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.
Warm weather has arrived across the Midwest, and families are loading up the (station) wagon to head to beaches, museums, and lake cabins. School may be out, but that doesn’t mean that reading is taking a backseat. I always cherish summer as a time to revisit old favorites and discover new worlds between the covers. For those of you who have already devoured all of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography and Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder and are eagerly waiting for what’s next, here are some summer reading suggestions.
Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2017). No doubt many of you have already finished Caroline Fraser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but for those of you who, like me, have six books currently stacked beside their beds, perhaps this reminder will encourage you to float this title towards the top. Fraser’s well-researched biography weaves the narrative of Wilder’s life in and out of a greater American historical context that presents a nuanced portrait of Wilder’s life and times.
Louise Erdrich, The Birchbark House (New York: Hyperion Books, 2002). Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite authors. The vivid images her prose paints in my mind stay with me for hours and even days. Recent works such as The Round House and LaRose stunned me into contemplative silence, and I’ve been reading my way through her extensive body of work. For readers who grew up loving the Little House series, Erdrich’s Birchbark House collection offers a story missing in Wilder’s work. She centers her series around an Ojibwe girl named Omakayas and follows the family’s adventures throughout the upper Midwest while exploring historical Ojibwe lifeways.
O. E. Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth (New York: Harper & Bros., 1927). Sometimes a book crosses your path at exactly the right moment. I was looking through a car windshield at the South Dakota landscape when I first heard Rolvaag’s opening lines: “Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon. . . . Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.” Written over ninety years ago, the book details the struggles Rolvaag’s Norwegian characters encounter within the Plains environment, with each other, and with their mental health, providing excellent topics for discussion, all set on the expansive prairies of South Dakota. The struggles of young homesteading wife Beret have parallels in the mental health issues of Mrs. Brewster in These Happy Golden Years.
Norman K. Risjord, A Popular History of Minnesota (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005). As a historian, I constantly seek out academic scholarship on minute details of events and people. Not all of these tomes make for enjoyable lakeside hammock reads. However, Risjord’s accessible and concise history of Minnesota provides everything I want when I reach for nonfiction at the beach. A Popular History of Minnesota provides an introduction to a state central to many of the Ingallses’ adventures. After you finish with the Minnesota book, seek out Risjord’s Dakota: The Story of the Northern Plains and Shining Big Sea Water: The Story of Lake Superior.
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.
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.
I woke to single-digit temperatures and negative wind chills the other day. It wasn’t the first day of cold, nor will it be the last for this winter. It’s only December, which has always been a busy travel time for me, and keeping an eye out for snowstorms occupies much of my travel plans. My little family has crisscrossed the frozen Midwest dozens of times. Tied for our most harrowing journeys are (1) getting caught in a South Dakota snowstorm that forced us to find shelter at a ranch house and (2) driving from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan across the Mackinac Bridge less than a half hour before it was closed due to high winds and snow. Both of these trips happened around New Year’s, and both were made in the little rusted-out two-wheel-drive Pontiac-Grand-Am-that-could.
Cutter in Cedar Creek, Dakota Territory. South Dakota State Historical Society
The Grand Am had a little more horsepower than Almanzo Wilder’s cutter had when he and Laura Ingalls were caught in the horse-drawn vehicle as a snowstorm roared across the frozen plains of eastern Dakota Territory (Pioneer Girl, pp. 264–66). Even though the Grand Am’s heater worked (occasionally), I did think about finding a buffalo blanket for the emergency bag that we re-packed each winter.
In thinking about this post, I wondered what the difference was between a cutter and a sleigh. Thanks to the Internet, it did not take me long to find out that largely it is a question of size.1 Cutters are a type of sleigh. Generally, sleighs accommodated larger groups, while cutters were sufficient for two people. Cutters were usually used for courting, as Wilder recalled in These Happy Golden Years in the chapter titled “Jingle Bells” (pp. 89–94). A racing cutter was likely the inspiration for James Pierport’s 1857 tune “Jingle Bells.” 2
Re-reading Wilder’s dangerous journey through temperatures dipping 45 degrees below zero, I’m thankful for a warm apartment and for finally having a four-wheel drive vehicle. Throughout the afternoon as I wrote of cutters and sleighs, the temperature warmed to the teens and low twenties, but I know another winter is upon us. If the last five winters are any indication, I’ll soon be driving in the dark, with wind-chills somewhere around negative thirty or forty and fifty-mile-per-hour winds whipping my vehicle back and forth. In that moment, I know I will be thankful for heated seats.
