Real People

Who’s real? How real?

We know that many of the characters in the Little House novels are based on real people—and sometimes in interesting ways. Take, for example, the notorious Nellie Oleson, a girl so persistently odious that you just know (or hope) that she cannot have been “real” in quite that way. As it turns out, this character is an amalgam of no less than three unpleasant people of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood acquaintance; Nellie as we know her combines all of their unpleasantnesses into a perfect triune arch-nasty.

The example of Nellie Oleson is well known, but the research and editorial team for the Pioneer Girl Project are probing the real basis of even the most occasional characters in Laura’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl. Historians wonder about any good story: Who’s real? How real? The answers are frequently gratifying, sometimes puzzling, and occasionally—well, occasionally, there’s no answer at all. That, too, is part of the practice of history.

Census records are the first tool in our box, an easy way to establish the basic fact of reality. Sometimes. Cap Garland, for example. Real? Yes. “Garland, Edmund”—for such was the lad’s given name—was enumerated outside De Smet in the 1880 census, living with his mother and two sisters, whom Laura mentions by name in Pioneer Girl.

Occasionally, the census has its little quirks that make the research all the more interesting. What about the Heath boys?

Wait, the Heath boys? you ask. Who are they?

Nobody crucial. Their story didn’t make it into the published novels. “The youngest Wilder boy and two other boys, Homer and Horace Heath, from near De Smet, were in the railroad camp when all this happened,” Laura wrote in Pioneer Girl. Well, I’m very much mistaken if you don’t know who the youngest Wilder boy is. But these Heath boys: real? Yes. So real that they were counted twice.

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from

On 24 June 1880, a census taker enumerated a “Heath, Horice S.” and his brother, “Heath, Homer N.” on a farm just across the line in Brookings County. They were respectively twenty-five and twenty years old and were born, respectively, in New York and Wisconsin to parents who were also born in New York. They were listed as laborers.

Now, at some point in June—we don’t know exactly when—the following two laborers were enumerated in Beadle County, to the west of De Smet, boarding with thirty-two other laborers (smells like a railroad camp to me): “Heath, Horace” and “Heath, N. H.,” twenty-four and nineteen years old, born in New York and Wisconsin to parents born in New York. The first thing you learn in dealing with nineteenth-century census records is that the transposition of someone’s initials, or a year’s discrepancy in age, are commonplace. These were the same guys, counted twice in the 1880 census. I suspect that railroad camps—and other places using a seasonal workforce—were fertile ground for errors of this kind.

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy

Oh, and look who appears on the same manuscript page, between Horace and Homer:

Wilder, A. J., twenty-two years old, laborer, born in New York to parents born in New York and Vermont. (Almanzo Wilder, too, was counted twice in 1880: once in this railroad camp in Beadle County and again outside De Smet with his brother Royal and sister Eliza.)

Real people.

Rodger Hartley

9 thoughts on “Real People

  1. “Well, I’m very much mistaken if you don’t know who the youngest Wilder boy is.” Yes, the youngest Wilder boy was Pearly Day Wilder, was he not?

    • Good call, Maggy. Perley was the youngest of the Wilder siblings by quite a margin. However, only Eliza, Royal, and Almanzo were living in Dakota at the time, and of them Almanzo was the youngest, and the one that Laura was referring to in this context.

  2. I can’t wait to buy this book! Speaking of real people, one of the characters I found most intriguing and compelling was Big Jerry in By the Shores of Silver Lake. While other researchers have dug deep to discover the real Mr. Edwards or the Osage savior from Little House on the Prairie, I have never been able to find more information — or even a brief mention — regarding Big Jerry. Thanks so much for all the research you all are doing!

  3. I’m so happy to find this website! I always wondered about Laura having Miss Wilder as a teacher. (Ma’s comment about whether or not Laura was more interested in Almanzo or the horses, LIW says one couldn’t exist without the other- my paraphrase) … then Roger Lea MacBride’s books focused on Rose and she continued her education in Louisiana with her favorite aunt. Also, in THGY the Wilders married in a hurry because Eliza Jane and Mrs. Wilder were planning an enormous wedding that LIW’s parents could not afford nor did she expect it. All the of the sudden you want to plan a wedding for a hated student?!?!?! So, I’ve always wondered about the “REAL” EJ Wilder Thornton. I just wonder if there’s more info about “Going to school is lots of fun…” LTOTP have to recognize that. Sorry if I’m commenting on something already discussed… I’m a newbie. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Follow the Breadcrumbs, Find Missouri | The Pioneer Girl Project

  5. What happened to alot of these characters I wonder.what was the earliest pitcure of walnutgrove.where exactly did nellienowens live in walnutgrove and what happened to the owens mercantile are there any oitcures of it.i have alot of questions about littlehouse books and what happened with everything and everyone.

    • Thank you for your comment, Cinthia. We are trying to answer a lot of these questions with each Pioneer Girl Project book and on this website. Keep following, we might answer something you are curious about soon!

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