Thanksgiving with Laura Ingalls Wilder

As Thanksgiving 2023 approaches, I find myself wondering how often Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about this traditional American holiday. She did not mention it in her autobiography and rarely referred to it in her Little House series. She gave a brief, historical accounting of the holiday in On the Banks of Plum Creek. With the dugout door open to the unseasonably warm weather, the Ingalls family ate a stewed wild goose with dumplings, corn dodgers, and mashed potatoes. They finished off the meal with stewed plums and parched corn. And just that quick, “Thanksgiving was past and it was time to think of Christmas” (Plum Creek, pp. 81–82). Wilder referred to the November holiday again in Little Town on the Prairie, where the mention is even briefer and far less traditional: “It was a queer, blank day, full of anxious watching of the pie and the beans and waiting for the evening” (Little Town, p. 227). The Ingalls family contributed the pie and beans to the New England Supper at the local church. For this Thanksgiving evening, Wilder used details from her autobiography to recreate a February 1884 fundraising event hosted by “ladies of the Baptist church” of De Smet, Dakota Territory.1

This ad appeared in the De Smet Leader on Feb. 9, 1884.

Given brief mentions of the holiday in her novels, I began to think of Thanksgiving as an overlooked occasion, but, no, Wilder mentioned the holiday regularly in her newspaper columns. She usually urged her readers to thank God, or “a Higher Power,” for their blessings and often suggested that readers not wait for the Thanksgiving Day feast but to be thankful at all times.2 General thankfulness was also the theme in Wilder’s drafts of By the Shores of Silver Lake. As Laura and Mary made gifts for Christmas, Laura suddenly “felt so glad that Pa was safe at home instead of being lost in a blizzard. . . . She looked at Mary and was happy that Mary was well again. . . . Oh! She was glad! Glad! —Why this was the way to feel at Thanksgiving time! . . . And why are we thankful at Thanksgiving? Just for the good gifts that have been given us.”3 This nod to Thanksgiving did not survive the editing process, but the reference, mixed as it was with Christmas preparations, is typical of Wilder’s treatment of the November holiday. It is too close to Christmas, and if the Thanksgiving meal is given too much attention, the celebratory dinner the family shares at Yuletide becomes redundant.

The problem of the proximity of Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts was particularly evident in early drafts of Farmer ­Boy, where the traditional Thanksgiving dinner was just one sumptuous meal too many. The entire chapter was removed prior to publication, but it contained a loving portrayal of the feast that most Americans associate with the holiday. The day opened with Almanzo and his family traveling to Uncle Wesley’s house. As the extended family sat at the table, Uncle Wesley “thanked God for all the year’s blessings” until “it was time to feast in thankfulness for the Lord’s bounty.” Wilder described the carving of the turkey and serving of the meal: “Its sides were crackling golden and crisp, and the juicy white meat of the breast fell away in slices. . . . The drumsticks were plump and tender. The dressing smelled of onion and sage, and brown, rich gravy mixed with fluffy mashed potatoes.” Succotash and squash, corn relish, beet and cucumber pickles, roasted ham, and sweet apple preserve followed. Almanzo polished off the meal with three kinds of pie but failed to finish his slice of fruit cake. Afterward, he sat in the parlor and “felt that he would never be hungry again” as he listened “while the grown-ups visited with each other, until it was time to go home.”4

Helen Sewell’s illustration of the Christmas feast in Farmer Boy.

On Thanksgiving Day, we can all relate to Almanzo’s feeling of never being hungry again. And yet, less than a month later, we will likely consume a large Christmas dinner with equal gusto—just as Almanzo did in Farmer Boy, managing on that occasion to finish his fruit cake and stash another slice in his pocket (pp. 324–25). As Wilder the newspaper columnist reminded us, “we must decide whether we shall show our thankfulness only by overeating at the Thanksgiving feast. That would seem a rather curious way to show gratitude.”5 Instead, she urged us to be grateful for all life’s blessings, large and small, all year long.

―Nancy Tystad Koupal


  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2021), pp. 350–51, 353. For a description of the traditions that the Thanksgiving at Plum Creek represented, see Sarah S. Uthoff, “Thanksgiving and Laura Ingalls Wilder,” Nov. 17, 2015, Little House on the Prairie,
  2. Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks, ed. Stephen W. Hines (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), pp. 90–91, 126, 263, 268, 278, 292.
  3. Wilder, Draft of By the Shores of Silver Lake, pp. 113–14, file 233, box 15, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
  4. Wilder, Draft of Farmer Boy, pp. 184–85, file 218, box 14, ibid.
  5. Wilder, Farm Journalist, p. 263.

