What’s in a Name? The Confusing Case of the Gopher

Gophers are a common sight on the prairies of North America. Well, maybe not gophers per se; most of the critters that plains dwellers call gophers are technically ground squirrels. During my formative years in Montana, for instance, the quarry during our ostensible gopher hunting outings were Richardson’s ground squirrels. This conflation—or perhaps confusion—has deep roots. In The Discontented Gopher, L. Frank Baum’s 1905 fable inspired by his time living in Aberdeen, South Dakota, the title character is actually a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Laura Ingalls Wilder, meanwhile, described the same species as “little reddish brown and black striped gophers” in the Dakota section of her 1930 autobiography Pioneer Girl (p. 231).

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An artist’s rendering of the seldom-seen pocket gopher from 1892. New York Public Library

So what, if not ground squirrels, are gophers? Technically, only pocket gophers—thirty-five distinctive species of which live throughout North and Central America—fit the bill. Some linguists posit that the term gopher stems from the French word gaufre, meaning honeycomb or waffle, perhaps a reference to their intricate burrows. While scientists did not name the species until 1821, Meriwether Lewis and William A. Clark observed the distinctive mounds and tunnels of the northern pocket gopher while traveling through present-day North Dakota in 1805. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of her family’s stint in Minnesota during the mid-1870s detailed the plains pocket gopher’s penchant for devouring crops. She noted that the animal carried away food “in the pockets in its cheeks” (Pioneer Girl, p. 76). Indeed, the pocket gopher’s expansive, fur-lined cheeks are its most distinct physical feature, hence the “pocket.”

While Minnesota had already been dubbed “the gopher state” by the time the Ingallses arrived, its nickname references neither the animal’s abundance nor its proclivity for crop destruction, but rather an 1857 political cartoon. The cartoonist derisively depicted members of the state legislature who had supported a hefty bond to aid railroad development as gophers pulling a train. Tellingly, the varmints in that drawing—and early renditions of Goldy the Gopher, the University of Minnesota’s mascot—more closely resembled thirteen-lined ground squirrels.

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The popularity of this 1857 cartoon by R. O. Sweeny led Minnesota to be known as the Gopher State. Minnesota Historical Society

While referring to ground squirrels as gophers is nothing new, there are important biological distinctions to consider. Pocket gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, while ground squirrels—a category which includes chipmunks, prairie dogs, and marmots, to name just a few—belong to the Scuridae or squirrel family. By most measures, ground squirrels are more charismatic than pocket gophers. Pocket gophers rarely appear above ground and use their long teeth and front claws—certainly not the most attractive features—to burrow. Ground squirrels, in contrast, rely on their powerful hind legs. Lastly, pocket gophers are active year-round, whereas most ground squirrels hibernate during the winter.

Despite the consternation they cause farmers, gardeners, and, as in the classic film Caddyshack, golf course groundskeepers, these burrowing rodents—whatever you choose to call them—play an important ecological role. Their digging aerates and enriches the prairie soil and stimulates the growth of native flora. Predators also depend on them as a food source. For instance, the ongoing recovery of the once nearly extinct black-footed ferret owes a great deal to parallel efforts to protect prairie dog towns. While ground squirrels and gophers continue to be regarded as pests, they deserve a place in any telling of the history of the Northern Great Plains, and they will surely play a role in its future.

Cody Ewert

Prairie Girl

In our recent work on the revised texts of Wilder’s Pioneer Girl, we have had some pleasant discoveries that make the job enjoyable. For example, in trying to determine why the Brandt manuscript is missing page 2, we discovered that the Lane Papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library also contain a six-page Pioneer Girl fragment, page 2 of which fits seamlessly into that hole in Brandt. Sweet!

