“The Greedy Girl” and the Influential McGuffey Reader

In publishing, timing is everything. Take, for instance, the case of William Holmes McGuffey. In the early 1830s, a Cincinnati-based publishing firm asked the famed educator Catherine Beecher—who had moved to Ohio to advocate for frontier schoolteachers—to write a set of schoolbooks. She declined but recommended McGuffey, a Presbyterian minister and philosophy professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The resulting textbooks, commonly referred to as McGuffey Readers, were wildly popular, collectively selling more copies than any book other than the Bible over the course of the nineteenth century. In the process, they reshaped school methods and informed students’ understanding of the world.1

Laura Ingalls Wilder was likely one of the millions of nineteenth-century Americans that picked up a McGuffey Reader. In the Wisconsin section of Pioneer Girl, Wilder described being “horrified” after reading a story in an unnamed schoolbook that began with the line, “Laura was a glutton.” “I could hardly be comforted,” she wrote, “even when [her mother] said the story did not mean me, and that I need not be a glutton even though my name was Laura.”2 The story Wilder referenced first appeared in an 1828 issue of Lydia Maria Child’s educational journal The Juvenile Miscellany. Child, who became a well-known abolitionist and advocate for American Indian rights, wrote many of the journal’s stories, including “Little Laura,” which began reaching a wider audience in 1836, when McGuffey reprinted it in his Second Eclectic Reader.3  In that volume, the tale begins: “Laura is a greedy girl. Indeed she is quite a glutton.” The author then contrasts Laura’s intemperate eating habits with those of several animals, each of which practice restraint and balance their meals with copious physical activity. The narrative ends: “I do not love little girls that eat too much. I do not think they will have such rosy cheeks, or such bright eyes, or such sweet lips, or such happy tempers, as those who eat less. Do you, my little readers?”4 Leading questions of this sort peppered the McGuffey Readers, which aimed to mold students’ characters while enhancing their reading and writing skills.

“The Greedy Girl,” McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Reader, 1920

While turn-of-the-century progressive educators would deride McGuffey’s pedagogical and moral style as old-fashioned, many at the time considered the readers’ deliberate approach to teaching literacy innovative. McGuffey compiled four volumes—his brother later produced two more—calibrated to children at different stages of their education, furthering the then-novel notion that students should be separated into different grades. The books, which often doubled as history texts, brimmed with patriotic tales and brief sketches of national figures.5 The first two readers went to press in the early years of the common school movement. The Yankee reformers who spearheaded this crusade aimed to make a basic education free to all students. They also worked to create statewide departments of education that would unify standards for curriculum and teacher training. As the reformers’ vision spread, so too did the readers. Revised versions appeared regularly, helping the books stay relevant in an increasingly crowded market. For the bulk of the nineteenth century, the readers were a fixture in schools and homes across the nation.6

Faithful adherents continued to buy the readers well into the twentieth century. A school board in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, even voted to readopt the texts in 1961, a decision that sparked considerable controversy. Around the same time, a “back-to-basics” educational movement began touting the readers as superior to modern textbooks, which largely eschewed the rote instruction and heavy-handed moralizing that characterized McGuffey’s tomes.7 Regardless of whether or not the readers have stood the test of time either in terms of content or function, they hold a key place in the history of American education.

Cody Ewert


1. William J. Reese, America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), pp. 30–31; Johann N. Neem, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), pp. 39–40.

2. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 50. The influence of the readers can be glimpsed elsewhere in the Wisconsin section of Pioneer Girl. In several editions of the Second Reader, “The Greedy Girl” directly precedes a story titled “The Guide-Post,” which resembles Wilder’s account of Pa mistaking a burned stump for a bear while walking home in the night (PGAA, pp. 46–47). In “The Guide-Post,” however, a boy mistakes the titular sign for a ghost. In both cases, the lesson was to not let one’s imagination get the best of them, a standard McGuffey trope.

