Wisconsin’s Big Woods—where and what was it?

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.

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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.

Nancy Tystad Koupal and Cody Ewert

George A. Tann and Black History in the West

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.

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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.

Cody Ewert


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.

3. American Medical Association, “African American Physicians and Organized Medicine, 1846–1968,” The History of African Americans and Organized Medicine, https://www.ama-assn.org/about/ama-history/history-african-americans-and-organized-medicine.

4. Alwyn Barr, “Jim Crow Laws,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, ed. David J. Wishart (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), pp. 454–55.

New Resource Available

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.

Jennifer E. McIntyre

Christmas in Dakota, Then and Now

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).

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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.

Cody Ewert

Sugar Bush

Spring is on its way. I know it still seems a long way off, especially since we recently received almost a foot of snow over a period of four days, but spring is on its way. I know this, not because it’s the beginning of Major League Soccer, or NCAA March Madness, or because pitchers and catchers are reporting in Arizona and Florida, but because when I head to work in the morning there is sun, and when I stop in the evening there are still traces of the sun’s light. The days are getting longer. Sugar bush season is here. That makes me think of Charles Ingalls in Little House in the Big Woods giving Laura and Mary their first taste of maple sugar in little brown cakes “with beautifully crinkled edges” that “crumbled in their mouths” (p. 121). Later, the Ingalls family travels to their grandfather’s home to help tap the maple trees and celebrate the coming spring season.

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Stereograph from a series by A.F. Styles of sugaring in Vermont, circa 1870. New York Public Library

While many Americans are familiar with maple syrup, maple sugar is less common, but the process for making both was largely the same. Pioneers were not the first to start tapping maple-sugar trees. Within Wilder’s Big Woods in Wisconsin, the Ojibwe, Dakota, Potawatomi, and Menominee all made maple sugar. When the warm days and cold nights of spring reawaken the sap, collectors tap a tree by making an axe cut or drilling a hole for a spiel. Then, as the sap travels through the tree awakening its photosynthesizing processes, some of the sap drips out through the spiel into a waiting birch-bark basket or pail. The sweet-tasting watery liquid is poured into kettles to boil over an open flame or in an evaporator in a sugar shack. Depending on the quantity of sugar to water, it could take between twenty-five to fifty gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. For sugar, the sap is boiled past the syrup stage until nearly all of the water is gone and then ground into sugar. For American Indians and early settlers, the sugar was lighter to carry and could be stored for months on end. It was also a welcome treat after the long cold winter.

I have been sugar bushing several times now. The smell of fires mingling with the boiling sap is magical. If your fingers start getting cold, you can always step near the boil kettle for a moment to inhale the warmth of the sugary flame. To find your own sugar bush this year, particularly those of you in the Northeast or Midwest, look for your local maple-syrup operation to see if it offers tours or check out a nearby nature conservatory or center. Many nature centers offer spring sugar bush special events. For those of you who live farther afield or out on the Great Plains where trees are scarce, check out the Fenner Nature Center’s Maple Syrup Festival for modern pictures of syrup collection, and the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary for a sugaring collection that showcases traditional practices.

Jacob Jurss

 

 

 

The Beads on the Ground

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?

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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

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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.

 

Jacob Jurss

 

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.

The Peshtigo Fire

As I wrote in my last post, Wilder’s description of a forest fire near the Ingallses’ Wisconsin homestead captured my imagination. She wrote in the Bye revision of Pioneer Girl of “the trees. . . burning like great candles” (p. 14). This description compelled me to look deeper into the history of Wisconsin forest fires. Growing up in the state, I had heard of the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, but I hadn’t realized it occurred in the same year the Ingallses returned to Wisconsin from Kansas. The Peshtigo fire occurred two hundred fifty miles to the east of the Ingalls home, but news of the fire would have reached Pepin quickly.

Some readers may not be familiar with the Peshtigo fire, but most have likely heard of the Great Chicago Fire. Both fires occurred Sunday night, October 8, 1871. The Chicago fire burned dozens of buildings and killed five hundred citizens. Peshtigo’s lesser-known fire claimed the lives of twelve hundred of the region’s residents and leveled the town. Father Peter Pernin recounted a starker depiction of fire than the young Wilder did. “I perceived about the dense cloud of smoke overhanging the earth, a vivid red reflection of immense extent,” he wrote. “Then suddenly struck on my ear, strangely audible in the preternatural silence reigning around, a distant roaring, yet muffled sound, announcing that the elements were in commotion somewhere.”1 The priest escaped to the river, where he spent several hours dunking his body in the water. By Monday morning, the fire had burned itself out, but the town of Peshtigo lay in ruins.

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Illustration of Peshtigo residents being driven into the river for safety. Wisconsin Historical Society

The survivors of the Peshtigo fire pulled themselves out of the river and began the slow process of rebuilding their lives with the aid of residents of the nearby towns of Marinette and Green Bay. A mixture of elements had combined to cause the disaster. The dryness of the summer, debris left from logging, a few careless individuals who did not fully extinguish their cooking fires, and sparks from trains have all been listed as contributing factors. In any case, the Ingallses were fortunate that, unlike the fire that destroyed Peshtigo, the fire of Wilder’s memory headed away from the family’s homestead. Readers interested in learning more of Father Pernin’s detailed remembrance of the Peshtigo fire can access it online here.

—Jacob Jurss

1. Rev. Peter Pernin, “The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 54, (Summer 1971): 253.