Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and edited and annotated by Nancy Tystad Koupal and the Pioneer Girl Project editors is now available to readers worldwide—visit our orders page for more information.
For generations, the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder have defined the American frontier and the pioneer experience for the public at large. Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts presents three typescripts of Wilder’s original Pioneer Girl manuscript in an examination of the process through which she and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, transformed her autobiography into the much-loved Little House series. As the women polished the narrative from draft to draft, a picture emerges of the working relationship between the women, of the lives they lived, and of the literary works they created.
“Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts makes fresh observations that are sure to jump-start new debate and discussions centered on the writer-editor relationship between Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane,” writes Wilder scholar and bestselling author William Anderson. “The annotations provide great documentary background and reveal the behind the scenes work that led to the now classic Little House series.” Wilder and Lane’s partnership has been the subject of longstanding speculation, but Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts is the first work to explore the women’s relationship by examining the evolution of surviving manuscripts. Showcasing differences in the texts and citing numerous additional documents and handwritten emendations, the editors create a rich resource for scholars to use in assessing the editorial and writing principles, choices, and reasoning that Lane employed to shape the manuscripts for publication. Readers can follow along as Wilder grows into a novelist that “no depression could stop.”
Driving across the plains was mesmerizing. All along the horizon, the vast sky melted into the wide expanse of rolling prairie. What a boundless landscape! I was heading west to my first artist residency at the Homestead National Historical Park (HNHP) in Beatrice, Nebraska. This was the blank canvas I was looking for—a wide open space with new vistas, new challenges and, most important of all, the opportunity to create something new.
The artist residency program at the HNHP is one of fifty such programs offered through the National Park Service. Artists are invited to live and work on site to experience and interpret the unique themes of their respective parks. During my 2010 residency at the Homestead National Historical Park, I caught a glimpse of what life was like as a prairie homesteader. I spent two weeks sketching the native prairie in the105 degree August heat and researching the daily lives of these pioneers. I read their journals and viewed vintage photographs of family life on the plains. I discovered that, like me, these pioneers were seeking new opportunities on the boundless prairie landscape.
As a result of my time at the HNHP, I was able to create a body of work that I titled The Homestead Series. The twelve watercolor paintings that comprise this series were complete just in time for the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act. Soon the twelve paintings were touring the Midwest to celebrate this landmark event. One of the venues that exhibited the Homestead Series was the Cultural Center in Pierre, South Dakota, home of the South Dakota Historical Society Press. There, Nancy Tystad Koupal, editor of the Pioneer Girl series, saw the exhibit. What a thrill to receive her phone call asking if I would be interested in creating the Pioneer Girl book covers! My prairie vista suddenly expanded to include South Dakota and the most famous homesteader of all, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Since then, I have created all four cover images for the Pioneer Girl series. My Inspiration for the first three of these paintings comes from Wilder’s beautiful descriptions of the prairie in her Little House books and from my time spent hiking through the abundant grasslands that surround my Iowa home. Each image represents a season, both literally and figuratively, in Wilder’s pioneer life, with the first three featuring spring, summer, and fall on the Ingalls family’s South Dakota homestead. For Dakota Twilight, the watercolor I created for Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, the prairie is dressed in its colorful autumn array, bathed in the soft light of a midwestern sunset. Laura and her sisters are eagerly heading home across the fields for supper. It’s the end of another day exploring a boundless prairie where there are always new vistas on the horizon.
Note: The Homestead Series will be on exhibition at the Homestead National Historical Park until November 2021. You can also view the Homestead Series on Judy’s website.
Over twenty-five years before Laura Ingalls Wilder published her book The Long Winter (1940), she shared her memories of Dakota Territory’s Hard Winter of 1880–1881 with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Lane, in turn, chronicled them for the readers of the San Francisco Bulletin in a newspaper serial called “Behind the Headlight: The Life Story of a Railway Engineer.” The serial ran in the Bulletin in twenty-four installments during October and November of 1915. It is difficult to track down copies of the Bulletin in these days of closures and short staffing due to COVID-19. Luckily, the Pioneer Girl Project obtained copies of the serial years ago, and the upcoming Fall issue of South Dakota History allows modern readers to explore the first four installments, set in Minnesota and Dakota Territory.
