The Bottom of the Ninth

The presses never seem to rest for Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. The ninth printing of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book recently arrived at the South Dakota Historical Society Press warehouse, bringing the total number of copies in print to over 165,000. Our good friends to the north at Friesens Corp. sent us photographs of the bestseller on their production lines. It’s like our very own episode of How It’s Made!

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And to Think That It All Began with “The Long Winter”

This week, as a heavy winter snowstorm blanketed the Northern Great Plains, I found myself with the happy task of reading or rereading a lot of the popular and critical literature about Wilder: Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow, Ann Romines’s Constructing the Little House, and Elizabeth Jameson’s “In Search of the Great Ma” (Journal of the West 37 [Apr. 1998]), among others. The personal journeys of the women who wrote these works include a childhood familiarity with and love for the Little House books that ultimately led them to make the author the subject of their research. Each has her own personal encounter with Wilder herself (Romines) and/or the books (Fellman, Jameson). Other writers make their encounters with Wilder’s books the subject of their work: Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie or Nancy McCabe’s From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, for example. I came to realize that, just like these women, I have my own “Laura” story.

NTK in 5th Grade

Me in fifth grade.

It begins in the fifth grade at Notre Dame Academy in Mitchell, South Dakota, when Sister Kieran began to read The Long Winter out loud after lunch one day. The timing was significant because most of her pupils lived nearby, and we had just trudged through snow and wind, parked our rubber over-boots and snow-crusted winter coats and scarves in the cloakroom, and taken our seats in the warm classroom. Laura’s hard winter outlasted our own and made us all grateful that our winter had not matched hers (although there were one or two years in the fifties and sixties when that could not be said). It also made us proud that the Ingallses were South Dakota pioneers—after all, De Smet was just a few miles up the road.

Even before Sister Kieran finished The Long Winter, I had visited the Carnegie Library downtown and borrowed all the Wilder books in the original edition with the Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle illustrations. My favorite book would always be The Long Winter, but I also developed a fondness for On the Banks of Plum Creek (which had plenty of blizzards, too) and These Happy Golden Years with its harsh beginning at the Brewsters’ (more snowstorms!)  and its happy ending. As I grew up to become a sort-of hippy at the end of the 1960s, I thought that all I needed was a plot of land and a copy of Little House in the Big Woods to become self-sufficient (in the event of a nuclear blast or some other catastrophe). I never tested the theory, but I remain convinced that, just like Ma and Pa, I am fully capable of making cheese and smoking meatLongWinter1

While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Wilder’s influence directed my career choices, I did eventually turn to American literature (via foreign languages, linguistics, and a brush with archaeology) as my academic path of study and to editing as my profession. Along the way I was fortunate enough to edit and annotate some of the Dakota writings of L. Frank Baum (Our Landlady, 1996), who spent a couple of formative years in Aberdeen, South Dakota. As editor of South Dakota History, I also got to work with and edit two of William Anderson’s groundbreaking biographical and critical studies of Wilder: “The Literary Apprenticeship of Laura Ingalls Wilder” (1983) and “Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: The Continuing Collaboration” (1986). In 1997, I was invited to become a member of the board of directors of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Inc., of De Smet, which is the curator of both the Surveyors’ House and the Ingalls Home. Serving on that board has been a privilege and a pleasure, and it has brought me close to many aspects of the Little Houses.

Then in 2005, when the South Dakota Historical Society Press decided to publish a biography series featuring the region’s important citizens, the first one the Press commissioned was Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (2007). A few years later, we began work on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, and again, I found the winter of 1880–1881 to be one of the high points of Wilder’s memoir, allowing me to sink my teeth into research in the newspapers of the period. Here I found that the burning of hay was an economy farmers practiced even before the long winter, that price gouging among merchants was not a failing only of Mr. Loftus, that the lonesome whistle of the last freight train into De Smet came a little later than Wilder remembered, and that American Indians had in fact acted as weather forecasters on other occasions.