Careful perusal of the fragment shows that its pages 3 through 6 are exact duplicates of the same pages of the Brandt manuscript. And, in fact, Hoover archivist Nancy DeHamer pointed out that pages 3 through 6 of Brandt were actually carbon copies, while this fragment contained the originals. Because page 2 fit so exactly into the hole in Brandt, we reasoned that these six fragmentary pages are actually the first edited rendition of Wilder’s Pioneer Girl; only the title page is different.

prairiegirlAnd what a difference it is! The name of this fragment is “Prairie Girl.” Lane has written “Pioneer Girl” above it and added Wilder’s name in longhand, a change that was duly made on the title page of the Brandt manuscript. She also made two small corrections in the text, changing Wilder’s passive voice, “sister Mary and I were put to bed,” into active voice, “she [Ma] put my sister Mary and me to bed.” Such is what a good copyeditor does. More intriguing was the title change.

Had Wilder originally called her manuscript “Prairie Girl” and had Lane changed it? Or had Wilder left it unnamed and objected to Lane’s assignment of “Prairie Girl”? Or had one or the other of them decided that “Prairie Girl” was not appropriate for the Wisconsin portion of the manuscript and substituted “Pioneer Girl,” which covered all geographical frontiers. My guess is the latter. Wilder truly loved the prairie, its flowers and wildlife, and, I think, considered herself a prairie girl even after moving to the Missouri Ozarks. Later, as you recall, she planned to call her last book in the Little House series “Prairie Girl,” giving that title to her preliminary outline. When that outline generated two books rather than one, “Prairie Girl” as a title again fell through the cracks in favor of Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years. So, I lean toward the idea that Wilder originally titled her memoir “Prairie Girl” and changed it to the more generic “Pioneer Girl,” but we will never know for sure.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

Wisconsin’s Big Woods—where and what was it?

In Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, we will be exploring questions that Wilder left largely unanswered in her handwritten autobiography. For example, the Big Woods, which Wilder said her father delineated as “just north of us a ways” (PGAA, p. 27), creeps closer and closer to the Charles Ingalls cabin in Lane’s editing of the revised texts until it finally encompasses it in the opening line of Little House in the Big Woods. Lane’s edits enhanced the family’s isolation in the forest, but Wilder and her father had been trying to say something about the difference in the woods themselves. To find out what the Big Woods were and where they began, we looked at histories and statewide forest assessments based on surveyor’s notes to find that the wooded areas around Pepin originally abounded in oak, elm, and maple trees. Settlers like the Ingalls families cleared these forests selectively to make room for home plots and farms. They released their pigs into the woods to eat acorns and other tree nuts.

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Group of loggers with axes among newly cut logs near Rice Lake, 1872. Wisconsin Historical Society

The “Big Woods,” in contrast, were something else. Wilder’s father was referring to the extensive pine forests that began roughly thirty miles up the Chippewa River and extended north to Minnesota, Canada, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Both the Chippewa and Saint Croix rivers, which enter the Mississippi near Lake Pepin, became shipping routes for the felled trees, and massive log drives would have been a common sight in the early 1870s, when the boomtowns of Chicago and Minneapolis provided a steady market for lumber. In the next two decades, railroads transported carloads of hewn boards to western settlements like Walnut Grove, De Smet, and beyond. It is a sad fact that in the 1850s, the Big Woods had contained roughly one-hundred-fifty billion board feet of red and white pine; by 1898, only seventeen billion remained. Tellingly, a recreation of the Ingalls cabin near Pepin stands next to a corn field, a reminder of the extent to which settlement and market forces reshaped Wisconsin’s landscape.

Nancy Tystad Koupal and Cody Ewert

LauraPalooza, July 7–10, 2019

I am just back from my first-ever LauraPalooza, sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association (LIWLRA) and held this year in Onalaska, Wisconsin, just over an hour away from Pepin, Wisconsin. The people involved in planning and implementing the conference, including but not limited to LIWLRA president Barbara Mayes Boustead, vice-president Patti Collins, and conference co-chairs Karen Pearce and Melanie Stringer, did an outstanding job. My fellow keynote speakers Bill Anderson, Caroline Fraser, and John Miller all provided meaty portions of Wilder scholarship and lore, even though the presence of the film crew for the American Masters series could be intimidating at times.koupalpresentationi.jpg

The level of presentation throughout the event was outstanding, from fiddler Mary Pat Kleven, who shared her music and her understanding of midwestern fiddling, to Cindy Wilson, whose research in the Chicago & North Western Historical Society archives illuminated the railroad’s snow-moving activities during the winter of 1880–1881. Discussion of the life of Grace Ingalls, the preservation of Laura’s little towns, the history of drought on the South Dakota prairies, time and place in Wilder’s works, diverse voices, quilts, fashion, the psychology behind the relationship of Wilder and Lane, and the stopping points of Wilder’s journey to Missouri made for three days of learning and enjoyment.

