Art on the Prairie

Driving across the plains was mesmerizing. All along the horizon, the vast sky melted into the wide expanse of rolling prairie. What a boundless landscape! I was heading west to my first artist residency at the Homestead National Historical Park (HNHP) in Beatrice, Nebraska. This was the blank canvas I was looking for—a wide open space with new vistas, new challenges and, most important of all, the opportunity to create something new.

The artist residency program at the HNHP is one of fifty such programs offered through the National Park Service. Artists are invited to live and work on site to experience and interpret the unique themes of their respective parks.  During my 2010 residency at the Homestead National Historical Park, I caught a glimpse of what life was like as a prairie homesteader. I spent two weeks sketching the native prairie in the105 degree August heat and researching the daily lives of these pioneers. I read their journals and viewed vintage photographs of family life on the plains. I discovered that, like me, these pioneers were seeking new opportunities on the boundless prairie landscape.

As a result of my time at the HNHP, I was able to create a body of work that I titled The Homestead Series. The twelve watercolor paintings that comprise this series were complete just in time for the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act. Soon the twelve paintings were touring the Midwest to celebrate this landmark event. One of the venues that exhibited the Homestead Series was the Cultural Center in Pierre, South Dakota, home of the South Dakota Historical Society Press. There, Nancy Tystad Koupal, editor of the Pioneer Girl series, saw the exhibit. What a thrill to receive her phone call asking if I would be interested in creating the Pioneer Girl book covers!  My prairie vista suddenly expanded to include South Dakota and the most famous homesteader of all, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Since then, I have created all four cover images for the Pioneer Girl series. My Inspiration for the first three of these paintings comes from Wilder’s beautiful descriptions of the prairie in her Little House books and from my time spent hiking through the abundant grasslands that surround my Iowa home. Each image represents a season, both literally and figuratively, in Wilder’s pioneer life, with the first three featuring spring, summer, and fall on the Ingalls family’s South Dakota homestead. For Dakota Twilight, the watercolor I created for Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, the prairie is dressed in its colorful autumn array, bathed in the soft light of a midwestern sunset. Laura and her sisters are eagerly heading home across the fields for supper. It’s the end of another day exploring a boundless prairie where there are always new vistas on the horizon.

—Judy Thompson

Note:  The Homestead Series will be on exhibition at the Homestead National Historical Park until November 2021.  You can also view the Homestead Series on Judy’s website.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Heroine

In her final Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder showcased her independent spirit and almost defiant self-reliance. For instance, in These Happy Golden Years, Laura—clad in an attractive brown dress—joins Almanzo on a buggy ride behind the colts. When Almanzo boldly puts his arm around her, Laura immediately startles the horses with the whip, causing them to bolt. “You little devil!” Almanzo says as he uses both hands to get the horses back under control. He then challenges her: “Suppose they had run away,” he says, but she replies that there was nothing for them to run against. “‘Just the same!’ Almanzo began, and then he said, ‘You’re independent, aren’t you?’ ‘Yes,’ said Laura” (THGY, pp. 166, 168). In her study of the pioneer heroines of regional fiction, Ruth Ann Alexander characterized these fictional protagonists as “usually quite independent of their mothers, they identify with male activities in homesteading, ranching, and small-town life, and they triumph through exercising their own wits and resources.”1 In her autobiography and her novels, Wilder portrayed herself with all the traits of this classic heroine of adolescent pioneer fiction.

In Pioneer Girl, Wilder is even more overtly independent. During thunderstorms in the summers of 1884 and 1885, she separated from her mother and sisters who huddled in the cellar and aligned herself with the riskier behavior of her father, who stayed outside to watch the storms approach. “I didn’t like to go into the cellar,” she wrote, “and I wanted to see the storm. I thought I could get to safety as quickly as Pa could. And I proved it.”2 While Laura does not insist on staying outside with Pa in Wilder’s draft of These Happy Golden Years, she does express “a strange delight in the wildness and strength of the storm winds, the terrible beauty of the lightening [sic] and the crashes of thunder.”3

Nancy Tystad Koupal

1.) Alexander, “South Dakota Women Writers and the Blooming of the Pioneer Heroine, 1922–1939,” South Dakota History 14 (Winter 1884): 306.

