Following the Trail of Wilder

No so long ago, I found myself making another trip along U.S. Highway 14, this time from Pierre—pronounced “peer”—to Brookings in eastern South Dakota. As I drove, my thoughts meandered between summer road-trip plans and contemplation of the railroad tracks running alongside me. For those of you who don’t know, Highway 14 follows the very railroad line, the old Dakota Central Railway of the Chicago & North Western, that brought Charles Ingalls and his family to Dakota Territory. As I raced trains past Huron, the few remaining buildings of Manchester, and on through De Smet, my thoughts focused on how different distances are now in comparison to the 1800s.

Pierre to Brookings

The famous frontier family traveled thousands of miles by wagon, as well, and as readers of the Little House novels and Pioneer Girl know, it could take days, even weeks, to get from one place to another, depending on the weather and the condition of the “road,” or what we would call a trail today. And, with wagon travel not being especially popular in 2015, it can be hard for a modern audience to fathom the time and effort it took to travel among the homesteads, geographical landmarks, and towns that Wilder mentions in her original manuscript. With the advent of first the railroad and then the car, places have become much closer than they were, figuratively speaking.

That is why one of my favorite things about Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is the eight maps created for various sections in the book. Taken together, they give contemporary readers a better perspective on the scope of the Ingallses’ journey. Along with several historical maps reproduced in the book, they help me begin to visualize just how big the “Big Woods” were, where New Ulm is situated in relation to Walnut Grove, MN Mapand how close the Loftus store was to “Residence C. P. Ingalls, Justice of the Peace” in De Smet.

As detailed in our blog post from 2012, these maps did not simply appear on our desks one day. Since we did not have Laura Ingalls Wilder there to help with the finer points, Pioneer Girl Project editor Jeanne Ode dived into Wilder’s manuscript and waded through historical maps from archives throughout the region to give readers a clearer picture of the Ingallses’ now-famous voyage. The map-making journey, like the family’s sojourn, was “filled with twists, turns, and the occasional dead end,” Ode says. Determining locations from sources that sometimes conflicted and creating preliminary sketches to guide the illustrator who created the final, well-designed versions was not always a walk in the park. As readers will discover, though, the trip was worth the trouble. As for me, the drive down Highway 14 now has a bit of extra meaning.

Jennifer McIntyre

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

The First Oyster Festival in Kingsbury County

“Now that Christmas is over,” a South Dakota newspaper recently stated, “it’s time to start thinking about celebrations to welcome the New Year. And what to serve at any parties you’re hosting. Why not do as the pioneers did and include oysters?”

Ancient Greeks served them as an incentive to drink. Romans imported and fattened them. American Indians on both coasts considered them a staple in their diet. Abraham Lincoln also served them to guests at parties at his Illinois home. And, while oysters may have declined in popularity since Wilder’s time, when she was a young girl, these bivalves were considered a delicious addition to any special meal—even making an appearance at a gathering of early Dakota Territory settlers on New Year’s Day in 1880.

This small gathering near De Smet included Charles and Caroline Ingalls, their daughters Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace, as well as their fellow homesteaders, friends, and hosts, Robert and Ella Boast. As a biography of Charles Ingalls later declared, it was “the first oyster festival in Kingsbury county.”

Oysters Ad

The Overland Oyster Express Company advertisement, n.d. The Library of Congress

At the Boasts’ small home, the party “was all the more fun because their one room was so small, that with the table set, we had to go in the outside door and around to our place at the table one by one and leaving the table we must reverse the order and go out the door following the scripture that, ‘The first shall be last and the last first,’” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. She even described the meal: “There were oysters and honey and sauce [from] home dried fruit the Boasts had brought with them. We told stories and joked and had a happy New Year’s day.”

As the Pioneer Girl Project researchers learned, the Ingallses and Boasts probably dined on canned oysters. Fresh or canned, oysters had soared in popularity in the nineteenth century, and packed in hermetically sealed cans, they “traveled the breadth of the wide trans-Missouri region almost as soon as Americans ventured there,” according to historian Paul Hedren. Due to the railroads, oysters were almost everywhere by 1880.

The Oyster Bay in Deadwood, South Dakota, n.d. The South Dakota State Historical Society

The Oyster Bay in Deadwood, South Dakota, n.d. The South Dakota State Historical Society

However, oysters were not what made New Year’s Day 1880 special. Instead, as readers of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography can tell from the loving way Wilder described this time with the Boasts, the day was worth remembering because it was shared with friends and was full of joy and song.

As the New Year 2015 begins, we hope your celebrations are just as sweet.

—Dorinda Daniel and Jennifer McIntyre on behalf of the Pioneer Girl Project staff

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

Mary Ingalls Goes to School

In our work on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we found an interesting series of documents illuminating Mary Ingalls’s path to the Iowa College for the Blind.

