Carrie Ingalls, A Pioneer Woman

A common topic when discussing Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is how Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing and characters changed between her original memoir and her later fictional series for young readers. There are several differences that have been shared in the media, reviews, and here on the Pioneer Girl Project website, yet it is also true that Wilder could be a consistent storyteller as she traversed the line between reality and fiction.

For example, throughout her fiction, Wilder typically portrays her sister Carrie Ingalls as a fragile, shy child. Readers cannot fault the young Laura for being protective and having a certain “big sister” view of things. However, Wilder’s novels and autobiography end before we can really determine who any of the people Wilder wrote about were or went on to become outside of the writer’s purview and timeline.

A teenage Carrie Ingalls stands, second from the left, with other tennis team youth.

A teenage Carrie Ingalls stands, second from the left, with other tennis team youth.

The annotations in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography provide a fuller picture of Wilder, her family, and the community in post-pioneer days. For example, Carrie Ingalls did deal with illness throughout her life. She even moved to Colorado at one point seeking a better climate for her asthma. However, her health did not stop her from being quite the frontier woman herself after the events of Pioneer Girl and the Little House novels came to an end.

In fact, from all accounts, Carrie Ingalls lived a fairly exciting life. In 1907, she homesteaded, alone, near Topbar, South Dakota, where she resided in a tarpaper shack for at least six months out of the year as required by the law. Topbar is described as “a populated place in West Haakon township in Haakon County, near to Milesville and Philip, South Dakota.” In other words, it is in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the White River Badlands.

Carrie Ingalls, far left, stands in the doorway of the De Smet Leader where she worked as a typesetter.

Carrie Ingalls, far left, stands in the doorway of the De Smet Leader where she worked as a typesetter.

Before her homesteading years, Carrie, who originally planned to work as a teacher like her older sister Laura, became a typesetter for the De Smet Leader as a teenager. This career switch set Ingalls up for a long and prosperous career managing newspapers all over the Black Hills for E. L. Senn, the “Final Proof King of South Dakota.” Senn, who owned around fifty newspapers, made money from the settlers and miners who were required by law to file a notice of their claims in the local paper—in case there were any contesters to their settlement. Senn needed adventurous people, such as Carrie Ingalls, to travel to new mining towns in order to collect for and run his multiple enterprises. Eventually, Carrie Ingalls settled in Keystone, South Dakota, in 1911, and continued to work in the newspaper business until her marriage to David N. Swanzey in 1912, when she retired to care for her young stepchildren. After her husband’s death, she went to work for the railway station in Keystone.

Carrie Ingalls’s life is a perfect example of how the real adventures of Wilder’s “characters” are just as exciting as the iconic family’s journey west.

Jennifer McIntyre

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Pa Ingalls—Fact or Fiction

After visiting De Smet, a follower of the Pioneer Girl Project posed the following questions:

“Was he [Pa] different than the one portrayed on Little House? Laura does say in a biographical piece that it was the Pa she wanted. What are your thoughts?”

The Pa of the Little House novels was the father Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered and sought to immortalize.  As she wrote her daughter Rose Wilder Lane in 1937: “Pa was no business man.  He was a hunter and trapper, a musician and poet.” His stories, Wilder said, inspired her to write the Little House books.  Even before her first novel was published, she noted that Pa’s stories “impressed me very much as a child and I still have a great affection for them.”

The essence of Pa’s character in the Little House books is consistent with Wilder’s portrait of her father in Pioneer Girl.  He was affectionate, warm, playful, musical, and restless.  But based on the historical record and Wilder’s recollections, it is clear that the fictional character in her novels is romanticized and idealized.  In Pioneer Girl, for example, Pa sneaked his family out of town in the middle of the night after failing to negotiate the rent with the landlord. Wilder suggested that Charles Ingalls justified it to his family by calling the man a “rich old skinflint.” Wilder’s fictional Pa would never have done such a thing.   Quite simply, the fictional Pa is more heroic, more noble, and more mythic than the real Charles Ingalls or the one who emerges from the pages of Pioneer Girl.

Wilder had much to draw upon in creating her character. The real Charles Ingalls made significant contributions to the communities in which he lived, serving as justice of the peace, school-board member, church officer, and civic-minded leader.  At his death in 1902, the De Smet News and Leader wrote of him: “As a citizen he was held in high esteem, being honest and upright in his dealings and associations with his fellows.  As a friend and neighbor he was always kind and courteous and as a husband and father he was faithful and loving.  And what better can be said of any man?”

Pamela Smith Hill