Illustration for By the Shores of Silver Lake, drawn by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle, 1939
I realized how germaphobic I had become when I found myself wincing as I reread the opening chapters of By the Shores of Silver Lake. In chapter 3, Ma and the Ingalls girls board a passenger train for the trip from Walnut Grove to Tracy, Minnesota. Looking around at the railroad car and its inhabitants, Laura notices that a drinking fountain of sorts is available at one end. She watches a tall man with a bobbing Adam’s apple drink deeply from a cup and decides to check it out. A “fascinating” spigot and drain with a shelf for the cup lead her to drink her fill from the selfsame vessel before refilling it “part way, in order not to spill it” (p. 24), and carrying it back for Carrie and Grace to drink. Gasp. Think of the droplets they are sharing. But it gets worse.
Once the family arrives at the end of the line, they go to the hotel for dinner. They wash up at a communal wash basin, where a pitcher held “only a little fresh water for each of them.” A twenty-second handwashing routine is clearly not in play here. After a soapless rinse, they wipe off on a roller towel, the ends of which were “sewed together and it ran around on its roller so that everyone could find a dry place.” Freshened up, Ma and the girls head into the dining room, where “some how Ma found empty chairs,” and they joined the many men “sitting in a row at the long table” (p. 33). No social distancing whatsoever!
By chapter 5, the family’s ever-present danger of exposure to disease on top of the current stream of current Covid-19 news has exhausted me, and I put the book down to read another day.
The process of western migration in the nineteenth century resembles an avalanche rolling down the sides of a thousand social networks. Here’s how it works: somebody moves out to the newest frontier, survives the winter, and writes back to all their friends and relations. “Come away I say! The water’s fine!” And lo, the smitten readers pack their belongings and jostle into the sunset.
The Charles and Caroline Ingalls family is a good example of this process. They moved to Iowa to go into business with some acquaintances who had bought a hotel. They moved to Dakota to work with family members on their railroad-grading contract. Charles wanted to move to Oregon because some fellow he met once in 1876 said the bees liked it better out there, but Caroline finally put a stop to his wanderlust.
If you could draw a vector on a map to show every move made by every family during this era of settlement, the lines would not be randomly distributed. Many of them would cluster together and form streams, particularly along railroads.
This isn’t really news, of course; once one gets past the idea of the Totally Independent Pioneer—a legend that Laura Ingalls Wilder herself did much to craft—it’s really quite obvious that people followed friends and family in their movements. Examples of this aggregate motion lie just under the surface of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.
We at the Pioneer Girl Project first observed this phenomenon when looking for Walter Ogden. (Remember him? He stayed with the Ingalls family in the Surveyors’ House during the winter of 1879–1880 because they thought it would be wiser to stick together. Later Wilder decided that the Totally Independent Pioneer made a better story and wrote him out of By the Shores of Silver Lake, just as she would later excise the George Masters family from The Long Winter.) Charles Ingalls identified Walter Ogden as “a young man that was working for Henry Peck,”1 who turns out to be William Henry Peck, a farmer and sometime boardinghouse keeper for railroad workers in Beadle and Kingsbury counties.
Grundy County, Iowa. Cartography Associates, David Rumsey Collection
Hm. Peck. Another name that sounds familiar, but why? Fort Peck? No, that’s not it. Gregory Peck? Wait, what was Mrs. Boast’s maiden name? Aha!
Ella Boast, née Peck, came from Iowa, where she met her husband. And what do you know? So did W. H. Peck. They came from the same county, in fact; Grundy County, Iowa, was just packed with Pecks. We soon also discovered that both Ella’s and W. H.’s nuclear families moved to Grundy County from the same township in the same county in Illinois. Plato Township in Kane County.
Anybody know why this information is so exciting?
Because there were Ingallses in Plato Township, Kane County, Illinois, that’s why.
