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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.
Earlier this month, the Missouri State Archives made available to the public thousands of death certificates from 1910–1967. By state law, these legal documents are sealed for fifty years and then sent to the archive to be available for researchers. It is an ongoing project that will continue to release documents through the efforts of many volunteers over hundreds of hours.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s death certificate, filed on March 26, 1957, lists her occupation as “Author.” Missouri State Archives
The death certificates cover everyone from your average Missourian to such famous citizens as Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband, Almanzo. Each clinical form offers a wealth of information, although in the case of Laura Ingalls Wilder, much of the data is already known. Even so, it is hard not to wonder what the person filling out the form was thinking when they wrote “Author” in the occupation box. Did they consider what Wilder’s legacy might be? Though she was ninety years old, did they lament her passing?
At her death, Wilder was a famous writer, her stories known around the world, and many had been saddened when she finished her Little House series in 1943 with These Happy Golden Years. But there was still more to come. HarperCollins released her adult novel, The First Four Years (1971), fourteen years after her death. And now seventy-six years after the end of her series, the Pioneer Girl Project is working to bring out Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, exploring her writing legacy in all its aspects.
The odds of there being a white Christmas here in Pierre are looking slim. Festive decorations abound, but the unseasonably warm temperatures make it hard to believe that we are in the thick of the holiday season. This year being my first living in South Dakota, I can’t help but be somewhat disappointed. The lack of cold, snowy weather certainly seems a stark contrast to the Ingalls family’s idyllic first Christmas in Dakota Territory in 1879. As Wilder describes it in Pioneer Girl, they enjoyed ample snow, homemade gifts, and a bountiful feast of “jack rabbit roast, mashed potatoes, beans, warm biscuit and dried apple pie with tea.” While jackrabbit would not be my first choice—especially considering the precipitous decline of South Dakota’s jackrabbit population in recent years—I don’t doubt that Wilder had, as she claimed, a “jolly Christmas” (pp. 185–186).
A white Christmas often means bad roads, like the ones this horse-drawn plow attempted to clear in Fort Pierre, circa 1915. South Dakota State Historical Society
Jolly, at least, for the Ingalls clan. Ella and Robert Boast seemingly had a less pleasant experience. The Boasts, who hailed from Iowa, had acquired a homestead near De Smet and planned to spend the winter there. They made it to Dakota just in time for Christmas but arrived in a harried condition. As Wilder writes, due to deep snow on the roads, “they were many days later than they had planned and at last about six miles back their sled had stuck in a snow drift” (p. 185). The Boasts unhitched their horses and rode to the Ingalls house, where they warmed up by the fire. The next day, they joined the family for Christmas dinner, and the Ingalls children hastily made them presents. Things turned out fine for the Boasts, and the weather improved, too—“the snow was nearly gone” by New Year’s Day (p. 186). Of course, the denizens of De Smet would not be so lucky the following year, when they endured a winter so hard that it inspired a stand-alone book in the Little House series and at least one in-depth climatological study.
While a conspicuous lack of winter weather—or jackrabbits, for that matter—is no cause for celebration, there is a silver lining to this holiday season’s dearth of snow. Those planning to drive long distances this weekend, myself included, will not have to grapple with the treacherous road conditions that befell the Boasts.
Happy Holidays, and safe travels, from the Pioneer Girl Project.
Coday’s work was integral to the preservation of Rocky Ridge Farm and Wilder’s ongoing legacy.
The Pioneer Girl Project sends condolences to the family and friends of Jean Coday. As director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association, Coday was a long-time advocate for the legacy of Wilder and a respected colleague as we worked to bring Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography to the public. As stated in her obituary, “Jean has had an impact on countless lives. . . . She has given . . . selflessly, of her time, talent, money, and most of all her heart to those around her.” The entire memorial can be found at the Springfield News-Leader.
The South Dakota Historical Society Press has released Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder and edited by Pamela Smith Hill as an eBook, containing all the annotations, maps, and illustrations found in the hardcover edition.
“The eBook is the perfect format for researchers and readers on the go,” says Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the Pioneer Girl Project and the South Dakota Historical Society Press. “It contains the numerous annotations, which are linked so that the reader can jump from Wilder’s words to the editors’ comments and back, along with the illustrations, maps and appendices that make the autobiography so valuable.” The eBook also allows readers to access website homepages cited throughout the text with one easy click.
In 2015, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography reached the No. 2 slot on the New York Times best-seller list.
“It was a surprise success that continues to fascinate and engage readers,” Koupal says. “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is the first volume to explore in-depth the communities and people the Ingalls family knew and the life they lived on the frontier.”
The e-book can be purchased at sdhspress.com in both Epub and Mobi formats for $29.95. All State Historical Society eBooks, including Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, also by Pamela Smith Hill, can be purchased online at sdhspress.com.
