While Nellie Oleson is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s archrival and the antagonist of many of the Little House novels, Eliza Jane Wilder also plays a spoiler role. In Little Town on the Prairie, Eliza Jane as “Miss Wilder,” the teacher, and Nellie as teacher’s pet team up to make Laura and Carrie Ingalls’s schooldays a misery. As a result, readers find Eliza Jane hard to like. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder explained that Eliza Jane “was well educated” but “had no idea how to govern a school. She had no sense of fairness and was uncertain as to temper. What she allowed one day she might punish severely the next.”1 In researching Eliza Jane for Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, I have had the opportunity to gain some insight into “Miss Wilder.” In proving up on her homestead in 1886, Eliza Jane Wilder painstakingly penned three lengthy versions of her experiences to justify time spent away from her claim, including her departure to Minnesota in 1882 after her disastrous teaching experience in the De Smet school. Based on her own accounts, Miss Wilder must have been, at the least, a distracted teacher.
To begin with, Eliza Jane had multiple responsibilities. She was farming a homestead claim a mile or so west of De Smet, planting and monitoring a tree claim farther north, and often taking care of her six-year-old niece, Laura Wilder Howard’s daughter. Then, in August 1882, Eliza Jane recorded, “the director of the school board in De Smet came to me urging me to take the town school as no good teacher could be found. . . . In September my sister came and brought baby, other friends came at the same time. And I found I could not entertain guests, teach school, and attend to household duties [together] with a walk of three miles per day. I therefore rented rooms in town for a time. But at the close of the school term I found my health so poor that I dared not renew the engagement for the remainder of the year.”2
In a subsidiary account written to the land commissioner in Washington, D.C., Wilder claimed that many De Smet parents “requested” the school board president “to secure my services if possible,” continuing: “I knew my strength was failing and feared but finally accepted the position for one term. . . . School, home, and farm work together with exposure to the harsh cold winds told rapidly upon a system that had had no rest from toil often beyond its strength for nearly two years. . . . I closed school two days before the expiration of the term. Worn out.”3 In her third telling of events, Eliza reiterated the message: “When the term of school ended I was worn out. And unfitted for any labor.”4 After Thanksgiving 1882, Eliza Jane and her sister Laura went to Marshall, Minnesota, where Laura and her children stayed with a third sister, Alice Wilder Baldwin, and Eliza visited other family and friends until the spring of 1883, slowly regaining her health.
In her own accounts, Eliza Jane often comes across as self-serving and egocentric, but it is also clear that she was a woman of amazing energy and focus who valued friendship and family. She is the Eliza Jane of Farmer Boy—bossy yet tenderhearted. As his older sister, she goads Almanzo into throwing a blacking brush at her but then patches the blotch it made on the parlor wall with wallpaper scraps and flour paste. Eliza Jane may be of “uncertain temper,” but she is also the one who tells Almanzo: “I guess I was aggravating, but I didn’t mean to be. You’re the only little brother I’ve got” (p. 227).
Nancy Tystad Koupal
- Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 246.
- Eliza Jane Wilder (EJW) to J. F. Chaffee, (Dec. 1886), Homestead Entry File #2263, Land Entry Files, U.S. Department of the Interior, Records of the General Land Office, Record Group 49, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
- EJW to “Hon. Land Commissioner,” ibid.
- EJW, Homesteading Account, [ca. 1886], Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, S.Dak.
A woman on her own on the prairie in the late 19th c., homesteading: who else was looking out for her? Of course she needed to put herself first. No one else was going to. And she did enough charitable things in her life — caring for her niece, for example. That schoolchildren (esp those who are mostly unsupervised except for their labor, and may not see the point of school) don’t like a teacher is hardly surprising — then or now. She doesn’t really need to be shamed by us for being rational or out for self-preservation.
Excellent article! I would just like to point out, however, that Laura Wilder Howard’s husband Harrison Howard did not die in the 1880s. Rather he abandoned his family and moved to Missouri. Two of the children stayed with Laura Howard, and the other two were raised by Harrison Howard‘s mother in Spring Valley, MN. Harrison Howard died in Missouri in 1897.
Thank you for your comment. Eliza Jane herself was more circumspect in these sources about what happened to Laura Howard’s family. We appreciate that you and Nansie Cleaveland pointed out that Howard had four children; we’ve made the correction.
Some timeline concerns: Laura Howard visited because she was “recovering from the birth of her second child and the loss of her husband.” They had four children by the time of the 1880 census, the second born in 1876. Harrison Howard died in December 1897, after E.J. was married and living in Louisiana.