And, for me, it all began on that snowy day in 1957, when Sister Kieran stood in front of the class and started to read, “The mowing machine’s whirring sounded cheerfully from the old buffalo wallow south of the claim shanty, where bluestem grass stood thick and tall and Pa was cutting it for hay.”

Nancy Tystad Koupal

I am grateful to classmate Susan Tessier Mollison who helped me refresh my memory of those long ago days at Notre Dame Academy.

The Hub of the Prairie

The process of western migration in the nineteenth century resembles an avalanche rolling down the sides of a thousand social networks. Here’s how it works: somebody moves out to the newest frontier, survives the winter, and writes back to all their friends and relations. “Come away I say! The water’s fine!” And lo, the smitten readers pack their belongings and jostle into the sunset.

The Charles and Caroline Ingalls family is a good example of this process. They moved to Iowa to go into business with some acquaintances who had bought a hotel. They moved to Dakota to work with family members on their railroad-grading contract. Charles wanted to move to Oregon because some fellow he met once in 1876 said the bees liked it better out there, but Caroline finally put a stop to his wanderlust.

If you could draw a vector on a map to show every move made by every family during this era of settlement, the lines would not be randomly distributed. Many of them would cluster together and form streams, particularly along railroads.

This isn’t really news, of course; once one gets past the idea of the Totally Independent Pioneer—a legend that Laura Ingalls Wilder herself did much to craft—it’s really quite obvious that people followed friends and family in their movements. Examples of this aggregate motion lie just under the surface of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.

We at the Pioneer Girl Project first observed this phenomenon when looking for Walter Ogden. (Remember him? He stayed with the Ingalls family in the Surveyors’ House during the winter of 1879–1880 because they thought it would be wiser to stick together. Later Wilder decided that the Totally Independent Pioneer made a better story and wrote him out of By the Shores of Silver Lake, just as she would later excise the George Masters family from The Long Winter.) Charles Ingalls identified Walter Ogden as “a young man that was working for Henry Peck,”1 who turns out to be William Henry Peck, a farmer and sometime boardinghouse keeper for railroad workers in Beadle and Kingsbury counties.

A map of Grundy County, Iowa. Cartography Associates, David Rumsey Collection

Grundy County, Iowa. Cartography Associates, David Rumsey Collection

Hm. Peck. Another name that sounds familiar, but why? Fort Peck? No, that’s not it. Gregory Peck? Wait, what was Mrs. Boast’s maiden name? Aha!

Ella Boast, née Peck, came from Iowa, where she met her husband. And what do you know? So did W. H. Peck. They came from the same county, in fact; Grundy County, Iowa, was just packed with Pecks. We soon also discovered that both Ella’s and W. H.’s nuclear families moved to Grundy County from the same township in the same county in Illinois. Plato Township in Kane County.

Anybody know why this information is so exciting?

Because there were Ingallses in Plato Township, Kane County, Illinois, that’s why.

In 1850, we find two of Charles Ingalls’s uncles, James C. Ingalls and (Samuel) Worthen Ingalls, living in Plato Township with their families. Charles himself is living with his parents, Lansford and Laura Ingalls, in Campton Township, just to the south. Lansford appears to have followed his two brothers, who were already in Kane County by 1840. This chain of family migration reminds one of the James and Angeline Wilder family’s gradual move from New York to Minnesota and Dakota two to three decades later. Multiply this process by thousands, and you get a picture of the vast churning in the Midwest in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. These people were not moving to random places; they were moving between nodes of preexisting social and kin networks.

Lansford Ingalls and his family, of course, later went to Wisconsin. But what about the other Illinois Ingallses? Where did they go?

Well, at this point, it should be obvious.

They went to Grundy County, Iowa. Same as the Pecks. Worthen Ingalls took his family there, and so did James’s son Jasper. James himself went to Howard County, Iowa, not too far from Burr Oak, although he wasn’t around anymore when his nephew’s family came through in 1876–1877.

And since Wilder tells us that Louis Bouchie was a distant relative of Robert Boast’s, it’s not surprising to find both Louis and Joseph Bouchie in Grundy County, too, in 1880.