As Wilder told her husband Almanzo in 1915, Lane “went all around hunting up engineers to talk with” before writing the story. Her interview subjects included an engineer who “fired” on a train for the Chicago & North Western Railway on its run from eastern Minnesota into Dakota Territory from 1880 to 1885. Wilder claimed that Lane shared “some of what [the engineer] told her and some that I told her” in the Hard Winter portions of “Behind the Headlight.”1 The first four chapters of the serial thus provide a slice of Dakota Territory’s railroad history while previewing some of Wilder’s unique contributions to that history.
Here is a sneak preview of part of Lane’s first chapter:
It has been a good many years since I sat in a cab, and my nerves are not what they used to be, but I could take a special over the mountains yet, easier than I could write this story. I know how to handle a throttle, but I am awkward with a pen.
It is my observation that men are divided into two classes—the do-ers and the say-ers. You find a man who does things and usually he is not much good at writing about them. It works the other way around pretty often, too. I have read a good many stories about railroading, but I do not remember one that seemed to me to give the right idea of the work. . . .
It was work for young men who wanted excitement. It was pioneering work, adventurous and dangerous.
I do not remember the time I did not want to be an engineer. I used to hang around the depot in the little middle western town where I lived when I was a boy, and wait for the train to come puffing in. The engineer, a big, gruff fellow, always black with oil and coal dust, was a sort of demi-god to me—not an ordinary, commonplace man like my father and the other small storekeepers I knew.
If I had ever seen him washed up and in everyday clothes probably the shock would have changed my whole idea of railroading. But I never did. The first great event of my life happened when one day he lifted me into the cab and let me see the steam gauge and throttlebar at close range. I think I was about twelve at the time.
From that day on we were good friends. There was a great fascination for me about the engine, a big, black, powerful thing it seemed then, though it would be mighty small nowadays. The engineer, whose name was Burke, sometimes let me help him oil it, and he explained how it worked.13 I would have missed Christmas rather than fail to be at the depot when he drove it in.
13. Burke may be C&NW Roadmaster James Burke, who worked out of Burns Station (later Springfield) in central Minnesota near Walnut Grove. As roadmaster, Burke appears to have overseen repairs to the train tracks, and he took charge of snow shoveling operations on the western lines during the winter of 1881. Marshall (Minn.) Messenger, 29 Apr. 1881; Wilson to Koupal, 20, 24 May 2021.
As I sit down to bring readers up to date concerning our progress, I am reminded of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first mitten-knitting experience. “Taking great pains, with much hard work for days, I finished one mitten,” she wrote in Pioneer Girl. “Then I wanted to stop, but Ma said, one must always finish what she began.”1 And so it is here at the Pioneer Girl Project as we strive to finish what we have begun. I am pleased to report that after many years of hard work Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts is now at the printer. The South Dakota Historical Society Press will release it this coming October. Since my retirement as the director of the Press, I have been able to concentrate on this book, which we began in 2013, and bring it to a close. Unlike Wilder, however, I have enjoyed knitting this mitten, as it were, and am already happily clacking the needles as the Pioneer Girl Project’s next volume, Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, takes shape. This fourth book concentrates on the next phase of Wilder’s career, the writing of her first novel, Little House in the Big Woods (1932). It is scheduled for release in late 2022, ninety years after publication of Big Woods.
Once again, we asked watercolorist Judy Thompson to create an original work of art for the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts. Her work, titled “Dakota Twilight,” captures the beauty and soft colors of the prairie at twilight as Grace, Mary, Carrie, and Laura Ingalls return from a walk along the Big Slough. Ordering information for the new book will be available in the next few weeks.
Nancy Tystad Koupal
Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal, et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, forthcoming 2021), p. 38.
