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

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Real People

Who’s real? How real?

We know that many of the characters in the Little House novels are based on real people—and sometimes in interesting ways. Take, for example, the notorious Nellie Oleson, a girl so persistently odious that you just know (or hope) that she cannot have been “real” in quite that way. As it turns out, this character is an amalgam of no less than three unpleasant people of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood acquaintance; Nellie as we know her combines all of their unpleasantnesses into a perfect triune arch-nasty.

The example of Nellie Oleson is well known, but the research and editorial team for the Pioneer Girl Project are probing the real basis of even the most occasional characters in Laura’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl. Historians wonder about any good story: Who’s real? How real? The answers are frequently gratifying, sometimes puzzling, and occasionally—well, occasionally, there’s no answer at all. That, too, is part of the practice of history.

Census records are the first tool in our box, an easy way to establish the basic fact of reality. Sometimes. Cap Garland, for example. Real? Yes. “Garland, Edmund”—for such was the lad’s given name—was enumerated outside De Smet in the 1880 census, living with his mother and two sisters, whom Laura mentions by name in Pioneer Girl.

Occasionally, the census has its little quirks that make the research all the more interesting. What about the Heath boys?

Wait, the Heath boys? you ask. Who are they?

Nobody crucial. Their story didn’t make it into the published novels. “The youngest Wilder boy and two other boys, Homer and Horace Heath, from near De Smet, were in the railroad camp when all this happened,” Laura wrote in Pioneer Girl. Well, I’m very much mistaken if you don’t know who the youngest Wilder boy is. But these Heath boys: real? Yes. So real that they were counted twice.

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from ancestrylibrary.com.

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from ancestrylibrary.com.

On 24 June 1880, a census taker enumerated a “Heath, Horice S.” and his brother, “Heath, Homer N.” on a farm just across the line in Brookings County. They were respectively twenty-five and twenty years old and were born, respectively, in New York and Wisconsin to parents who were also born in New York. They were listed as laborers.

Now, at some point in June—we don’t know exactly when—the following two laborers were enumerated in Beadle County, to the west of De Smet, boarding with thirty-two other laborers (smells like a railroad camp to me): “Heath, Horace” and “Heath, N. H.,” twenty-four and nineteen years old, born in New York and Wisconsin to parents born in New York. The first thing you learn in dealing with nineteenth-century census records is that the transposition of someone’s initials, or a year’s discrepancy in age, are commonplace. These were the same guys, counted twice in the 1880 census. I suspect that railroad camps—and other places using a seasonal workforce—were fertile ground for errors of this kind.

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy ancestrylibrary.com

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy ancestrylibrary.com

Oh, and look who appears on the same manuscript page, between Horace and Homer:

Wilder, A. J., twenty-two years old, laborer, born in New York to parents born in New York and Vermont. (Almanzo Wilder, too, was counted twice in 1880: once in this railroad camp in Beadle County and again outside De Smet with his brother Royal and sister Eliza.)

Real people.

Rodger Hartley