Shared Memories


Colonial-era tree tapping tools. Note the wooden spigot in the foreground. Colonial Williamsburg Society

During the course of writing eight historical novels, Laura Ingalls Wilder was always in search of authentic material for her next book. She mined her memories of her own life as recorded in Pioneer Girl, her autobiography. When that source proved insufficient, she combed the letters of her aunt Martha Carpenter for appropriate topics. Carpenter mentioned all-night sugaring-off parties, for instance, but offered little specific detail. Wilder, on the other hand, added so much detail that she even included the types of woods employed for the spigots and buckets used to collect the sap—cedar and white ash “because that kind of wood will not make the maple sap taste bad.”1 She also described how her grandfather whittled and shaped the spigots or “troughs” that went into the trees (Big Woods,  pp. 121–22). It is not clear where this information came from.

“At noon all the sap was boiling.” —an illustration by Helen Sewell in a 1933 edition of Farmer Boy.

Collecting and processing maple sap originated among the American Indian peoples of North America, and settlers in the northeastern parts of the United States adopted and adapted the process over time. To supply details, Wilder may have reached out to the state extension service or some other recognized source, as she did when researching her third book. Most likely, the author tapped the memory of her husband, Almanzo Wilder, who had grown up on a farm in New York State. Both Wilder and her daughter, novelist Rose Wilder Lane, relied on Almanzo’s farming knowledge for details in their writing. For example, a series of letters in March and April 1937, when Lane was writing her novel Free Land, illustrate how Lane asked questions of her father, and he and Wilder often answered jointly, sharing information back and forth among the family.2 Given this pattern, Wilder undoubtedly asked Almanzo for his memories of maple sugaring when she was drafting Little House in the Big Woods, and she would repeat many of the same details in Farmer Boy (pp. 109–12).

Of course, Wilder actively prodded Almanzo for his experiences when writing Farmer Boy, her second novel, which is about his childhood. As she sat down to revise that book in the fall of 1932, Wilder assured her editor that she would “talk with Mr. Wilder about those days and try to have Almanzo come more to life.”3 Wilder’s writing tablets lend us clues about what such talks produced. On a loose tablet page of her draft of Farmer Boy, Wilder jotted down snippets of information that Almanzo had shared, including the way in which his father polished an ax handle “with a bit of broken glass in the evenings by the heater.” Wilder then listed the various woods used for ax handles and hop poles, i.e., spruce, hemlock, cedar, and so on.4 Throughout her series, Wilder used such small tidbits of shared memory to bring her stories to life by grounding them in authentic detail. In Farmer Boy, Almanzo and his family sat around “the big stove in the dining-room wall” on a winter night. Royal popped corn, Mother knit, Alice embroidered, Eliza Jane read newspapers out loud, and “Father carefully scraped a new ax-handle with a bit of broken glass” (Farmer Boy, pp. 31–33).

—Nancy Tystad Koupal


  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2023), p. 119.
  2. “The History of Maple Syrup,” Michigan Maple Syrup Association,; Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), pp. 12–13n28; Wilder and Almanzo Wilder to Lane, Mar. 12, 20, 23, 25, Apr. 14, 1937, file 193, box 13, Lane Papers.
  3. Wilder to Virginia Kirkus, Sept. 24, 1932, File 1932–1935, Wilder Editorial Files, Archives, HarperCollins Publisher, New York, New York.
  4. Wilder, Draft of Farmer Boy, frame 234, folder 13, Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers, Microfilm ed., Collection 3633, State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia.

Helen Sewell, the First Little House Illustrator


Sally Gabble and the Fairies (1929) demonstrated Sewell’s ability to depict a fairy tale woods.

Little House in the Big Woods is a “lovely little book,” Marion Fiery told author Laura Ingalls Wilder when it appeared in 1932. Fiery, who had been Wilder’s editor while the book was under consideration by publisher Alfred A. Knopf, assured Wilder that Harper & Brothers had produced a volume with “distinct charm” due to the artwork of Helen Sewell. She is “one of our best children’s illustrators,” Fiery noted.1 Black-and-white line drawings that occasionally resembled woodblocks characterized Sewell’s work in Big Woods. As she had in earlier works, the artist deftly evoked a fairytale wood from a bygone era. When I first read the book as a ten-year-old in the late 1950s, I found the artwork an appealing part of the overall package. Recently, however, I learned that Garth Williams, Wilder’s 1953 illustrator, had dismissed Sewell’s edition as “decorated, not illustrated,”2 and today I can see his point. Sewell’s work is stylized and quaint, suggesting a different era in both time and art.

Helen Moore Sewell.