Bill Anderson shared his expertise often during the conference and especially during a trip to Pepin on the afternoon of July 10. The Little House Wayside cabin, of course, is a reproduction on the land near Pepin that Charles Ingalls owned in the 1870s, but no one is any longer sure of the homesite location. Anderson, who had visited the site in the early 1970s before creation of the wayside, shared his best understanding of where the cabin originally stood.

The next LauraPalooza will be held somewhere near Malone, New York (Almanzo Wilder’s birthplace), in 2022. I hope to be there.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

Summer 2019: Progress Report

At this point, the Pioneer Girl Project team is hard at work on its third book—Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, which concentrates on Rose Wilder Lane’s editing of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography. This book will present the texts of the three surviving typescript versions of Wilder’s autobiography side by side, with a fourth column for annotations. The design is tricky, and our long-suffering designer spent weeks laying out the Kansas section of the book in various ways so that we could determine how to insert annotation numbers and how much room there would be for both notes and photographs. These determinations had to be made before we could go any further in preparing the manuscript. When the new book is complete, the reader will be able to use it with Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography on one side and the relevant Little House book on the other, making a total of five columns of textual material for readers to compare.

And what can the reader expect to see? By comparing the original Pioneer Girl text with the Brandt typescript, for example, one can discern some of Lane’s working patterns as editor. In fact, it is possible to determine just when she began to toy with the idea of creating a children’s book written in third person. That point occurs on page 10 of the Brandt text, where she takes a pencil and changes Wilder’s “I” to “Laura” or “she,” and “we” to “they.” The annotations will alert readers to such editorial changes and what they mean.

The book will also have history components. Background essays about the areas in which the Ingalls family settled—Kansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Dakota Territory—will provide brief overviews of elements that formed the backdrop of Wilder’s world but are not explicitly mentioned in her texts. In Wisconsin, for instance, we talk about the rapacious lumber industry, the destructiveness of fires, the unhappy results of treaties with American Indian tribes, and other things that did not really intrude on the consciousness of a five-year-old girl.

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A man stands outside the Fort Bennett post office. South Dakota State Historical Society

In the annotations, where possible, we will also add more background. First, we plan to explore puzzles that we did not sort out in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, and second, we will look at details introduced within the three revised texts themselves. For example, the Kansas section of the Bye text includes the speculation that no one had missed the people the Benders killed because “all that country was so far beyond the reach of postal service that no one was troubled when no word came back from men who went into it.” The plain fact is, the mail accompanied settlers everywhere on the frontier. Independence, Kansas, already had a post office when the Benders settled in that region in 1870 or 1871. Labette County, where the serial killers lived, had at least one postal branch by 1868 and another by 1869. In that era, post offices were often housed in a postmaster’s home.

As we continue our work on the revised texts, we will begin to share our research finds and update our progress via this blog. In so doing, we hope to give insight into our work while offering sneak peeks at the new book. Thank you for reading.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

George A. Tann and Black History in the West

George A. Tann’s gravesite in Independence, Kansas, identifies him as “a negro doctor that doctored the Ingalls for malaria in 1870.” Tann, who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War before uprooting to the Osage Diminished Indian Reserve from his native Pennsylvania, remains tied to the Ingalls family in popular memory because of his brief appearance in Pioneer Girl and Little House on the Prairie. Tann’s example, however, suggests the multifaceted nature of black settlement in the late-nineteenth-century American West, offering insight into the evolving constraints African Americans faced when seeking political, social, and economic freedom on the frontier.