In 1850, we find two of Charles Ingalls’s uncles, James C. Ingalls and (Samuel) Worthen Ingalls, living in Plato Township with their families. Charles himself is living with his parents, Lansford and Laura Ingalls, in Campton Township, just to the south. Lansford appears to have followed his two brothers, who were already in Kane County by 1840. This chain of family migration reminds one of the James and Angeline Wilder family’s gradual move from New York to Minnesota and Dakota two to three decades later. Multiply this process by thousands, and you get a picture of the vast churning in the Midwest in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. These people were not moving to random places; they were moving between nodes of preexisting social and kin networks.
Lansford Ingalls and his family, of course, later went to Wisconsin. But what about the other Illinois Ingallses? Where did they go?
Well, at this point, it should be obvious.
They went to Grundy County, Iowa. Same as the Pecks. Worthen Ingalls took his family there, and so did James’s son Jasper. James himself went to Howard County, Iowa, not too far from Burr Oak, although he wasn’t around anymore when his nephew’s family came through in 1876–1877.
And since Wilder tells us that Louis Bouchie was a distant relative of Robert Boast’s, it’s not surprising to find both Louis and Joseph Bouchie in Grundy County, too, in 1880.
Considering the finite cast of characters in Wilder’s pioneering story, that’s a lot of traffic through one random county in Iowa with an 1870 population of about six thousand. And this movement is not the whole picture; I am confident that given more information, and extending the search beyond the circle of people whom Wilder mentions, one could uncover even more links in the Kane–Grundy–Kingsbury chain and more ways in which these people were related to each other by blood, marriage, or other social ties. And this stream is but one of hundreds or thousands in a truly epic but basically methodical migration.
It makes you wonder what might have prompted some of the other moves that the Ingalls family made. Did Charles Ingalls know someone in Kansas before he moved his family there? We may never know.
It no longer seems so strange, though, when Wilder tells us that Caroline Ingalls “was not excited at finding Uncle Henry at the R.R. camp” at Silver Lake.2 It was a small world, founded on social ties; the real surprise would have been not running into family or friends.
1 Ingalls, “The Settlement of De Smet,” n.d., Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, S.Dak.
2 Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, n.d. , box 13, file 194, Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a phrase that librarians, parents, and others caution young readers with. I’ve always taken issue with that phrase because, for me, the cover is an introduction to what I will be reading, a reminder of the world I will be jumping into every time I turn a page. Thus, from my point of view, the cover is an important part of the reading process, and a degree of judgment seems only natural. A good cover draws readers into the story before they have even cracked the spine.
The goal of the publisher is to create a cover that both attracts readers and provides a window into what the book contains. Some artistic license may be involved in conveying the essence of what readers can expect to experience. Even though there is a photograph of Laura Ingalls with her hair loose down her back, when we released the cover image for Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, a “hair controversy” ensued. In general, some readers claimed, the real Laura Ingalls would have worn her hair up, but when I look at the artist’s rendition on the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, I am immediately transported to the wind-swept West and the beginnings of an American writer’s journey.
The cover does a great job of what it should do: catch the reader’s eye and engage the reader’s mind. As Nancy Aguilera wrote on this website, “I imagine Laura walking away . . . with her bonnet on and hair braided, under Ma’s watchful eyes, and then as soon as she’s out of sight she takes off her bonnet and shakes out her hair, enjoying the feel of the warm prairie breezes blowing through her beautiful thick hair while she sits gazing at Silver Lake.” According to an Amazon reviewer, “The cover is beautiful, and not only does it look so much like teenage Laura, it also fits really well with the Garth Williams illustrations we are all familiar with.”
Deb Hosey White, in her blog on Goodreads, goes further: “If ever there was a book that felt special when I first held it in my hands and began turning the pages, this is the book.” The reader’s experience should begin from the moment they see and pick up the book, and that is what the Pioneer Girl Project production team aimed to do in creating this cover and the book it encloses. Based on the overwhelmingly positive comments and industry reviews, I would say they have succeeded. The New York Times Book Review even featured the cover along with their best sellers lists in the Sunday, April 12, print edition.
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is a scholarly book (in fact, it has been called the encyclopedia on all things Wilder), but it is also the story of a woman’s childhood and adolescent experiences, and the watercolor painting by artist Judy Thompson illustrates this combination wonderfully well.