“New Characters” in Pioneer Girl

There is nothing quite like seeing a photograph of someone you have read about. Melding the writer’s words with the physical image can give a rush of recognition or, in some cases, wonder. In our research with Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we have worked to find images of the people, places, and events that fill Wilder’s manuscript. Because Wilder wrote about an era when not many people had a camera, the task was, at times, difficult. However, we also had our share of serendipitous moments.

The adorable Masters children and their dog (name unknown). Standing (left to right) Alex and Arthur Masters; sitting (left to right) Vere, Nita, and Claude Masters. From the photo collection of Lucille (Masters) Mone. Used with permission.

The adorable Masters children and their dog (name unknown). Standing (left to right) Alex and Arthur Masters; sitting (left to right) Vere, Nita, and Claude Masters. From the photo collection of Lucille (Masters) Mone. Used with permission.

One such incident came when, through this website, we were able to contact a descendant of Samuel Masters and his son and daughter-in-law George and Maggie Masters. Although Wilder did not put George and Maggie in her book The Long Winter, in her autobiography, the presence of these two boarders and their infant son intensified the Ingallses’ hardships during the winter of 1880–1881. As Wilder documents in Pioneer Girl, Arthur Kingsbury Masters was actually born in the upstairs room of the Ingallses’ home in De Smet during the Masters family’s stay.

While Wilder’s portrayal of the family is not flattering, the extreme winter tested everyone’s endurance and may help to explain her unpleasant memories. Imagine how thin Pa must have been in real life with nine people to feed, compared to the six in the novel. As the photograph shows, George and Maggie Masters would go on to have more children, and George and Charles Ingalls would remain friends, for Masters served as a witness for Ingalls’s 1886 homestead-patent application. And I can certainly say that it was a pleasure to work with the modern-day Masters family.

Jennifer McIntyre

17 thoughts on ““New Characters” in Pioneer Girl

      • They can be quite revealing, can’t they? We have some wonderful images from my paternal grandmother. Luckily, when I was still very young, but a few years before my grandmother died, my mom sat down with her to determine who each person was and wrote their names and relationships on the backs. I’m so glad she thought to do that while my grandmother was still with us!

  1. I loved giving credit for the Masters photos to my Aunt Lucille and I am glad she gave them to me before the F-4 tornado hit her home and the town of Spencer, SD on May 30, 1998; otherwise, the photos may have been lost forever.

  2. I was happy to give the photos of my Grandfather Arthur and his siblings in honor of my Aunt Lucille (Masters) Mone and my mother. If Lucille had not given me the photos, they may have been lost forever when an F-4 tornado hit her house and town in Spencer, SD May 30, 1998.

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  4. Actually, Arthur Kingsbury Masters was not born during the Long Winter at all, He was born the previous spring on May 23, 1880, so how could he have been born at the Ingalls store in town? What was the real story behind the Masters family staying with the Ingalls family the following winter?

    • Arthur Masters was born in April (according to census records) or May 1880 (according to a newspaper account) while his mother, Maggie Masters, was staying with the Ingalls family in one of the two buildings that Charles Ingalls built in De Smet that spring. Wilder remembered that the Ingallses left the Surveyors’ House on April 3, 1880, and lived in town before moving out to their homestead later that year.

      Wilder’s sense of time in Pioneer Girl is not always precise. She has condensed the story of the Masters family and put all of it into the timeframe of the Hard Winter of 1880–1881, but it would actually have begun earlier. In the spring of 1880, George Masters worked on the railroad in the Volga area and moved west to Blunt as construction moved toward the Missouri River that summer and fall. Maggie would also have come from the east in the spring to board with the Ingallses in De Smet in order “to be nearer him” (Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Edition, p. 203). The baby may actually have been born after a spring blizzard, which may be why Wilder placed the event at the onset of winter. In any case, George Masters would have returned to De Smet and the Ingalls home in the fall once work on the railroad had finished for the winter. His son would have been about five months old as the Hard Winter began.

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