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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
And 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.