Considering the finite cast of characters in Wilder’s pioneering story, that’s a lot of traffic through one random county in Iowa with an 1870 population of about six thousand. And this movement is not the whole picture; I am confident that given more information, and extending the search beyond the circle of people whom Wilder mentions, one could uncover even more links in the Kane–Grundy–Kingsbury chain and more ways in which these people were related to each other by blood, marriage, or other social ties. And this stream is but one of hundreds or thousands in a truly epic but basically methodical migration.

It makes you wonder what might have prompted some of the other moves that the Ingalls family made. Did Charles Ingalls know someone in Kansas before he moved his family there? We may never know.

It no longer seems so strange, though, when Wilder tells us that Caroline Ingalls “was not excited at finding Uncle Henry at the R.R. camp” at Silver Lake.2 It was a small world, founded on social ties; the real surprise would have been not running into family or friends.

Rodger Hartley

1 Ingalls, “The Settlement of De Smet,” n.d., Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, S.Dak.

2 Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, n.d. [1938], box 13, file 194, Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

One Year! The Pioneer Girl Project Celebrates the First Anniversary since the release of “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography”

It is hard to believe that one year has passed since the Pioneer Girl Project first unloaded pallets upon pallets and boxes upon boxes of books—readying them to be sent out all over the world. And what a year it has been!

Places like The Bookstore at Fitger's, in Duluth, MN, put Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography front and center in their stores.

Places like The Bookstore at Fitger’s, in Duluth, MN, put Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography front and center in their stores.

“The past twelve months have been a wild ride,” says Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the Pioneer Girl Project. “We are ecstatic; the success of the book has been beyond our wildest dreams.”

On November 17, 2014, the South Dakota Historical Society Press released Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. And, as readers of this site know, the first three printings quickly sold out as the title became the “it book” of the 2014 holiday season. As more copies rolled off the presses, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography jumped up to number one on Amazon.com and spent six weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list, an amazing accomplishment for what various media networks have dubbed “a small press on the prairie.”

To date, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography has sold over 145,000 copies and been featured in the Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio. It has over 2,635 ratings and 600 reviews on Goodreads and has been held up as the best way to publish a famous author’s first draft—see the Willamette Week’s review of Go Set a Watchman and numerous conversations on Reddit/r/books. It is the stuff of publishing legends. And it does not end there.

PW Mitzis Tweet

Mitzi’s Books, an independent bookstore in Rapid City, SD, gave a shout out to the Press over Twitter when they received their issue of Publishers Weekly.

The November 2, 2015, issue of Publishers Weekly featured Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography on the cover. And the November 23, 2015, issue will feature a story about the book and Press.

What a great year it has been!

—Jennifer McIntyre

Talk of the Town: BookExpo America, 2015

BookExpo America is the largest book conference in the world, and it attracts big names and industry giants. Held this past week in New York City, May 27-29, the event showcases such popular authors as Rainbow Rowell and James Patterson. Luckily, we had Laura Ingalls Wilder on our side, along with a couple of children’s stories by L. Frank Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz. In 2014, the little booth with gigantic books was big news, and this year coverage of the little press on the prairie continued.

In her article for Publishers Weekly, correspondent Claire Kirch talks about the big-name authors that readers can find at the South Dakota Historical Society Press. She also reflected on last year’s BookExpo where the Press booth received a respectable amount of visitors as a new exhibitor but was not besieged by readers attempting to get swag” from Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.  “In hindsight,” Kirch states, “perhaps booksellers should have mobbed SDHSP’s booth last year.” The reason? “Pioneer Girl has sold 125,000 copies in five print runs since its publication,” Kirch notes. A few of those lucky readers that picked up the tote bag featuring Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography from last year’s BookExpo stopped by again to show us their coveted bag—a little worse for the wear after twelve months’ of daily use.

BookExpo America in New York created the opportunity for some great conversations with booksellers and librarians from around the United States, and Pioneer Girl Project staff got to share in the excitement of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography with some of its most avid fans in the industry. I am looking forward to 2016 in Chicago.