But in the 1930s, Helen Moore Sewell (1896–1957) was “one of the busiest artists at work in the field of children’s illustration.”3 She had begun her studies at a young age, attending classes at the Pratt Institute in New York City, where she studied with, among others, sculptor and graphic designer Aleksandr Archipenko, whose influences led to her distinctive style of line drawings. Sewell began her career as a designer of greeting cards and illustrated her first book in 1923 when she provided the artwork for Susanne Langer’s The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales. Over the next thirty years, she illustrated over sixty books, some of which she also wrote. In addition to children’s books, she provided line drawings for adult classics written by Jane Austen and Emily Dickenson. In 1955, she provided the artwork for Alice Dalgliesh’s The Thanksgiving Story, which earned a Caldecott Medal Honor Book designation. She died at age sixty in 1957.4

The daguerreotype of Caroline and Charles Ingalls (ca. 1860) which Sewell used as a model for her illustration in Big Woods. Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association

When illustrating landscapes, scenes, or people for fairy tales, the well-traveled Sewell relied on her own memories of places and used family members as models. But for Little House in the Big Woods, which was an autobiographical tale of a specific family, she wanted more background. She consulted photographs that Wilder sent to Harper & Brothers editor Virginia Kirkus, who passed them along to the artist. With one exception, however, we do not know what photographs Wilder shared with editor and artist. The exception is a daguerreotype of Charles and Caroline Ingalls, probably taken in 1860 when they were married.5 Before sending this rare image, the author wanted some assurances, but Kirkus made no promises on Sewell’s behalf. “I am afraid the possibility of her reproducing it satisfactorily is almost out of the question,” Kirkus told Wilder. “Line drawings of portraits are so often disappointing, but I am sure that it will help her get the feel of the individuals, even if she finds she is not able to do the portrait itself.”6

Sewell’s illustration of Pa playing “mad dog” with the girls.

Despite these misgivings, Sewell faithfully rendered the daguerreotype as a black-and-white line drawing for the half-title page of Little House in the Big Woods. The artist also used the image to inform the illustrations that feature Pa, whose bushy beard and hairdo derive straight from the portrait. Likewise, Ma’s face in the frontispiece and elsewhere bears a strong resemblance to the young Caroline Ingalls of the daguerreotype. Beyond that, not surprisingly, Sewell portrays the Ingalls girls as small and round, with heart-shaped faces. Her generic representation of the girls is understandable as Wilder had no photographs of the Ingalls girls to share with Sewell except those taken when Mary and Laura were teenagers. Wilder seemed pleased with the result, telling a correspondent that the first drawing in the book “was a very good copy of an old daguerreotype of my Father and Mother, Ma and Pa in the story.”7

Sewell’s rendering of Ma and Pa in the half-title page of Big Woods.

The publisher and the public were so happy with Little House in the Big Woods that Harper & Brothers engaged Sewell as illustrator for the next two books. With Wilder’s fourth book, On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), however, Sewell’s health and the demands on her time led the publisher to employ another illustrator to help with the Little House series. Sewell’s name remained on the books, and she may have provided the cover and frontispiece for the fourth and fifth volumes, but artist Mildred Boyle essentially took over the project and produced most of the artwork for the following books. When it was completed in 1943, Wilder’s eight-book series came in two different book sizes with two different types of illustrations, neither of which pleased Wilder’s then editor, Ursula Nordstrom. “Miss Sewell was, during the thirties,” Nordstrom wrote, “one of the country’s most distinguished illustrators,” but her style was “extremely decorative and stylized.” As the series went on, Sewell’s and then Boyle’s illustrations of Wilder’s “forthright realistic frontier stories” suited the books less and less.8

Nordstrom selected artist Garth Williams, who had illustrated E. B. White’s Stuart Little for Harper & Brothers in 1945, to modernize the illustrations, and in 1953, the publisher reissued the entire Little House series in a uniform edition with Williams’s artwork throughout. Unlike Sewell, Williams had done extensive research, visiting Wilder and her husband in Missouri and traveling to the sites of various novels.9 Rather than simply provide drawings that suggested how things might look, Williams “thoroughly integrated” his drawings into the text and “focused reader’s attention on specific aspects of the story.”10 Even though I had read and enjoyed the Sewell-illustrated editions, I bought the entire Williams edition when Wilder’s posthumous novel The First Four Years (also illustrated by Williams) debuted in 1971. Times had changed, and Wilder’s series had taken on a new look for a new era of readers. I wanted to be among them.

Garth Williams’s illustrations were much more detailed, as seen in his cover illustration of Big Woods.