Last week, the news broke that the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), voted to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Created in 1954, the award recognizes the lifetime achievement of a children’s author and/or illustrator. The decision to rename the award was, according to the ALSC, “made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”
Many commentators have opposed the rationale underlying the decision. In a letter, written prior to the vote, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association implored the ALSC to maintain Wilder’s attachment to the prize, stating: “Her perspective provides a window into the perceptions of a young, white, female settler of the world around her in the era in which she was a child. While the works are historical fiction, they are an accurate representation of the vantage point of that time and place in history.”
It appears, however, that it is not just Wilder’s body of work that is “inconsistent with ALSC’S core values” but her “time and place in history” as well. We can judge Wilder, a white female writing in the 1930s, for not adequately transcending her history, but who among us today can claim to be free of or even to recognize all the prejudices of our own time and place? For her part, Wilder portrayed many of the nuances of her world and her characters, reflecting the complexity of her social milieu. In her novels and in her autobiography, Pa stands up for the American Indians even as his neighbors and Ma express fear and revile them. There is truth in that portrayal, if not the whole truth, and, as Pamela Smith Hill remarked on her Facebook page, “Pretending racism didn’t exist in our history is no way to prepare young readers for the racism we must combat in the 21st century.”
In trying to improve their situation, Wilder and her family were part of the westward movement that displaced the American Indians. They made human choices, based on the social norms of the time in which they lived. Carolyn Fraser puts it best: “Wilder’s family was every family that came to the frontier and crossed it, looking for something better, something beyond, no matter the cost to themselves or others” (Prairie Fires, p. 515). Fraser also reminds us that we need to deal with the truths of Wilder’s books if we wish to understand where we come from as a country (p. 508).
In defending its decision, the ALA pointed out, ironically, that the Little House books have not been banned. No, they haven’t, but there have been and will be calls for just that. In many ways, the ALA and its advocates, by removing her name from their award, have shunned Wilder rather than banned her works. So, for the Pioneer Girl Project, the response is simple. We will continue to do what we have always done. We will examine Wilder’s life and her work and explore not only her perspectives of her world but also those of the many others who inhabited it. We began this work many years ago, with John E. Miller’s article “American Indians in the Fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder” in South Dakota History. It is better to study than to seek to erase an important legacy like Wilder’s.
Warm weather has arrived across the Midwest, and families are loading up the (station) wagon to head to beaches, museums, and lake cabins. School may be out, but that doesn’t mean that reading is taking a backseat. I always cherish summer as a time to revisit old favorites and discover new worlds between the covers. For those of you who have already devoured all of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography and Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder and are eagerly waiting for what’s next, here are some summer reading suggestions.
Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2017). No doubt many of you have already finished Caroline Fraser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but for those of you who, like me, have six books currently stacked beside their beds, perhaps this reminder will encourage you to float this title towards the top. Fraser’s well-researched biography weaves the narrative of Wilder’s life in and out of a greater American historical context that presents a nuanced portrait of Wilder’s life and times.
Louise Erdrich, The Birchbark House (New York: Hyperion Books, 2002). Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite authors. The vivid images her prose paints in my mind stay with me for hours and even days. Recent works such as The Round House and LaRose stunned me into contemplative silence, and I’ve been reading my way through her extensive body of work. For readers who grew up loving the Little House series, Erdrich’s Birchbark House collection offers a story missing in Wilder’s work. She centers her series around an Ojibwe girl named Omakayas and follows the family’s adventures throughout the upper Midwest while exploring historical Ojibwe lifeways.
O. E. Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth (New York: Harper & Bros., 1927). Sometimes a book crosses your path at exactly the right moment. I was looking through a car windshield at the South Dakota landscape when I first heard Rolvaag’s opening lines: “Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon. . . . Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.” Written over ninety years ago, the book details the struggles Rolvaag’s Norwegian characters encounter within the Plains environment, with each other, and with their mental health, providing excellent topics for discussion, all set on the expansive prairies of South Dakota. The struggles of young homesteading wife Beret have parallels in the mental health issues of Mrs. Brewster in These Happy Golden Years.
Norman K. Risjord, A Popular History of Minnesota (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005). As a historian, I constantly seek out academic scholarship on minute details of events and people. Not all of these tomes make for enjoyable lakeside hammock reads. However, Risjord’s accessible and concise history of Minnesota provides everything I want when I reach for nonfiction at the beach. A Popular History of Minnesota provides an introduction to a state central to many of the Ingallses’ adventures. After you finish with the Minnesota book, seek out Risjord’s Dakota: The Story of the Northern Plains and Shining Big Sea Water: The Story of Lake Superior.