Even though my research for the forthcoming Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts covers aspects of history not focused on in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, one episode that I just cannot get out of my head is the plague of locusts that destroy the family’s crops in Minnesota. The family’s powerlessness to combat the locusts and the insects’ seemingly mysterious departure four years later have lodged themselves in my mind. And so I dig into research of the plague. William Watts Folwell’s 1926 A History of Minnesota , volume 3, devotes the entirety of Chapter 4 to “The Grasshopper invasion, 1873-77.” The locusts that descended on the people of Minnesota left a lasting impression on the state’s history. As Wilder described it, Rocky Mountain locusts swooped from the sky, “their wings a shiny white making a screen between us and the sun. They were dropping to the ground like hail in a hailstorm faster and faster.” (Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 79) Folwell quoted another eyewitness as saying that seeing the locusts flying “‘may be likened to an immense snow-storm, extending from the ground to a height at which our visual organs perceive them only as minute, darting scintillations.’”(History of Minnesota, p. 95).
The Ingalls and others were helpless when it came to protecting crops from Rocky Mountain locusts, c. 1870. Minnesota Historical Society
Imagine locusts as a hungry, eating, chomping snowstorm! Such devastation boggles the mind; yet, while scientists believe the Rocky Mountain locust is extinct, such plagues of locusts continue to devastate farms and crops in other parts of the world. In 2015, locusts destroyed crops in Russia, and in 2016, northern Argentina experienced their worst season of locusts in sixty years. In a quotation given to the New York Times, Juan Pablo Karnatz reported farmers seeing “locust clouds that were more than four miles long and nearly two miles high” (Jan. 26, 2016). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations issued a report in November 2015 that unusually heavy rains in “northwest Africa, the Horn of Africa and Yemen could favor Desert Locust breeding” (www.fao.org). The increasing number of extreme weather events attributed to climate change could bring more frequent and more intense swarms of locusts to these regions.
In the 1870s, the Ingalls could do little to fend off the attacks. Charles Ingalls attempted to defend his wheat by setting fires near the crops, reasoning that the smoke might discourage the insects. It was a futile effort, and eventually he left the family homestead to find work farther east in order to send money back to help the family survive the winter.
Earlier this month, I cleared my schedule so that I could spend five uninterrupted days researching Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. It was my second trip to this amazing repository in a lovely little Iowa town of about twenty-five hundred people just outside of Iowa City. Although the leaves carried a tinge of yellow, signaling the onset of autumn, the weather had turned summery, and people were enjoying the Hoover park and museum. As an added bonus, on Friday, September 15, the grounds were a sea of bright colors as friends and relatives came to watch more than seventy immigrants become proud United States citizens. On that same day, I was privileged to see the original manuscript of Wilder’s “The First Three Years,” another highlight of the trip.
Archivists Spencer Howard and Matt Schaefer brought the manuscript from the vault, laid it on a research table in the reading room, and ordered me to “glove up.” Pulling on white cotton gloves, I gingerly touched the manuscript just as I had carefully explored the Pioneer Girl manuscript six years earlier. As with her autobiography, Wilder had written this adult novel of the first years of her marriage in pencil on cheap, wide-lined school tablets. Overall, however, the manuscript, and especially the first tablet, is in much rougher shape than the original Pioneer Girl manuscript, with strike-overs and eraser holes rubbed into the cheap paper. In a seemingly helter-skelter fashion, Wilder had appended text, crossed it out, and covered it over with scraps of paper, leaving a puzzle for researchers to decipher. In contrast, the extant tablets of Pioneer Girl are clean, with almost no strike outs or false starts and clear instructions for following the author’s intentions. Wilder’s care with that manuscript compared to the haphazard nature of this one confirms my speculation that the original Pioneer Girl is a fair copy prepared for her typist. It is not a first or working draft as “The First Three Years” manuscript clearly is.1
Through special fundraising efforts, the Hoover library staff has had “The First Three Years” treated for acidity and stored in acid-free wrappers. Damaged pages have been stabilized, and the three tablets of the manuscript are housed in a specially made case. It is a beautiful presentation. Congratulations to the staff at the library for their foresight in preserving this important manuscript for future generations of Wilder scholars.
Nancy Tystad Koupal
1. Nancy Tystad Koupal and Rodger Hartley, “Editorial Procedures,” in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. lxv. Some of Wilder’s other remaining manuscripts, especially those of Little House on the Prairie, are clearly first or working drafts as well, showing the same characteristics as “The First Three Years.” Others, like Pioneer Girl, are fair copies prepared for the typist.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
1. Rev. Peter Pernin, “The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 54, (Summer 1971): 247.