  —Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Fiery to Wilder, Apr. 7, 1932, file 190, box 13, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
  2. Williams, quoted in William Anderson, “Garth Williams: An Artful Life,” presentation sponsored by Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, De Smet Event Center, De Smet, S.Dak., July 22, 2023.
  3. Anita Silvey, ed., Children’s Books and Their Creators (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995), p. 594.
  4. Ibid., pp. 594–95; Elizabeth K. Wallace and James D. Wallace, Garth Williams, American Illustrator: A Life (New York: Beaufort Books, 2016), pp. 81–83. See also “Helen Sewell Biography,”, which contains a fairly complete list of Sewell’s publications.
  5. Nancy Tystad Koupal, ed., Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2023), p. 173.
  6. Kirkus to Wilder, Dec. 31, 1931, file 189, box 13, Lane Papers.
  7. Wilder to [Ethel Calvert] Phillips, Apr. 19 [1932], folder 14, fr. 84, Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers, Microfilm ed., Collection 3633, State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia.
  8. Nordstrom to Doris K. Stotz, Jan. 11, 1967, in The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, ed. Leonard S. Marcus (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 233.
  9. Anderson, “Garth Williams: An Artful Life”; Wallace and Wallace, Garth Williams, pp. 66–71.
  10. Wallace and Wallace, Garth Williams, p. 84.  

Maiden Rock

One of the surprises in Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction is a long section in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s completed manuscript (WCM) that did not make it into Little House in the Big Woods. Toward the end of WCM, Pa begins a story in which the American Indians “used to live in the woods all around Lake Pepin. There is a high rocky bluff on the lake shore, with the top a great, solid rock and the side next the lake a sheer, rock cliff 200 feet high.”1 Located on the lake’s east bank about twelve miles above the town of Pepin, this landmark is known today as Maiden Rock. Pa then recounts the story of a young Dakota girl jumping to her death from the sheer face of the cliff. Many scholars consider the story, which has been told under different titles, to be based on an actual event that occurred around 1800.

Maiden Rock on Lake Pepin, ca. 1870s-1880s. Wisconsin Historical Society

In 1805, Zebulon Montgomery Pike mentioned the story, and in 1817, explorer Stephen H. Long filled in the details based on information from his Dakota guide, Wazikute, who claimed that his mother had witnessed the jump. In 1849, author Mary H. Eastman popularized the story in her book Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling. Eastman’s informant was a Dakota woman named Mock-pe-en-dag-a-wiń, or Checkered Cloud, who told of a young woman whose family and friends pressed an unwelcome suitor upon her when she had favored another. Objecting to the forced marriage, the young woman (named Winona in some versions) went to the cliff on Lake Pepin during a porcupine hunt and began her death song in full view of her parents and friends. A group of hunters rushed to stop her, but she leapt from the rock into history and legend.2

Acipenser fulvescens, the lake or rock sturgeon

Pa uses Maiden Rock to set the scene for the story he wishes to tell, which involves a young American Indian boy who saves his people by riding a big fish across Lake Pepin. In recording the life and legends of the eastern Dakotas, Mary Eastman noted that Lake Pepin is “from one to two miles wide. . . . not deep, and abounds in fish, particularly the sturgeon.”3 Today, as then, Acipenser fulvescens, commonly known as the rock sturgeon, inhabits the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes basins. A bony fish, it grows up to six feet or longer. The sturgeon serves as a clan name among the Ojibwe and Menominee peoples in Wisconsin, and a giant sturgeon appears in some of their hero tales.4 It is possible that Charles Ingalls heard a version of one of their stories. As her mother’s editor, however, Rose Wilder Lane omitted “The Indian Boy and the Big Fish” from the final text of the book. It is likely that she thought it differed too significantly from Pa’s other tales about the misadventures of his own or his father’s family. Because she was still learning to write fiction, Wilder allowed Lane to cut the episode, trusting her daughter’s judgement over her own. Even so, the story indicates that Wilder and her father were familiar with the rich history and folklore of the region.

―Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2023), p. 161.
  2. G. Hubert Smith, “The Winona Legend,” Minnesota History 12 (Dec. 1932): 367–76; Mary H. Eastman, Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling (New York: John Wiley, 1940), 165–73.
  3. Eastman, Dahcotah, p. 165.
  4. Acipenser fulvescens,” Michigan Natural Features Inventory, “Black Lake Sturgeon Information,” Sturgeon for Tomorrow.; “Native American Sturgeon Mythology,”

“Just off the Press”: Carrie and Grace Read Little House in the Big Woods

In mid-March this year, I was sitting in the snack area of the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in Saint Petersburg, Florida, watching people go by. Suddenly, in a city where I knew no one, I spied a familiar face.

“Bill,” I said tentatively as I continued to watch him. Raising my voice, I said, “Bill Anderson—is that you?” And proving that the world is indeed a small place, he turned to me and repeated my question: “Nancy Koupal—is that you?”