2.) Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, forthcoming 2021), p. 438.

3.) Wilder, “These Happy Golden Years” manuscript, p. 202, Rare Book Collection, Detroit Public Library, Detroit, Mich.

Summer 2019: Progress Report

At this point, the Pioneer Girl Project team is hard at work on its third book—Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, which concentrates on Rose Wilder Lane’s editing of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography. This book will present the texts of the three surviving typescript versions of Wilder’s autobiography side by side, with a fourth column for annotations. The design is tricky, and our long-suffering designer spent weeks laying out the Kansas section of the book in various ways so that we could determine how to insert annotation numbers and how much room there would be for both notes and photographs. These determinations had to be made before we could go any further in preparing the manuscript. When the new book is complete, the reader will be able to use it with Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography on one side and the relevant Little House book on the other, making a total of five columns of textual material for readers to compare.

And what can the reader expect to see? By comparing the original Pioneer Girl text with the Brandt typescript, for example, one can discern some of Lane’s working patterns as editor. In fact, it is possible to determine just when she began to toy with the idea of creating a children’s book written in third person. That point occurs on page 10 of the Brandt text, where she takes a pencil and changes Wilder’s “I” to “Laura” or “she,” and “we” to “they.” The annotations will alert readers to such editorial changes and what they mean.

The book will also have history components. Background essays about the areas in which the Ingalls family settled—Kansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Dakota Territory—will provide brief overviews of elements that formed the backdrop of Wilder’s world but are not explicitly mentioned in her texts. In Wisconsin, for instance, we talk about the rapacious lumber industry, the destructiveness of fires, the unhappy results of treaties with American Indian tribes, and other things that did not really intrude on the consciousness of a five-year-old girl.

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A man stands outside the Fort Bennett post office. South Dakota State Historical Society

In the annotations, where possible, we will also add more background. First, we plan to explore puzzles that we did not sort out in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, and second, we will look at details introduced within the three revised texts themselves. For example, the Kansas section of the Bye text includes the speculation that no one had missed the people the Benders killed because “all that country was so far beyond the reach of postal service that no one was troubled when no word came back from men who went into it.” The plain fact is, the mail accompanied settlers everywhere on the frontier. Independence, Kansas, already had a post office when the Benders settled in that region in 1870 or 1871. Labette County, where the serial killers lived, had at least one postal branch by 1868 and another by 1869. In that era, post offices were often housed in a postmaster’s home.

As we continue our work on the revised texts, we will begin to share our research finds and update our progress via this blog. In so doing, we hope to give insight into our work while offering sneak peeks at the new book. Thank you for reading.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

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.

The Little Town in the Land of Used-to-Be

A few months ago, a high-school student asked me what I thought Laura Ingalls Wilder’s favorite place was of all the places she had lived as a young person. Of course, a definitive answer to such a question is not really possible when Wilder herself is not around to consult. But, as I told the student, Wilder’s writings do suggest an answer: De Smet, South Dakota.

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De Smet, 1883. Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

Another South Dakota author, Elizabeth Mills Irwin, captured what I think De Smet meant to Wilder. In her book, Home of the Heart: Mound City Stories (2000), Irwin wrote: “For everyone, at least for the lucky, there is a home, a secret place to which one returns, in memory and in dreams, for solace when today is a wrong day, when doubt clouds the future, when wherever we are now, we need something that is not there. It is our heart’s home” (p. 13). De Smet was Wilder’s heart’s home and possibly Almanzo’s as well.

In 1948, Wilder wrote to a friend: “Almanzo and I were speaking of De Smet the other day, and of how we were still homesick for Dakota” (quoted in A Little House Sampler, ed. William Anderson, p. 231). The Wilders had returned to South Dakota three times in the 1930s, but she still wrote of her yearning for the prairies and what she called “the Land of Used-to-Be” (ibid., p. 227). Those faraway days were now mostly a memory of her youth, as she recalled in her poem “Little Town of Memory”:

Oh little town of memory
I hear your voices singing
I see your faces bright and gay
I hear your sleighbells ringing—

Those three trips home had taught her what so many of us have learned about going home, and she concluded her poem with these lines:

It all has gone beyond recall
Its music fades away. (A Little House Reader, ed. Anderson, p. 166)

And, yet, it did not fade away, neither for Wilder nor for her millions of readers. In writing By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, Wilder visited her heart’s home of De Smet, South Dakota, “in memory and in dreams,” and preserved it for all of us.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

I am indebted to Paula Nelson for the gift of Elizabeth Mills Irwin’s book.

