Reading or re-reading a work as iconic as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series is like a dialogue with entire generations of readers who have gone before. I realized that while browsing through scholar William Anderson’s fine essay in Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. Anderson’s “Pioneer Girl: Its Roundabout Path into Print” is one of eleven essays in the book and examines Wilder’s first efforts at getting her pioneering experiences into print. It appears in the section that editor Nancy Tystad Koupal called “Beginnings and Misdirections,” which is fitting in more ways than one—maybe the “misdirections” part in particular.
Anderson deals with the questions that began around 1963 about actual dates and places in the Ingallses’ story. For example, a Colorado woman questioned whether the family had really lived in Kansas at all, and she convinced publisher Harper & Row that the Ingalls family had actually settled in Oklahoma (sort of a Dorothy moment for Laura? You’re not in Kansas anymore).
Anderson goes on to tell how Eileen Charbo, who worked at the Kansas State Historical Society library in Topeka, did her own investigation, trying to save one of Kansas’s favorite regional books for Kansas. And she did. She contacted Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder’s daughter, who sent her a typewritten copy of the births and deaths as recorded in the Ingalls family Bible, including a reference to “Caroline Celestia Ingalls born Wednesday, Aug. 3, 1870, Montgomery Co. Kansas.”1 Charbo then found the Ingalls family—incorrectly listed as “Ingles”—in the Ninth United States Census of 1870 in Rutland Township of Montgomery County, Kansas. True, Montgomery County is in southeast Kansas, smack up against the Oklahoma border, but it is still in Kansas. After reading this passage in Anderson’s essay, I vaguely remembered hearing a teacher discussing this issue with the class when I was in elementary school, and I asked my wife if she remembered any uncertainty about where the Ingalls homestead was. She said no.
Back cover of Little House on the Prairie, First Harper Trophy Book printing, 1971
That wasn’t quite the end of the discussion, however. The next day, my daughter, who has grown up reading her mother’s old boxed paperback set of the Little House books, brought me that copy of Little House on the Prairie. There, on the back of the Harper Trophy Book from 1971, are these words: “The Big Woods was getting too crowded. So Pa sold the little log house and built a covered wagon. They were moving to Indian country! They traveled all the way from Wisconsin to Oklahoma, and there Pa built the little house on the prairie.”
Clearly, Harper & Row thought that the Ingalls family had gone to Oklahoma. But perhaps that is not so surprising. Wilder herself originally wrote that the family lived forty miles from Independence, Kansas, and, as a result, she and Lane had searched for the homesite in Oklahoma. But it was actually only about thirteen miles from Independence—and still in Kansas.2
1 Quoted in William Anderson, “Pioneer Girl: Its Roundabout Path into Print,” in Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2017), p. 86.
2 John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), p. 266n27. See also Fred Kiewit, “Stories That Had to Be Told,” Kansas City Star, May 22, 1955.