Nancy Tystad Koupal and Bill Anderson at the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

And so, Bill (from Michigan) and I (from South Dakota) discovered that we take winter vacations in the same area of Florida. The fact that we’d met at a book fair did not surprise either one of us. Sitting down to talk like the old friends we are, Bill asked, “How’s your book about Big Woods coming?”

“It’s finished and at the printer,” I offered, referring to Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction (released May 30, 2023).

“You know,” Bill said, “there is a great story of Carrie reading Little House in the Big Woods to Grace when the book first came out.” He then directed me to an article in the Huron Daily Plainsman of April 7, 1932, just one day after the official release of Wilder’s first book.

At the time, Carrie Ingalls Swanzey (Mrs. D. N. Swanzey) was visiting her sister Grace Ingalls Dow (Mrs. N. W. Dow), who was convalescing in a Huron, South Dakota, hospital. Then, “just off the press,” the Huron newspaper reporter announced, came Little House in the Big Woods, a book written by Carrie and Grace’s sister Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder told of a time “long before Mrs. Dow was born,” when the Charles P. Ingalls family lived in the Wisconsin woods. “With Mrs. Swanzey reading, and probably stopping to add reminiscences of her own,” the reporter continued, “Mrs. Dow was taken back to the childhood days of her sisters,” back to “the little cabin [that] stands miles from any neighbors and remote from any settlement.”

The Ingalls family in 1894. From left to right: (seated) Caroline, Charles, and Mary; (standing) Carrie, Laura, and Grace.

The Huron Daily Plainsman article offers a brief glimpse into the real lives of Wilder’s two youngest sisters. Carrie, who had been born in Kansas in August 1870, is an infant as Little House in the Big Woods opens and was so little involved in the narrative of Wilder’s book that its editor, Rose Wilder Lane, initially removed her from the story (fortunately, Wilder reinstated Baby Carrie before publication). Any “reminiscences” that Carrie might have added while reading the novel to Grace must have been limited, for she was only three and a half years old when the family moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota in 1874. Grace, who was not born until the Ingalls family traveled to Iowa in 1877, had probably learned of those early days only through her father’s stories. But now, the newspaper reporter concluded: “Being ill in a hospital has its compensations when one may travel into the woods and live the childhood days of long ago. At least Mrs. N. W. Dow . . . finds it so.”

It is satisfying to think of the two sisters discovering Wilder’s book together, and I thank Bill Anderson for bringing the article to my attention.

―Nancy Tystad Koupal

The Little Girl in the Big Woods—Wilder’s Fairy-Tale Setting

Caroline Ingalls (seated left), Eliza Quiner Ingalls (standing), and Martha Quiner Carpenter (seated right). Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

When Laura Ingalls Wilder began to expand the picture-book typescript “When Grandma Was a Little Girl,” she discovered that Rose Wilder Lane had placed her Wisconsin home farther north than it had actually been. At the same time, Wilder recognized that Lane had accurately captured what Wilder termed “the glamor” of the deep woods, and she immediately reinstated the classic opening from her original memoir, “Once upon a time years and years ago.”1 From this beginning, Wilder “grafted elements of European fairy tale directly onto a real place and time,” turning the Wisconsin woods “into America’s own enchanted forest.”2 Wilder’s affinity for the forest of her childhood echoed her aunt Martha Quiner Carpenter’s appreciation for it. In spite of predators, Carpenter wrote, “we were glad to get out in [the] woods. . . . [It] was beautiful to be out there with birds and other small animals of the forest and to hear the . . . music of the wilds with the beauty of all the rest of the landscape[;] it would carry you away and you would forget yourself and rejoice that you were there to see and have it all.”3 These same sentiments underlie Pa’s experience in the final chapter of Big Woods, when he fails to shoot at a bear because “I was so much interested in watching him, and the woods were so peaceful in the moonlight, that I forgot all about my gun. . . . until [the bear] was waddling away into the woods” (BW, pp. 234–35).

The fairy-tale setting of the woods, as Carpenter indicated, included the inevitable predators—bears, mountain lions, and wolves. While all these creatures inhabited the Big Woods, Wilder’s wolf in the first chapter of Big Woods originated in Kansas, where Wilder remembered “a long, scared sound, off in the night, and Pa said it was a wolf howling.”4 In changing the wolf’s location from the Kansas prairies to the Wisconsin woods, Lane enhanced the scene with this line: “Grandma knew that wolves ate little girls.”5 Studies suggest that wolves avoid people and attack only when rabid or otherwise provoked, but, as Lane knew in adding this line to her mother’s story, and Wilder recognized in letting it stand in the novel (BW, p. 3), wolves do eat little girls in fairy tales. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” literary critics often construe the predatory wolf as “a metaphor for sexually seductive men.” Conversely, the wolf “can also be read as a hybrid figure who crosses the boundary between wilderness and civilization.”6 As biographer Caroline Fraser has argued, in Wilder’s work, wolves symbolize freedom at the edge of a vanishing wilderness.7 No matter how the wolves are understood, Wilder’s first novel relied on her readers’ familiarity with fairy tales to see the glamor and magic of the setting. To make sure that readers made the connection between Laura Ingalls and the classic fairy-tale heroine, illustrator Helen Sewell portrayed her in a red hood in the colored frontispiece of Little House in the Big Woods.

―Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 1 (compare with BW, p. 1). For Wilder’s comment about the glamor of the woods, see Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2023), p. 64.
  2. Sallie Ketcham, “Fairy Tale, Folklore, and the Little House in the Deep Dark Woods” in Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2017), p. 214.
  3. Martha Carpenter to Wilder, Sept. 2, 1925, Box 14, file 204, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
  4. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2021), p. 6.
  5. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, ed. Koupal, p. 64.
  6. Maria Tatar, ed., The Annotated Brothers Grimm (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004), p. 145n4.
  7. Caroline Fraser, “Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Wolves: On the Politicization of Wilder, Author of Little House on the Prairie.” Los Angles Review of Books, Oct. 10, 2012.



Aha! Moments

“Aha!” I said to myself as I scrolled through the microfilm of the San Francisco Bulletin, “that’s when that happened!” Within the February and March 1915 issues of the paper, I had discovered the moment when Laura Ingalls Wilder first used her maiden and married names together to sign her work.

While writing for Missouri newspapers from 1911 to 1924, Wilder had signed her work as Mrs. A. J. Wilder, using her husband Almanzo James Wilder’s initials. In 1919, however, she contributed an article to McCall’s Magazine that she signed as Laura Ingalls Wilder. I always assumed that instance was the first time she used her full name on her work, but not so! Encouraged by her daughter, Wilder had contributed to the San Francisco Bulletin’s “Tuck’em In Corner” on February 10, 1915, under the byline Laura E. Wilder (the E. stands for Elizabeth). But as she watched her daughter—who had begun writing as Rose Wilder Lane—and other women writers sign their articles in the Bulletin with their maiden and married names, Wilder began to do the same. She became Laura Ingalls Wilder in print for the first time on March 17, 1915, with publication of her poem “The Fairies in the Sunshine.” Wilder then used this new byline for the articles that Lane brokered for her in McCall’s Magazine and Country Gentleman a few years later.1

Such “Aha!” moments are a gratifying part of research. Another one came as I viewed the opening pages of the original typescript of “Little House in the Woods,” which Harper & Brothers had used to copyedit and typeset Wilder’s first novel. “Little House in the Woods” was the name that Alfred A. Knopf editor Marion Fiery assigned to Wilder’s book when she wrote to accept it on September 17, 1931. Whether Wilder submitted the manuscript with that title or Fiery selected it from a list of titles the author suggested is unknown, but all correspondents—Fiery, Wilder, Lane, literary agent George Bye, and Harper & Brothers editor Virginia Kirkus—referred to the book as “Little House in the Woods” from September 17 until early February 1932.

The first page of “Little House in the Woods.” Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association

At that point, Margaret Lesser of the Junior Literary Guild’s membership magazine wrote to Wilder about her forthcoming book, calling it “Little House in the Big Woods.” In looking at the original typescript, I discovered that the addition of “Big” to the title had come from the title of the book’s first chapter, which Lane had typed as “Little House in the Big Woods.” When the copyeditor finished correcting the manuscript just prior to production, she affixed two extra pages to the typescript—a typed title page and a handwritten copyright page—before passing it on to the typesetter. On the title page, the editor repeated the title of the first chapter, listed Wilder as author, Helen Sewell as illustrator, and Harper & Brothers as publisher—and Little House in the Big Woods came to be as we know it today.2

Aha! That’s when that happened.

­          ―Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Elizabeth E. Wilder, “The Faery Dew Drop,” and Laura Ingalls Wilder, “The Fairies in the Sunshine,” San Francisco Bulletin, Feb. 15, Mar. 17, 1915; Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Whom Will You Marry?”, McCall’s Magazine 49 (June 1919): 8.
  2. Nancy Tystad Koupal, “At the End of the Path,” in Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, ed. Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2023), pp. 173–74.