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Where are the pasques?

I had the enjoyable task of researching and writing several of the annotations on flora and fauna that appear in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. As a young girl, Wilder was outdoorsy, observing everything from crabs to coyotes to the wide variety of plants that grew on the prairies of eastern Dakota Territory while she lived there. In addition to knowing the common names of many of the area’s various grasses, Wilder mentioned numerous prairie flowers, including the “may flowers, thimble flowers, wild sweet Williams, squaw pinks, buffalo beans and wild sunflowers, each blooming in its season” (p. 234) around her family’s homestead near De Smet. Her curiosity about the natural world is one reason that I find a certain omission so curious.

Wilder’s Pioneer Girl never mentions the blossom that is one of the first signs of spring and which, in 1903, became the official state flower of South Dakota. The fuzzy buds of the American pasqueflower (Anemone patens/Pulsatilla patens) typically emerge from the ground in March or April, opening into two-toned purple blossoms with bold yellow centers. Still fairly common, pasqueflowers must have been abundant in Wilder’s day. Why didn’t she mention them?

A little research leads me to some speculation. First, botanist Dave Ode writes in his book Dakota Flora: A Seasonal Sampler (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2006) that pasques prefer “gravelly hills, buttes, and river bluffs” (p. 13). The Ingalls homestead, situated in a fairly low spot next to the Big Slough, might not have had just the right soil, drainage, or exposure for the little plants to establish themselves. Second, the blooms can be delicate and fleeting, lasting as little as a couple of days if a spring blizzard buries them or if hot, dry winds shrivel them (both scenarios are possible during a South Dakota spring). They can also be extremely localized, with numerous plants clustered on a single knob or hillside and none occurring on the next one over.

An image of the pasqueflower image found in Dakota Flora. Photograph taken by Jeanne Ode.

Photograph of a pasqueflower in bloom taken by Jeanne Ode

Finally, pasqueflowers don’t always come up in the spring. In drought years, they may lie beneath the surface for months or until another year, when enough rain falls to make them emerge. On the Ode “homestead” east of Pierre, the north side of a bluff is dotted with some fifty markers pegging the locations of pasqueflower plants. Every spring, we climb the hill to take inventory. This year, after a winter with little snow and a spring with no rain, not a single pasque has popped up. Maybe Wilder never walked past just the right spot at just the right time.

Or, the explanation might be simpler. Pasqueflowers are sometimes called prairie crocus for their resemblance to the domestic crocus, goslinweed for the fuzzy buds that resemble a gosling’s down, and prairie smoke for the plumes that appear once the plant is done blooming. Recently, I also found some sources that list “May Day flower” or “May flower” as an alternate name for the pasque. In Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we speculated that Wilder’s may flower may represent the meadow anemone (p. 235). We can’t know for sure, but perhaps those in and around De Smet during the 1880s knew the pasque as the may flower.

Jeanne Kilen Ode

Follow the Breadcrumbs, Find Missouri

The Pioneer Girl Project is always on the lookout for new information, and sometimes, thanks to the courtesy of readers like you, it just turns up out of the blue—or in this case, out of Minnesota. Here’s the story as Project staff experienced it.

During their second stay in Minnesota, the Ingallses were neighbors of Mr. and Mrs. Pool and their grown daughter, Missouri, who kept house for her parents. In Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder remembers Missouri’s wonderful garden full of beautiful flowers and how she would smoke “a very small, white clay pipe” as she told “stories of Missouri, the state for which she was named.” Missouri even helped to care for Mary Ingalls during the illness that caused her blindness.

According to Wilder, Missouri had several siblings and was the only one not married. At last they learned the reason: Missouri’s mother, hoping to keep her daughter home to care for her in her old age, had been working to thwart Missouri’s courtships. Yet, despite her mother’s machinations, Missouri did finally marry and return to Missouri—only to die tragically during childbirth.

That’s Wilder’s memory. The editors of the Pioneer Girl Project read Wilder’s account and asked, as they had before, “What can we verify?”