When Mary suffered the illness that led to her blindness in the spring of 1879, she was fourteen years old. Her education prior to that time had been inconsistent, interrupted by her family’s various moves across the country. More dramatically, she had no training in how to function as an adult without vision, making her totally dependent on others for most of her basic needs. Compounding the situation, her father, Charles Ingalls, had just taken a job on the remote Dakota Territory frontier. What would become of Mary far from doctors and specialized schools?

Charles Ingalls was a resourceful man, and he soon found helpful colleagues in the new town of De Smet. One, attorney Visscher V. Barnes, mentioned frequently in Pioneer Girl, set to work to find resources for Mary Ingalls. In a series of letters to George Hand, the secretary of Dakota Territory, in the summer and fall of 1881, Barnes described Mary as “a young and intelligent lady,” who “ought to be provided for in some way.” Barnes outlined the situation—“her parents are unable to make much provision for either her treatment or mental culture”—and he inquired about any territorial laws that might apply (Barnes to Hand, Aug. 29, 1881).

Hand apparently responded that the territorial council had passed relevant legislation in 1879 that authorized the governor of the territory to enter into a contract for five years at a time with an institution in one of the surrounding states of Iowa, Minnesota, or Nebraska to provide education for a blind resident, “keeping in view economy” as well as the welfare of the student. A letter in the Rose Wilder Lane Papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library indicates that in 1881 the Iowa College for the Blind in Vinton charged $216 per out-of-state student per year. The student had to provide transportation to and from Vinton and his or her own clothing, and in some cases, students were unable to do even that (Robert Carothers to Wm. C. Cort, Dec. 21, 1881). Once the Iowa College for the Blind accepted the contract with the territorial governor to educate its blind students between the ages of five and twenty-one, the school became for all intents and purposes “the institution of the blind of [Dakota Territory]” (D.T., Compiled Laws, 1887, sec. 272).

Amos Whiting, the Kingsbury County superintendent of schools, began the necessary paperwork to certify that Mary Ingalls, age sixteen, was “blind and unable to obtain an education in the common schools” and was therefore “entitled to the benefit of the Institution for the Blind of Dakota for the term of five years, she not having passed any time in a like institution” (Whiting, certification, Oct. 3, 1881). For his part, Visscher Barnes continued to push for additional support, asking if there were any way for the territory to provide for transportation for her and her parents, as well. “The young lady has been blind only a short time,” he wrote in October, “and not long enough to learn to help herself. She is, in fact, at present left almost helpless, and it will be necessary for her parents to attend her” (Barnes to Hand, Oct. 7, 1881).

The records do not show whether or not the plea for additional support was successful, but on October 15, 1881, Dakota territorial governor Nehemiah G. Ordway approved Mary A. Ingalls’s certification of eligibility for five years of schooling (presumably through age twenty-one). She carried a copy of the signed document with her to Vinton when she entered a month later on November 23, 1881. The need to raise funds for transportation may have caused the lag in time. In These Happy Golden Years, Wilder vividly recorded the difference the education made in Mary’s circumstances. During Mary’s first visit home about two years later, a trip that she accomplished on the train by herself, Mary “moved easily around the house,” Wilder wrote, “instead of sitting quiet in her chair.” She was “gay and confident,” and when Pa brought in her trunk, “she went to it, knelt down and unlocked and opened it quite as if she saw it” (pp. 124–26). In Pioneer Girl, Wilder noted that Mary had “pleasant college memories to dwell upon” and was “able to sew and knit and make beadwork, to read her raised-print books and to play the organ that Pa and I together had bought for her as a surprise” (p. 295).

Mary Ingalls in 1889, the year she graduated from the Iowa College for the Blind

Mary Ingalls in 1889. Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

Mary Ingalls would actually attend the Iowa school for a total of seven years from 1881 through 1889, two more than the five she was originally eligible to receive. In 1885, the territorial council had amended the law to read that each blind student was entitled to a total of eight years of schooling. When Dakota Territory became the two states of North and South Dakota in November 1889, however, the state of South Dakota took a different approach to the education of its blind citizens, putting the burden for payment on individuals or individual localities. When Mary Ingalls sought to return to the Iowa College for the Blind in 1892, she was informed that it “would be impossible” because the state of South Dakota had “appropriated no money for the education of the blind” (Mrs. Robert Carothers to Mary Ingalls, Dec. 7, 1892, RWL Papers). The state would not establish a school for the blind until 1900; by that time, Mary Ingalls was thirty-five years old.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

 

 

When a Man (like Almanzo) Goes Courting—1876

As readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books know, courting was a special time in Wilder’s life—a time when the set of her clothes and the condition of her hair were especially important to the young Laura Ingalls. The same is true in Pioneer Girl, where Wilder lovingly describes her poke bonnet, her brown poplin, and her lunatic fringe, among other fashion details. We see Laura primping before the mirror and sewing items of clothing with care. Almanzo’s perspective during the same time period, meanwhile, is left pretty much to the reader’s imagination. Did he primp and preen before he went to visit Miss Ingalls, or was that solely a woman’s prerogative?

Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder, circa 1885. Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association

One of the joys of newspaper research is the light it sheds on the habits and customs of people in different eras. In the course of our work with Pioneer Girl, we came across a wonderful column in the Decorah Iowa Republican of December 8, 1876, that illuminates the ritual of courting as a man experienced it:

We have in our family [at] present a young man who is deeply, we trust successfully, engaged in going a-courting. . . . When Sunday afternoon arrives it is plain to see that something is about to happen. Our young man is fidgety and non-communicative and cannot sit in one place half a minute at a time.  He is continually interviewing his watch and comparing it with the old eight-day, coffin-shaped clock in the corner. He looks in the glass frequently, and draws his forehead locks first back and then forward, and combs them up and puts them down, and is unsatisfied with the effect throughout.

The smell of bay rum and bergamot is painfully apparent. When he shakes out his handkerchief musk is perceptible. His boots shine like mirrors. There is a faint odor of cardamom seeds in his breath when he yawns. He smooths his . . . mustache with affectionate little pats, and feels his . . . side whiskers continually. . . . He tries on all his stock of neckties without finding just the thing; and he has spasms of brushing his coat, that commence with violence and last till one grows nervous for fear the broadcloth will never be able to stand it. . . .

And at seven, he sets forth, clean and tidy from top to toe, looking precisely as if he had just stepped out of a bandbox.

The image is so vivid that one can almost feel the anxiety of a young man like Almanzo as he worried over his appearance.

While allowing that a woman had the same issues in getting ready to greet a suitor, the writer was more sympathetic with the young man, who had to “walk up in the cannon’s mouth” of a young woman’s family, “consisting of father, and mother, and grandmother, and maiden aunt, and half a dozen brothers and sisters, and inquire in a trembling voice: ‘Is Miss Arabella at home?’”  Poor Almanzo.

The Republican column is not just entertaining; it is an invaluable historical resource that provides important clues about male grooming habits during the period, and it also gives modern readers a better appreciation for Almanzo Wilder’s perseverance in courting Miss Ingalls.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

When is a crab not a crab?

When it’s Laura Ingalls’s ultimate weapon in the struggle against Nellie Oleson.

Fearsome creatures roam through the pages of Wilder’s novels: howling wolves, screaming panthers, devastating grasshoppers, hungry bears lurking in the woods, and a badger that sends Laura into headlong retreat. But pound for pound, what can compare with the animal that Laura meets while wading in a pleasant pool? Ever-vigilant, swift to attack, slow to disengage, alien in form and bellicose in disposition, audacious, ferocious, tenacious: it is the Jabberwock of the Minnesota prairie, the legendary beast of Plum Creek—of course, I mean the old crab.

It is clear that her encounter with this crusty old crustacean made a strong impression on Wilder, who was eight or nine years old at the time. The crab first appeared in her autobiography, Pioneer Girl, where it is clear, as it is from her detailed description in On the Banks of Plum Creek (p. 129), that the animal was not, in fact, what we would call a crab. So what was it?

Orconectes virilis, one of the crayfish species indigenous to southwestern Minnesota.

“Don’t tread on me.”
Image by D. Gordon E. Robertson.

As it happens, we are not the first ones to ask. Wilder’s daughter and editor Rose Wilder Lane wondered, too, and wrote Wilder for clarification. Lane included her own description of a crab: about the size of a turtle, with eyes “like a snail’s,” and appearing somewhat like an oversize spider. Lane suggested that the creature that Wilder saw might really have been a crawdad or crayfish. Wilder confirmed her daughter’s suspicions but also affirmed that young Laura had not been frightened for no reason: “I assure you he was enormous.”1

One might wonder why Lane let the error stand, but perhaps that’s the wrong question. To declare Wilder’s usage to be an error is to make unwarranted assumptions about her historical and linguistic context. Wilder agreed that it was not a crab, but added, “we always called them crabs.” Wilder was no more wrong in calling her crawdad a crab than a Texan is wrong in calling her 7-Up a coke. Some words simply had different meanings to Wilder and her neighbors, and our job as annotators is to suggest an explanation when something doesn’t seem to make sense. It usually comes down to differences in time, place, and circumstance.

I would point out that none of the three crayfish species indigenous to southwestern Minnesota is exactly “enormous,” either—but history—and biography—are all about context. Wilder’s “crab” may not really have been so huge, but it clearly made an enormous first impression. Try running into one for the first time as an eight-year-old, with no internet or Animal Planet to prepare you, and let me know how it goes for you.

We know how it went for Nellie Oleson.

Rodger Hartley

1. The correspondence discussed here between Wilder and Lane dates to the summer of 1936 and is found in Wilder’s papers at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.