Last year about this time, we reported that the Pioneer Girl Project team was hard at work on Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts. And we have made progress, laying out the various sections of the manuscript as we complete work on them. Much remains to be done, however, and effective the first of July 2020, I will begin to focus closely on completing that book and the one that will follow: Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction.
I am leaving my position as director and editor-in-chief of the South Dakota Historical Society Press and as director of the State Historical Society’s Research and Publishing office. I will continue as director and editor-in-chief of the Pioneer Girl Project. As you might suspect, wearing all those hats has kept me rather too busy to focus on the Pioneer Girl Project. That is about to change, and I am looking forward to the transition.
Illustration for By the Shores of Silver Lake, drawn by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle, 1939
I realized how germaphobic I had become when I found myself wincing as I reread the opening chapters of By the Shores of Silver Lake. In chapter 3, Ma and the Ingalls girls board a passenger train for the trip from Walnut Grove to Tracy, Minnesota. Looking around at the railroad car and its inhabitants, Laura notices that a drinking fountain of sorts is available at one end. She watches a tall man with a bobbing Adam’s apple drink deeply from a cup and decides to check it out. A “fascinating” spigot and drain with a shelf for the cup lead her to drink her fill from the selfsame vessel before refilling it “part way, in order not to spill it” (p. 24), and carrying it back for Carrie and Grace to drink. Gasp. Think of the droplets they are sharing. But it gets worse.
Once the family arrives at the end of the line, they go to the hotel for dinner. They wash up at a communal wash basin, where a pitcher held “only a little fresh water for each of them.” A twenty-second handwashing routine is clearly not in play here. After a soapless rinse, they wipe off on a roller towel, the ends of which were “sewed together and it ran around on its roller so that everyone could find a dry place.” Freshened up, Ma and the girls head into the dining room, where “some how Ma found empty chairs,” and they joined the many men “sitting in a row at the long table” (p. 33). No social distancing whatsoever!
By chapter 5, the family’s ever-present danger of exposure to disease on top of the current stream of current Covid-19 news has exhausted me, and I put the book down to read another day.
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.
Around the world, Laura Ingalls Wilder remains a popular and influential writer—even in places wildly different from the Ingalls family’s expansive frontier. That fact was made clear again this week when Nanase Tominaga, editor at Taishukan Publishing Company, contacted the Pioneer Girl Project with good news. Taishukan is the Tokyo publisher of the Japanese edition of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.
Tominaga informed us that their edition is going into a second printing after just six months. Yumiko Taniguchi, the book’s translator, also shared a newspaper article that prominently features the work she did on the project.
We are thrilled to hear that Japanese readers are enjoying Wilder’s original manuscript as much as those in the United States.
The sun is rising over the prairie grasses and I’m on the road again. Instead of an old wagon and horses, I’m relying on the horsepower of a Uhaul truck and a rusted-out ’99 Pontiac Grand Am to take me east. This fall I accepted a post-doctorate fellowship position teaching Native American and Indigenous studies and the history of the American West at the University of Minnesota, Morris. I’ll be trading the grasslands of the Great Plains for the woodlands at the edge of the prairie. Don’t worry—I will still be researching and blogging for the Prairie Girl Project. Perhaps it is serendipity that as my research on Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts turns towards the North Star state I will now make my home there.
Moving is never easy. Ferrying boxes back and forth from an apartment to the truck is not walking from Wisconsin to Kansas, but it shares some unpleasant characteristics with that task. Harder still are the goodbyes to good friends. Though technology helps to shorten the distance, nothing replaces the good-morning smiles that working with the folks of the South Dakota Historical Society Press provided. Thank you Nancy, Jeanne, and Jenny for making my time in South Dakota so wonderful.
Garth Williams illustrated the 1953 edition of Little House on the Prairie. On page twenty-eight, he depicts Caroline Ingalls using a cast-iron “spider skillet.”