C-SPAN Stops by the Pioneer Girl Project

Earlier this fall, C-SPAN correspondents stopped by the Pioneer Girl Project office to speak with Nancy Tystad Koupal during BookTV’s City Tour of Pierre, South Dakota. From discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself to why Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is such a big book, Koupal outlined the Project’s early beginnings, current research, and overall goals as it continues down the path of research into the life and legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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Below are a few excerpts from the program. You can watch the entire episode online at c-span.org.

“We decided to go with the handwritten original because that was the closest to Wilder’s original voice,” says Koupal. (However, as detailed in a previous post, once that decision was made, the work did not end there.)

“I was in New York and my staff called me and said, “We’re on the New York Times Best Seller list!” We were pretty excited. . . . It opened up a whole new world of conversations.”

“One of the things that the Annotated Autobiography did was it allowed us to think more comprehensively about what the Pioneer Girl Project was doing. And what we decided we wanted to do was really look at those [other Pioneer Girl] texts and start to answer some of those questions . . . what kind of an editor was Rose Wilder Lane? What kind of a memory did Laura Ingalls Wilder have? To what extent was that memory supplemented by her daughter’s work? And this is just on the nonfiction aspects of it. . . . Then you move into fiction, and how did that daughter/editor/agent lead her mother into fiction, and what were the roles of the two women?”

“We don’t understand, as a reading public, . . . the role of authors and editors—that most good authors have good editors. . . . We don’t talk to enough editors, we don’t know what it is that they really do, and I think we should rectify that.”

Two other South Dakota Historical Society Press authors were interviewed during the Pierre City Tour, Cathie Draine, author of Cowboy Life: The Letters of George Phillip, and Nathan Sanderson, author of Controlled Recklessness: Ed Lemmon and the Open Range. Find more information about both books at sdhspress.com.

 

L’Étoile du Nord State

The sun is rising over the prairie grasses and I’m on the road again. Instead of an old wagon and horses, I’m relying on the horsepower of a Uhaul truck and a rusted-out ’99 Pontiac Grand Am to take me east. This fall I accepted a post-doctorate fellowship position teaching Native American and Indigenous studies and the history of the American West at the University of Minnesota, Morris. I’ll be trading the grasslands of the Great Plains for the woodlands at the edge of the prairie. Don’t worry—I will still be researching and blogging for the Prairie Girl Project. Perhaps it is serendipity that as my research on Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts turns towards the North Star state I will now make my home there.

Moving is never easy. Ferrying boxes back and forth from an apartment to the truck is not walking from Wisconsin to Kansas, but it shares some unpleasant characteristics with that task. Harder still are the goodbyes to good friends. Though technology helps to shorten the distance, nothing replaces the good-morning smiles that working with the folks of the South Dakota Historical Society Press provided. Thank you Nancy, Jeanne, and Jenny for making my time in South Dakota so wonderful.

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Garth Williams illustrated the 1953 edition of Little House on the Prairie. On page twenty-eight, he depicts Caroline Ingalls using a cast-iron “spider skillet.” 

As my last day in Pierre approached, I found myself smiling at the comparison of a covered wagon to my soon-to-be overstuffed Uhaul. My smile quickly vanished as we piled a second couch into the truck. A box with kitchen goods contained an old cast-iron skillet bought from an antique dealer near Watertown, South Dakota. The first such skillets came into widespread use in the late 1800s, and the Ingalls family found them useful when traveling or on the homestead. And while Laura Ingalls Wilder may have appreciated my ever-growing home library, Charles Ingalls may have asked whether I could condense the collection a bit to ease the weight in the wagon.

My family came to help me pack and begin a new chapter in Minnesota. With the last box safely stored in back, my dad and I climbed into our rig. I guided the truck down a hill and out across the grasslands. As I transition from the edge of the West to the northern outpost of the Midwest, stay tuned in coming weeks for essays on the Dakota War of 1862, maple sugaring, and plagues of locusts.

Jacob Jurss

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