3. Julia Maria Child, “Little Laura,” Juvenile Miscellany, Nov. 1828, pp. 203–5.

4. William Holmes McGuffey, ed., The Eclectic Second Reader (Cincinnati: Truman & Smith, 1836), pp. 23–24.

5. Neem, Democracy’s Schools, pp. 41, 44–46, 49–50.

6. For the main achievements of the common school movement, see Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780–1860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982), pp. ix–x.

7. For more on this episode, see Campbell F. Scribner, The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016), pp. 141, 145–53.

The Enduring Myth of the Great American Desert

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s earliest memory of hearing a railroad whistle is documented in the Minnesota section of her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript. “I thought it was calling me,” Wilder claimed of her initial response to the engine’s distinctive wail.1 In one of the revised versions of the manuscript, however, her daughter and editor Rose Wilder Lane aimed to make this moment more instructive. In that version, Wilder’s father uses the train sighting to inform his children of the “building of railroads across the Great American Desert,” a grand project indicative of the fact that the family lived in “an age of wonderful invention and enterprise.”2 This bit of exposition reflected the way that many early twentieth century historians had come to view the settlement of the Great Plains. Prior to the devastation of the Dust Bowl, Americans’ ability to thrive in this allegedly uninhabitable region was a testament to their pioneering spirit.

A hand-colored wood engraving depicting settlers moving west across the Great American Desert, ca. 1875. Library of Congress

Edwin James coined the phrase “Great American Desert” to describe the vast prairies of present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska in his chronicle of Stephen H. Long’s exploration of the region in 1820. James proclaimed this area “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture for their subsistence.” Zebulon Pike had come to a similar conclusion following his journey across the Great Plains in 1806, declaring that Americans would have to “leave the prairies . . . to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines of the country.”3 Clearly, these early explorers had little knowledge or appreciation of the ways that Plains Indian tribes used the land. Further, these descriptions had a limited impact, as only a few northeasterners bought into this view of the region. Still, this expansive “desert”—a term used at the time to describe any undeveloped lands—appeared on at least a few mid-nineteenth century maps.4

While interlopers from the verdant northeast balked, those living closer to the Mississippi River viewed the region’s prospects favorably. Following the Civil War, railroad expansion and a humid weather cycle made the area appear ripe for settlement. Boosters touted the Great Plains as ideal for farming, claiming that the recent spate of favorable weather proved rain “follows the plow.”5 In an 1878 report to the United States Congress, however, geologist John Wesley Powell cautioned that the area beyond the one-hundredth meridian—which comprised both the “sub-humid” or semiarid Great Plains and the arid lands west of the Rockies—could not be farmed without irrigation and would see periods of debilitating drought.6

Few heeded Powell’s warnings; instead, many romanticized the Great Plains as a man-made garden, using the idea of the “Great American Desert” to suggest that hardy pioneers had conquered what was once thought to be a barren land.7 Lane’s edits reflected that celebratory trend and foreshadowed the family’s move west to Dakota Territory, where they would settle between the ninety-seventh and ninety-eighth meridians. Belying boosters’ promises, however, their success as homesteaders would be uneven to say the least. Moreover, Lane’s 1930 revisions came at the beginning of a sustained drought that coincided with the worst economic downturn in the nation’s history. All told, the 1930s were a disastrous decade for farmers in the region. Americans, it turns out, still had a lot to learn about life on the Plains.

Cody Ewert


1. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 62.

2. Wilder, “Pioneer Girl—Revised” [Brandt Revised], p. 15, Box 14, file 207, Laura Ingalls Wilder Series, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

3. Both quoted in The American West: A New Interpretive History, by Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 160.

4. Martyn J. Bowden, “Great American Desert,” in Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, ed. David J. Wishart (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), p. 389.

5. David M. Emmons, Garden in the Grasslands: Boomer Literature of the Central Great Plains (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), p. 128.

6. Donald Worster, A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 356, 480–81.

7. In contrast, the historian Walter Prescott Webb would use the term “Great American Desert” in his classic 1931 study The Great Plains to argue that many aspects of the settlement of the plains had been misguided. Bowden, “Great American Desert,” p. 389.

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