Census data got us nowhere; there simply was no Missouri Pool listed in Minnesota at the right times. However, Nancy Tystad Koupal’s close reading of the Redwood Gazette for the years 1876–1879 turned up a Thomas Pool, who lived in Walnut Grove, Redwood County, Minnesota, “with his wife and daughter.”  Armed with this information, we went back to the census: was there ever, anywhere in the United States, a Thomas Pool with a daughter Missouri? There was—and moreover, there was plenty of information to confirm that his family was the one Wilder remembered and to confirm that Thomas Pool and his wife Annie had moved to nearby Brown County, Minnesota, in 1880. But—now here’s the thing—in 1880, Missouri Pool is gone. She’s enumerated with her parents in 1870, but by 1880, she was either married, dead, or both. With no married name, it was impossible to track her beyond that point (Missouri was a more common first name than you might think). So there the matter rested. “There is no further trace of her,” was the conclusion in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. “She would have been about forty years old” (p. 141n76).

Enter Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck.

These residents of Willow Lake Township in Redwood County read this annotation and recognized a familiar local name. They let us know that Missouri Evans, née Pool, was buried on a nearby farm. When we contacted them to follow up, they even went out and took some pictures of the grave marker for us. As you can see, Missouri Evans died in early 1881 at the age of forty—about the right age for our Missouri Pool. Was it the same woman?

Photograph taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck

Photograph taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck

Yes, it was. Now that we had her married name, everything fell into place. Missouri Evans’s 1880 census data matched what we would expect to see in Missouri Pool’s. The census data led to marriage records, and soon we had a clearer picture of Wilder’s friend. Missouri Pool married widower Henry Evans on March 14, 1880, in Brown County but she died thirteen months later. No death records are immediately available, but according to the Irlbecks, local tradition says that Missouri, like too many women of the nineteenth century, died in childbirth. Clearly, she did not return to her name state of Missouri, as Wilder believed, but had stayed nearby in Minnesota. By the time of her death, however, the Ingalls family themselves had moved on—to Dakota Territory and the Hard Winter.

Incidentally, two of Henry Evans’s other wives are also buried in this private cemetery: Anna, who died February 27, 1880 (we know, right?!), and Amelia, who died March 29, 1884. The women of Minnesota must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the multiple widower packed up and moved to Canada—taking one final wife with him.

Jennifer McIntyre & Rodger Hartley

We thank Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck for contacting the South Dakota Historical Society Press with information on Missouri Pool and for taking the pictures of the Evanses’ gravesites.

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Photographs taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck

“Most important work of its kind,” Foreword Reviews Magazine takes a look at Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography

Foreword coverWilder’s memoir is a fascinating piece of American history, but it’s the annotations that set Pioneer Girl apart as the most important work of its kind.

Generations have grown up with Laura Ingalls Wilder through the Little House on the Prairie books and television show, reminders of the courageous families that braved the wild frontier. More than eighty years after it was first written, the memoir that started it all, handwritten in pencil on lined tablets, will finally be published. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, is clearly the definitive work on Wilder. It thrills with new insights and mature content, educates with historical facts and documentation, and enlightens with cultural perspective and commentary, all while maintaining the spirit of adventure and integrity that is the backbone of the Little House world and Wilder herself.

Pioneer Girl, a first-person, nonfiction account completed by Wilder in 1930 when she was in her sixties, chronicles the Ingalls family’s journey as they made their way back and forth across the land, beginning in Kansas, 1869, when Wilder was just two years old, through 1888 in Dakota Territory, when Wilder was a young married woman of twenty-one. The manuscript appears in its entirety, complete with misspellings, musings, and notes from Wilder for her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who acted as her mother’s editor and literary advisor.

In and of itself, Pioneer Girl is a fascinating slice of Americana, but it is Hill’s annotations, based on years of research and the efforts of the Pioneer Girl Project contributors, that set Pioneer Girl apart as the most important and relevant work of its kind.