Wilder’s Wisconsin Birthplace

The recreation of the Ingalls cabin near Pepin, Wisconsin. Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Pepin

I recently saw some vintage photographs that led me to reflect on the history of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Wisconsin birthplace near Pepin. As she edited Pioneer Girl, Rose Wilder Lane gradually moved her mother’s birthplace north, deeper and deeper into the pine forests of Wisconsin.1 Using land records, the librarian in Pepin and other local people pinpointed the location of the eighty-acre farm that Charles Ingalls purchased in the 1860s. It was farther south, in an area that Pepin historians Catherine Latané and Martha Kuhlman describe as “not big timber country.”2 And that is where the replica of the Ingalls cabin can be found today, next to a cornfield along County Road CC about seven miles north of Pepin.

No one knows how long the original Ingalls cabin stood on the site. We assume that Charles Ingalls, with the aid of his brother-in-law Henry Quiner and other relatives or neighbors in the area, built the cabin around 1863, and we know that Wilder was born there on February 7, 1867. After the Ingalls family sold the farm and moved away in 1872, the history of the dwelling is largely unknown. It may have served for a time as an outbuilding on the farm, possibly into the 1920s, but it disappeared many years ago.3 As late as the 1960s, when researchers and readers began to trickle into Pepin County, a log structure still stood on land owned by Thomas P. and Jane Huleatt.

This log structure stood for decades on the land owned by the Huleatts, but it is unclear what purpose it served.

In Little House in the Big Woods, Wilder wrote about playing with the Huleatt children, Eva and Clarence, while their parents visited the Ingalls home (pp. 170–80), but in Pioneer Girl, Wilder also described a dance held at the Huleatt residence. The place “was called Summer Hill,” Wilder recalled, “and everyone was proud to be invited there.”4 Whether or not this structure, dilapidated and deteriorating in this photograph, was Summer Hill or an earlier Huleatt dwelling or even an outbuilding is unclear, but it illustrates construction practices used in log houses of the pioneer period and employs the materials available at the time. For example, Wilder recalled that in the 1860s her grandfather, Lansford Whiting Ingalls, also “lived in a log house like ours.”5

By the 1970s, the traffic to the Wilder birthplace had become so steady that local residents, with permission from the landowner, put up a sign to mark the spot of Wilder’s birthplace (see photograph). The reconstruction of the Wilder cabin took place a few years later when, “through the generosity of the Pepin business community and the landowner,” the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society of Pepin was “able to acquire three acres of land at the original site of Laura’s birth.”6 In 1978, the society erected the “Little House Wayside” replica of the Ingalls cabin based largely on Wilder’s descriptions of the building in Little House in the Big Woods. The cabin and grounds are a focal point during Pepin’s annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in September. This coming summer, on the second weekend of each month from May through August, Pepin stalwarts will fully furnish the cabin and reenactors will “demonstrate the arts of daily living in the 1870s” to welcome visitors to Laura’s birthplace.7

―Nancy Tystad Koupal


  1. Nancy Tystad Koupal, ed., “Historical Musings: Researching the Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder: Blog Posts from the Editors of Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts,” South Dakota History 53 (Spring 2023): 70–71.
  2. Catherine H. Latané and Martha Kuhlman, The Village of Pepin at the Time of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Pepin, Wis.: By the Authors, 2004), p. 17.
  3. William Anderson to Nancy Tystad Koupal, Apr. 6, 2023.
  4. Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2021), p. 58.
  5. Ibid., p. 57.
  6. “Visit Laura’s Little House,” Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum,
  7. Catherine H. (“Kitty”) Latané to Nancy Tystad Koupal, Apr. 13, 2023.

Wilder’s Aesopian Fable of the Naughty Boy and the Yellow Jackets

Among the literary influences that surface in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House novels are three classics: the Bible, the Brothers Grimm, and Aesop’s Fables. Recent studies have explored Wilder’s religious beliefs and how they influenced her writing (Stephen Hines, John Fry) and her employment of fairy tale elements (Sallie Ketcham), but Wilder’s use of Aesop receives less attention. As an annotation in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography puts it, however, Wilder and her father “knew their Aesop.” In their telling of the story of Charley Quiner’s encounter with yellow jackets in a harvest field in Wisconsin, father and daughter alluded to Aesop’s classic tale about the shepherd boy who repeatedly cried wolf to alarm the villagers. When the wolf actually arrived, the boy was not believed, and he suffered the consequences because “there is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth.”1

Helen Sewell drew this depiction of Charley Quiner’s run-in with the yellow jackets.

