Americans, it turns out, still had a lot to learn about life on the Plains.
1. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 62.
2. Wilder, “Pioneer Girl—Revised” [Brandt Revised], p. 15, Box 14, file 207, Laura Ingalls Wilder Series, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
3. Both quoted in The American West: A New Interpretive History, by Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 160.
4. Martyn J. Bowden, “Great American Desert,” in Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, ed. David J. Wishart (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), p. 389.
5. David M. Emmons, Garden in the Grasslands: Boomer Literature of the Central Great Plains (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), p. 128.
6. Donald Worster, A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 356, 480–81.
7. In contrast, the historian Walter Prescott Webb would use the term “Great American Desert” in his classic 1931 study The Great Plains to argue that many aspects of the settlement of the plains had been misguided. Bowden, “Great American Desert,” p. 389.