The annotations range from informative to speculative, but each shows respect for the subject as well as impressive knowledge of the entire Little House series and other versions of the memoir, which Wilder and Lane had hoped to publish for an adult audience. The details are astonishing. For example, when Wilder mentions casually that, “the wild roses bloomed,” Hill identifies the “prairie rose” or “rosa arkansana.” A detailed description follows, and Little House on the Prairie is referenced, where a passage in Wilder’s distinct voice notes, “The roses scented the wind, and along the road fresh blossoms, with their new petals and golden centers, looked up like little faces.” In this way, many notes link the information in Pioneer Girl to its counterpart, whether juvenile fiction or serials credited to Wilder, or in some cases “borrowed” by Lane for fictionalization.Foreword review

Great attention is paid to accuracy, and Hill notes when and where Wilder’s recollections stray from historical records, as well as intentional changes made to improve the narrative. Every detail, from the weather and geography to likely romantic trysts and scandals, songs sung, books read, and food eaten, was verified for authenticity. Photographs, maps, and other original treasures like these are sprinkled throughout. Four appendices offer additional insights and are followed by an extensive bibliography and index.

With Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Hill has ensured that not only will Laura Ingalls Wilder continue to inspire, but that her audience will grow and expand for generations to come.—Pallas Gates McCorquodale, Foreword Reviews

Find more reviews of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography here.

Pioneer Girl is out!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThank you to everyone who pre-ordered Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography from the South Dakota Historical Society Press. We are glad to say that the books will be arriving on your doorsteps in the next few days.

On Friday, November 14, the long-awaited Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography made it safely to our warehouse. As pallets of boxes were brought off the semitrailer, sod-house-like structures began to form and Press staffers Lisa Nold and Rodger Hartley quickly lost their sense of time and place.

However, they soon gathered themselves in preparation for the big sendoff beginning DSCF0259November 17.  That Monday, as if jolly ol’ Saint Nick himself were looking over our shoulders, box upon box was packed with care to be sent off across North America. The project of packing pallets to be shipped to our national and international distributors and bookstores had also begun. Boxes were hauled from one storage area to the next as our muscles protested the change from desk-work to dock-work. Yet, we can report that DSCF0257the work is done and the books are on their way to bookstores around the world.

Thousands of readers will soon discover what advance reviewers have already found:

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The pre-orders are stacked and ready to go.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography . . . is clearly the definitive work on Wilder. It thrills with new insights and mature content, educates with historical facts and documentation, and enlightens with cultural perspective and commentary, all while maintaining the spirit of adventure and integrity that is the backbone of the Little House world and Wilder herself.”—Foreword Reviews

With Judy Thompson’s beautiful cover art, maps, photographs, and annotations all enhancing Wilder’s Pioneer Girl, we think the result is astounding.  We hope you agree.

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Everyone helped load boxes for the De Smet Memorial Society.

Jennifer McIntyre

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography can still be ordered from the South Dakota Historical Society press for $39.95, plus shipping and tax.

The Long Shot Hits Home

“One blizzard came just before time for school to close. . . .

At a country school eight miles north of De Smet, the teacher [had] brought his children to school in a sleigh. . . . [Going home,] the teacher, with his load, was lost on the prairie.

When he knew that he couldn’t find his way, he . . . turned the sleigh bottom up over them. Then he crawled underneath the sleigh himself and there they huddled together while the snow blew and drifted over the sled keeping out the wind. . . . No one was frozen except the teacher whose hands and feet were frozen, but not badly.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 315

There were a lot of long shots in the research for Pioneer Girl. We look at Wilder’s life through a double pane of frosted glass, trying to overcome both the shortfalls of her memory and our own distance from the subject. Not all of our long shots hit the target. But today, to tide you over until the book arrives, I’d like to tell you about one long shot—perhaps the longest one of all—that did.