Charles Ingalls is the original source of the story of Charley Quiner, and he is the one who first couched it in its Aesopian framework. “When I was a girl at home, my father came in from the harvest field one day at noon and with great glee told what had befallen my cousin Charley,” Wilder recalled in 1919. Charley had accompanied his own father and his uncle Charles to the field, where “he lagged behind . . . and then began to scream, jumping up and down and throwing his arms around.” When the men rushed to him, thinking he was hurt or bitten by a snake, the boy laughed at them. He fooled them three times, but when he screamed a fourth time, they ignored him. Finally, as he kept yelling, they found him jumping up and down on a yellow jacket nest and badly stung. Wilder, who was using the analogy in 1919 to explain why Germany was “morally bankrupt” after four years of broken pledges, concluded, “Boys or men or nations it seems to be the same, if they prove themselves liars times enough, nobody will believe them when they do tell the truth.”2

In Pioneer Girl and Little House in the Big Woods, Charles Ingalls again regales his family with the story of the naughty boy and the yellow jackets. He ends the tale with, “It served the little liar right” (PGAA, p. 53). Tucked up in her trundle bed in Big Woods, Laura Ingalls also contemplated the issue, concluding that she “didn’t understand how Charley could be a liar, when he had not said a word” (BW, pp. 210–11). Wilder’s youthful bewilderment, which she first recorded in Pioneer Girl, finally finds its appropriate audience. Young readers of eight to ten can still relate and feel superior to five-year-old Laura’s puzzlement over the unspoken lie.

―Nancy Tystad Koupal


1.George F. Townsend, trans., Aesop’s Fables, 1867, reprint ed. Aesopica: Aesop’s Fables in English, Latin & Greek., no. 74. See also Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), pp. 53–54n88.

2. Wilder “The Farm Home,” June 5, 1919, in Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks, ed. Stephen W. Hines (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), p. 187.

Laura Ingalls Wilder at Christmas 2022

Earlier this month, I wrote about wolves howling in the night. But as I sit down to write just before Christmas 2022, the wind is making all the noise, howling long and loud, day and night. As the arctic storm closes Interstate 90 and the highways into Pierre, I feel as if I have been transported back to the Dakota Territory of 1880–1881. While, so far, the electric heat has provided a steady warmth, back-to-back blizzard conditions have begun to empty the grocery shelves, if one is desperate enough to venture out into the wind for eggs or milk or bread. My two daughters are stranded in Arizona until Christmas Day, and my husband and I will spend a lonely Christmas Eve without kith or kin. So I have turned for company to the many Christmases and Christmas Eves of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Wilder shares at least one Christmas celebration in each of her Little House novels. In Wisconsin, when she is four, Laura receives her first doll and makes pictures in the snow with her cousins. Wilder next shares a Christmas feast among the James and Angeline Wilder family in New York State, where Almanzo “ate and ate and ate. . . . till he could eat no more” (Farmer Boy, p. 325). On the Kansas plains, the Ingalls family’s next Christmas is sparser as Laura worries about whether Santa Claus can find them out on the prairie. Mr. Edwards saves the day, hauling Santa’s gifts across the swollen creek just in time, carrying sweet potatoes in his pockets to add to Christmas dinner. In Minnesota, the author shares three Christmas holidays with readers, welcoming new horses in the first instance, attending the church Christmas tree giveaway in the second, and then celebrating Pa’s narrow escape from disaster after he was caught in a blizzard on the way back from town the next year. He survived for three days in a snowbank, eating the girl’s Christmas candy and the oyster crackers but bringing home the oysters still frozen solid. As the family settles in on Christmas Eve, Pa notes that the wind is rising: “‘We will have another blizzard before morning.’ ‘Just so you are here, Charles, I don’t care how much it storms,’ said Ma” (Plum Creek, p. 335).

The Ingalls family gathered around the stove for warmth during the Hard Winter of 1880–1881. Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle, 1940.

In Dakota Territory, each year is punctuated with at least one Christmas dinner or preparation for a dinner. In 1879, the Boasts—Robert and Ella—unexpectedly arrive in De Smet on Christmas Eve, where the Ingalls are staying alone in the Surveyor’s House. A jolly Christmas and New Year’s celebration with these new friends follows. In The Long Winter, the Ingalls share homemade and store-bought gifts over a makeshift feast with the last of the milk and two cans of oysters. This skimpy meal is balanced by a full turkey dinner when adequate groceries and the Christmas barrel finally arrive in May. The following holiday season, Wilder unexpectedly earns her teaching certificate amid the family’s Christmas preparations, and in These Happy Golden Years, Almanzo returns to De Smet from an extended absence, arriving on Christmas Eve with a bag of oranges to add to the Christmas dinner.

Throughout all these years and Christmases, the Ingalls family rejoices in being together, in making do with small gifts and sometimes hearty and sometimes meager feasts, and in delaying gratification until everyone can be present. It is a heartwarming message to take into this blustery holiday season of 2022 when families like mine are struggling to get together under difficult and dangerous conditions.

Stay safe wherever you are and have a wonderful holiday season.

―Nancy Tystad Koupal