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Not merely significant for his place in Little House lore, George A. Tann’s life offers unique insight into the African American experience in the West. findagrave.com

Tann was among the seventeen thousand blacks who called Kansas home by 1870. The state’s relatively large black population reflected its abolitionist heritage. Following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which let territorial residents decide whether to sanction slavery by popular vote, pro-slavery interests and abolitionists alike flooded the territory hoping to influence the coming election. A period of violent struggle popularly known as “Bleeding Kansas” ensued. Anti-slavery forces eventually prevailed, and Kansas entered the union as a free state on 29 January 1861, just before the start of the Civil War. Due to its proximity to slave states like Missouri and Arkansas, many of Kansas’s black residents were former slaves. In contrast, Tann had been born free in Pennsylvania. His migration reflected the growing status of Kansas as a haven for black Americans seeking political and economic freedoms unavailable even in the liberal north.1

Tann’s life also sheds light on African Americans’ shifting relationship to the medical profession. Tann, like many doctors of his time, received no formal training and worked on an on-call basis, providing medical care to Osage Indians and white settlers while also maintaining a homestead. A practitioner of homeopathic medicine, he likely learned the trade through an apprenticeship. Such arrangements became increasingly rare as the twentieth century approached, and organizations like the American Medical Association worked to establish shared standards for medical professionals. By century’s end, Kansas and Indian Territory—where Tann eventually moved his practice—would require that all doctors obtain a license through an examination.2 Medical school increasingly became the chief means of preparing doctors, but most of the leading institutions denied admission to blacks. Harvard Medical School, for example, admitted its first three black students in 1850 but expelled them only a year later following outcry from white students. Howard University Medical School, which opened in 1868, was the first to admit students without considering race or gender.

Discriminatory admissions practices at white-dominated medical schools persisted well into the twentieth century, leaving blacks underrepresented in the profession. By 1968, over sixty percent of all black medical school graduates attended either Howard or Meharry Medical School, a historically black institution in Nashville, Tennessee.3 Kansas’s perceived status as a site of opportunity for black Americans also waned in the decades following Tann’s arrival, as Jim Crow laws permitted cities to create racially segregated school districts. Tellingly, a black student in Topeka filed the lawsuit that led to the groundbreaking 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated educational facilities were inherently unequal.4

George Tann died in 1909, remembered fondly for his service to the community. Like thousands of other African Americans, Tann moved to Kansas in search of opportunity. By the time of his death, however, new legal and extralegal forms of discrimination constrained black opportunity in Kansas and throughout the American West. Tann’s example nonetheless offers insight into a moment, however fleeting, when many black Americans saw the burgeoning cities and remote towns of the West as their surest path to freedom and equality.

Cody Ewert


1. Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998), pp. 94–102.

2. Michelle L. McLellan, “There Is a Doctor in the House—and He’s Black,” Interpreting African American History at Museums and Historic Sites, ed. Max A. van Balgooy (Lanham, Mary.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), pp. 47–54.

3. American Medical Association, “African American Physicians and Organized Medicine, 1846–1968,” The History of African Americans and Organized Medicine, https://www.ama-assn.org/about/ama-history/history-african-americans-and-organized-medicine.

4. Alwyn Barr, “Jim Crow Laws,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, ed. David J. Wishart (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), pp. 454–55.

New Resource Available

Earlier this month, the Missouri State Archives made available to the public thousands of death certificates from 1910–1967. By state law, these legal documents are sealed for fifty years and then sent to the archive to be available for researchers. It is an ongoing project that will continue to release documents through the efforts of many volunteers over hundreds of hours.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s death certificate, filed on March 26, 1957, lists her occupation as “Author.” Missouri State Archives

The death certificates cover everyone from your average Missourian to such famous citizens as Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband, Almanzo. Each clinical form offers a wealth of information, although in the case of Laura Ingalls Wilder, much of the data is already known. Even so, it is hard not to wonder what the person filling out the form was thinking when they wrote “Author” in the occupation box. Did they consider what Wilder’s legacy might be? Though she was ninety years old, did they lament her passing?

At her death, Wilder was a famous writer, her stories known around the world, and many had been saddened when she finished her Little House series in 1943 with These Happy Golden Years. But there was still more to come. HarperCollins released her adult novel, The First Four Years (1971), fourteen years after her death. And now seventy-six years after the end of her series, the Pioneer Girl Project is working to bring out Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, exploring her writing legacy in all its aspects.

Jennifer E. McIntyre