Wilder places the story of the schoolteacher and his improvised igloo in the winter of 1884–1885, but the setup is strongly reminiscent of the “children’s blizzard,” a storm that struck without warning on a warm day in January 1888 and killed more than a hundred schoolchildren as they struggled to get home. Wilder did not always remember events in their true chronological order, and it seemed likely that she misplaced this one. But she does not give the teacher’s name, and the Kingsbury County newspapers that could complete the story have been lost, so there, it appeared, the matter would rest.

The scene: it’s about 10:30 one morning and a deadline looms. Enter Pioneer Girl Project director Nancy Tystad Koupal with a grin on her face and a book in her hand.

“Rodge. See if you can find that schoolteacher in here.”

“Wait, are you kidding me? We don’t even have a name.”

“We have a hunch. We follow it.”

“It’s not like I can look him up in the index. This could take all day.”

“It’s a good book. Humor me. I sign your paychecks.”

It is a good book. It’s The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin, and it is a fantastic and heart-stopping book. I read most of it that day, too quickly, like a man tearing through a haystack looking for a glint of metal, and this is all the glint I found:

“Mr. Stearns, a Dakota schoolteacher, had taken his three children to the school he taught near De Smet the day before and still had not returned home” (Laskin, Children’s Blizzard, p. 218).

Unfortunately, there’s no footnote and no follow-up. We still had laughably little information to work with. What were the odds? Still, the circumstances were tantalizing: here was a schoolteacher, near De Smet, whose own children were among his students. And critically, he had a name. It was federal records time.

Census first. Ready? No Stearns in the area in 1880. 1885 territorial census for the county is lost. 1890 federal census is melting the ice caps. 1895 state records are lost. 1900 federal census—stop!—there’s one.

Orion E. Stearns. Spirit Lake Township, Kingsbury County. Farmer. Born Vermont, August 1847. He and his wife have had five kids, of whom three survive; two are still in the household.

Now we’re cookin’ with Crisco. We have his name and his year and state of nativity, and we can follow this man, whether he’s Wilder’s man or not, wherever we want to. Orion’s daughter Bessie is a schoolteacher; does it run in the family?

Back to 1880.

No.

Back to 1870.

Yes.

Orion Stearns is teaching school in 1870 in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. It doesn’t prove that he taught in 1888. But let’s say you’re a homesteader and you have teaching experience. What would you do in the winter to earn a little extra money to help prove up your claim?

Maybe this wasn’t a fool’s errand after all. I look at the clock. Between this and other tasks, it’s now 6:30, and I am not going home until this is settled.

But have I gotten ahead of myself? We still don’t know if Orion Stearns was even in Dakota Territory in 1888. But the U.S. General Land Office might.

Guess what: it does. On August 16, 1889, Orion E. Stearns was issued a patent under the Homestead Act for a quarter section seven miles northeast of De Smet. At this point my heart finally says: this is the guy. But that’s not enough. It’s a pretty safe bet that he was there in 1888, but I can’t be absolutely sure unless I order the paper land-entry records, which will take a month to arrive.

Wait. I have other evidence right under my nose. Remember his two kids living with him in 1900? The census shows that his son Sumner was born in Dakota Territory in 1885. Again, I can’t be certain they were in Kingsbury County, but we’re building a strong preponderance of evidence. This is the guy. While we’re at it, what other evidence can we glean from the kids’ census entries?

Little Sumner would have been too young to go to school in January 1888. Orion’s four other kids appear in the 1880 census: Lewis, Guy, Nellie, and Bessie. And then I remember that by 1900, only one of the three eldest kids was still alive. That’s when I start checking grave records.

Ten minutes later I’m in the State Archives library. This started with a book; let it end with a book.

Ten minutes after that, it’s over.

Beyond a doubt, Mr. Stearns was the man Wilder remembered, and I know exactly what happened to him and his kids on January 13–14, 1888. The long shot slams right into the bullseye.

And all I can think is, No. That isn’t how the story is supposed to end.

The story ends with annotations 90–91 on pp. 315–16 of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. It’s a book full of long shots, gunshots, schottisches, and everything else from the world of Wilder, and it finally ships out next week. Thanks for your patience, thanks for reading our blog, and stay tuned for more.

Rodger Hartley