As my last day in Pierre approached, I found myself smiling at the comparison of a covered wagon to my soon-to-be overstuffed Uhaul. My smile quickly vanished as we piled a second couch into the truck. A box with kitchen goods contained an old cast-iron skillet bought from an antique dealer near Watertown, South Dakota. The first such skillets came into widespread use in the late 1800s, and the Ingalls family found them useful when traveling or on the homestead. And while Laura Ingalls Wilder may have appreciated my ever-growing home library, Charles Ingalls may have asked whether I could condense the collection a bit to ease the weight in the wagon.
My family came to help me pack and begin a new chapter in Minnesota. With the last box safely stored in back, my dad and I climbed into our rig. I guided the truck down a hill and out across the grasslands. As I transition from the edge of the West to the northern outpost of the Midwest, stay tuned in coming weeks for essays on the Dakota War of 1862, maple sugaring, and plagues of locusts.
Beading takes an artistic eye, an engineering mind, nimble fingers, and steady patience. I understood these facts in the abstract, but it was not until my wife, Leah, began beading that I grasped more fully the artistry of the work. Beadwork is on my mind because I am annotating Wilder’s memory of traveling to an Osage camp with her sister Mary and her father Charles Ingalls. Scattered on the ground were beads that Wilder and Mary collected. Wilder recalled in the Bye revision of Pioneer Girl that they “found a great many pretty ones. . . . white beads and blue beads and yellow beads and very many red ones” (p. 5). From these discarded beads, the girls made a small necklace for the family’s new baby. But from where did these beads come?
This “bead box” features red trade beads (first column, rows 13–19) like the ones that the Ingalls girls may have found. Photograph by Jennifer Tiger, courtesy of Osage Nation Museum
Before the common use of European-manufactured beads, American Indians used a variety of materials and techniques to create beads. Wampum beads were made of special shells and used to make pictograph belts that recorded important events like treaties. To make wampum beads, a person trimmed the edges of a shell until only the columella, or central column, remained, which was then cut into sections for the desired bead length. The colors of the beads and the designs created often held (and continue to hold) significant spiritual values. Many Great Lakes tribes incorporate intricate floral patterns filled with blues and purples, while Osage beadworkers, along with many Plains tribes, often include symmetrical and geometric patterns.1
Osage beadwork from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century often used geometric patterns for adornment. Photograph by Jennifer Tiger, courtesy of Osage Nation Museum
The beads the Ingalls girls found in the Osage camp were likely trade beads dropped during the beading process. Trade beads made their way through North American Indian trade networks starting in the sixteenth century. These were often Venetian glass beads made of molten glass wound around a wire. When the wire was removed, it left a hole just large enough for threading. The bead maker then cut the long glass tube to create different sizes of beads. They were often called “seed beads” because of their resemblance to tiny seeds. Later, the “drawn” technique increased the speed of this process. In this technique, a beadmaker pulled a rod through the molten glass, which created the threading hole.2 Following the decline of the Venetian glass monopoly in the eighteenth century, other nations developed glasswork exports, particularly the Czech Republic. Czech beads are shaped like donuts, wider than they are tall. In recent years, Japanese seed beads have expanded in popularity to take a share of the beading market. Japanese beads are often taller than they are wide, leading to more uniform results in some applications. Today, many beaders use beads of differing origin depending on the needs of the particular project they are creating.
I’d like to thank Hallie Winter and the Osage Nation Museum for generously providing answers to my questions and images of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century beads and beadwork. The images included in this post are a wonderful example of the variety and colors of beads the Osage used in the late nineteenth century. Thanks also to Leah, whose knowledge of beading sparked my own interest.
1. Lois Sherr Dubin, North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999), pp. 170–71; Garrick Alan Bailey, Daniel C. Swan, John W. Nunley, and E. Sean Standing Bear, Art of the Osage (Seattle, Wash: Saint Louis Art Museum University of Washington Press, 2004), p. 9.
2. Dubin, North American Indian Jewelry, pp. 172–73, 589–90.