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.

Father Pernin in the Big Woods, 1871

“Trees, trees everywhere, nothing else but trees as far as you can travel from the bay, either towards the north or west.”—Father Peter Pernin 1

My research has taken me deeper into the woods of Wisconsin. The quotation above is from Father Pernin, a Catholic priest who was assigned to the parish of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in 1871. His descriptions of the Wisconsin woods are similar to those in Wilder’s remembrances. Early in the Wisconsin section of Wilder’s Bye revision to Pioneer Girl, she wrote, “The Big Woods began where we were, and ran on and on to the north, with not another house in them” (p. 14). As beautiful as both Father Pernin’s and Wilder’s woods were, there were dangers.

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Wood engraving of Father Peter Pernin, circa 1874. Wisconsin Historical Society

Near the beginning of Wilder’s Wisconsin section, she describes a forest fire close to the Ingalls home. As the family looked at the smoke in the distance, they heard a series of gunshots. Charles Ingalls quickly realized that someone was lost in the burning woods and fired his own gun to help them find their way out. Curious to learn more about the forest fires, I turned to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s wonderful digital archive. Through the site, I learned that the summer and fall of 1871 were particularly dry for the Big Woods, and fires were a continuous concern. In Father Pernin’s remembrances of the summer of 1871, reprinted in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, I was surprised to read a story similar to the one that Wilder recounted about the lost stranger. Father Pernin told of hunting one day in the woods near Peshtigo when he became lost. He, too, fired his gun as a plea for help and was able to exit the woods only after hearing voices shouting and directing him out.

Finding such coincidences and historical insights drives my research for the upcoming Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts. The hunting trip was not the only gripping story from Father Pernin’s narrative. Next week, I will delve into Father Pernin’s remembrance of the Peshtigo Fire of 1871.

—Jacob Jurss

1. Rev. Peter Pernin, “The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 54, (Summer 1971): 247.

Searching for Laura’s Big Woods

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The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest’s Hidden Lakes Trail in Wisconsin.

Where did Laura’s Big Woods go? That is the question I am currently exploring. In her memoir, Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that the woods “went on and on into the north,” (Brandt 14). Today, those woods are not quite so big.

I grew up in Wisconsin, and going “up ‘nort’” meant traveling to a cabin or a tent on the shore of a lake surrounded by what was left of the Big Woods of Wilder’s memory. I remember one trip when, staring out of my parents’ station wagon windows, I watched as we passed an extra-long truck on the highway. When I asked what kind of truck had passed us, my parents said it was a logging truck used to haul the cut timber from the north and was probably headed to one of the paper mills in Wausau or Stevens Point. “Your great-grandparents worked in a logging camp as camp cooks, you know,” my mom told me. At the time, I imagined the cook camp to be like a Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty restaurant, with all-you-can-eat powdered doughnuts and huge stacks of pancakes.

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A group of men transporting logs across the snow-covered ground on a sled near Rice Lake, Wisconsin, circa 1872. Wisconsin Historical Society

As my interest in history and the history of my family matured, family members showed me the letters and photographs of my great-grandparents from the logging camp. Written in a mix of Dutch and English, the letters talked about longing for home. The timber that drew hundreds into the woods, including my great-grandparents, was the Big Woods of Wilder’s childhood. The lumber was used in dozens of paper products and building materials across the nation. Timber floated down swollen rivers to Chicago, where it was shipped east on the Great Lakes by boat or by railroads that took it in all four directions. The lumber industry helped build America, but it also greatly diminished the northern woods. Today, in protected national and state parks, the woods are returning to Wisconsin, a rebirth that is welcomed by so many like me, who love to be surrounded by trees and feel at home in the Big Woods.

Jacob Jurss

 

A Wilder Conference Wrap-up

“Outstanding!” “Loved it!” “Amazing!”

Forgive us. We at the Pioneer Girl Project need a moment to toot our own horn. For the past several months, we had been working to organize and host the 2017 South Dakota State Historical Society History Conference, April 28–29, an annual event for which the society’s various programs choose the theme in rotation. This year, we chose “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-year Legacy” to celebrate Wilder’s one hundred fiftieth birthday (February 7). The event was a tremendous success! Those attending represented over twenty states, and all of the contributing authors to Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder made the trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to be featured speakers.

In a true meeting of minds, the speakers and an audience that asked superb questions probed important topics and demonstrated that there is still much to learn about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Panelists and conference-goers discussed Wilder’s relationship with truth and whether it morphed under the editorial leadership of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Caroline Fraser and Amy Mattson Lauters considered the career of Lane and in turn debated how her work and experience influenced her mother—the budding novelist—or vice versa. Sallie Ketcham took a different route, examining how the fairy tale tradition and Wilder’s own familiarity with these old tales informed the development of her works. Ann Romines, Elizabeth Jameson, and Paula Nelson pointed out several commonly held misconceptions about family life, childhood, and the female experience on the frontier and explored the historical realities of the woman who shaped our understanding of this time period. John E. Miller compared Wilder to other prominent midwesterners. William Anderson treated conference attendees to an examination of Pioneer Girl’s path into print, relating his own firsthand experiences with the people and circumstances that kept Pioneer Girl semi-underground until 2014. Michael Patrick Hearn presented his observations on the changing attitude towards Wilder’s novels.

Given that nearly seventy-five years have passed since the final Little House book was published during Wilder’s lifetime, what keeps audiences captivated by her writing? Noel Silverman, representative for the Little House Heritage Trust spoke to this question in his luncheon address, “Her Stories Take You with Her.” Sharing his experience in working with Wilder’s literary legacy for over forty-five years, Silverman observed that readers discover something about themselves in Wilder’s writings. Her lasting legacy, he asserts, tells us that we can all live an adventure, learn to be self-reliant, find comfort in our families, and much more.

“Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-year Legacy” was a great experience. The conference focused attention on a legacy that continues to shape our understanding of the American past. Thank you to all of the speakers, attendees, vendors, and coordinators who made it possible.

—Jennifer McIntyre

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All of the conference speakers participated in the final panel, which explored the question of Wilder’s lasting legacy.