Even before Laura Ingalls Wilder had written the final novel in the Little House series, readers were researching the background of her books. In 1942, the mother of two girls from Kansas City wrote the mayor of De Smet, South Dakota, to ask “if there is really a Silver Lake and a Big Slough here.” Aubrey Sherwood, the editor of the De Smet News, answered the question for the mayor: “The News is happy to vouch for the authenticity of the books by Mrs. Wilder—that she actually experienced the pioneer days here with her family, on the shores of Silver Lake by a large slough, since drained, living on the claim throughout the Hard Winter and many more winters afterward, though many years ago she and her husband and daughter Rose moved to southern Missouri.”1 The editor sent Wilder a copy of the newspaper.
A view of the Big Slough in De Smet, S.Dak., that was so prevalent in Laura’s life
In the same issue, Sherwood, who would be the keeper of the Wilder legacy in De Smet for many years, inadvertently verified another Wilder story, one that did not appear in one of her books until the next year. Under the headline “Traveling the Same Old Prairie Road Brings View of Lakes with Expanse Water,” the editor took readers over the road that Laura and Almanzo travel on many a summer afternoon buggy ride in These Happy Golden Years, published in 1943. Lakes Henry and Thompson, which had been nearly dry through the 1930s, were full once again, Sherwood announced, adding: “If you like, you can drive around the west side of the lake [Henry] by the old road that winds from the west point to the old Grothe farm, and on up on the bluff, and then down into the meadow and south to the road that goes between the lakes. It is the same old winding prairie road. . . . [I]t is worth while to stop on the bluff to look over the lake from this highest bank.” A month later, Wilder, who was writing These Happy Golden Years at the time, requested another copy of the paper “telling of the Old Prairie Road” because she had sent hers on to Lane and “would like to have a copy to keep.”2
Nancy Tystad Koupal
1.) “Is There a Silver Lake? Asked after Children Read Mrs. Wilder’s Books,” De Smet News, July 16, 1942.
2.) Wilder to Sherwood, Aug. 17, 1942, IIA 59, Box F, Bell Collection, Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, S.Dak.
Teenage girls “dragging main” in 1957. Nina Leen, Getty Images
When I was a teenager, my friends and I spent endless hours “dragging main” in my hometown of Mitchell, South Dakota. Sometimes we paired off with our boyfriends, but many times a bunch of girls piled into a friend’s car, say a 1957 Ford, or a borrowed family car—a Chevy sedan with no style whatsoever—and drove from the railroad depot on the south end of Main Street to the bowling alley on the north end in endless circles. We might stop window-to-window with friends in the bowling alley parking lot and chew over the latest gossip or drive into the root beer stand for burgers and fries, but mostly we cruised up and down main looking for our boyfriends, or hoping for a peek at our latest heartthrobs, or speculating about who was going with whom. In our little town, even the sheriff and his deputy could be seen in the parade of cars on the main drag, keeping an eye on us. As a teenager, I never tired of this activity. I thought it was a product of the automobile era until I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl and learned that the practice was much older than that.
Cutter in Cedar Creek, Dakota Territory. South Dakota State Historical Society
Rather than automobiles, Wilder and her friends employed cutters and sleighs to ride up and down Calumet Avenue, the main thoroughfare of De Smet, South Dakota, during the winter months. “With all the rest of the gay crowd,” Wilder reported, she and Almanzo “were going the length of the street, around a circle on the prairie when the street ended, back down the length of the street, around a circle at the other end, and repeat, laughing and shouting from one sleigh to another.”1 When transferred to These Happy Golden Years, this appealing image led Wilder’s literary agent to comment that he “would like to go back to the days when the Sunday sport was to drive up and down Main Street in a cutter with your best girl tucked snugly in beside you.”2
In 2003, a writer for Deseret News in Utah noted that dragging or “cruising” main had “been passed down for generations” as a “staple of social life in the small rural towns.”3 The ritual, which “involved driving a central stretch of road in loops,” had become “a rite of passage.”4 Whether the participants drove automobiles, sleighs, or buggies, the activity itself always involved socializing while driving up and down the main street in endless circles. Dragging main may have reflected the fact that small towns offered little for young people to do. Driving back and forth on the main thoroughfare allowed them to take over public space and make it their own. For my part, I recall my endless circles of Mitchell’s Main Street with fondness, remembering old friends and good times, just as Wilder remembered “that charmed circle” of De Smet sleigh riders.5
Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, forthcoming 2021), p. 376. See also Wilder, These Happy Golden Years, 1953 ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1943), p. 92.
George T. Bye to Wilder, Sept. 29, 1942, James Oliver Brown Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York, N.Y.
Jason Olson, “Dragging Main,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), Aug. 21, 2003.
Andrea Tudhope, “Hey Small-Town Kansas, Whatever Happened to Cruising,” KCUR.89.3, Oct. 20, 2015, kcur.org.
Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, Aug. 17, 1938, Box 13, file 194, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library,
When I was young, white bread—the softer, the better—was all I ate, but as an adult I have grown fond of nutty brown bread. As I crunch away, I imagine that its gritty texture is similar to the whole-wheat bread that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family ate during the Hard Winter of 1880–1881. Of course, Wilder ground her wheat in a coffee mill, and her mother used sourdough starter to make it into bread, while I have the luxury of grabbing a prepackaged loaf off the grocery-store shelf. Wilder’s brown bread was a triumph over privation; mine is a matter of choice.
Advertisement for coffee mill featuring a balance wheel, 1888. Alamy
When Wilder’s family turned to making bread from hand-ground wheat in early 1881, almost everyone in and around De Smet was having to do the same. But it was not as automatic as Wilder made it seem in her novel The Long Winter, where Ma simply “reached to the top of the cupboard and took down the coffee mill” (p. 194). Such devices were at a premium in De Smet and do not appear to have been standard equipment in every pioneer home. Luckily, homesteader Delos Perry and his family had two: “One had a balance wheel and we took that one to town and they used it for their city flour mill. The other one we put up at home and the neighbors ground several bushels of wheat in it.”1 The “city flour mill” appears to have been in Daniel Loftus’s grocery store. In February, the Kingsbury County News noted that Loftus “makes a good miller,” having turned out “the first wheat ground in De Smet.”2
Resident Neva Whaley Harding reported that her neighbor Robert Boast shared both his seed wheat and his coffee mill. Harding, whose family made muffins from the whole wheat flour the Boasts supplied, observed in 1930, “Not knowing so much about the beneficial qualities of whole wheat then as we do now we were not so appreciative as we should have been.”3
That surprised me. Harding was aware of the benefits of whole wheat in the thirties when I was still eating processed white bread into the 1960s? Well, not surprising as it turns out. By the late 1920s, “the modest, ordinary loaf of white bread had been accused of some extraordinarily immodest deeds,” such as causing a whole list of diseases including anemia, cancer, and diabetes, as well as “criminal delinquency.”4 White bread resurged in popularity after it was enriched during the World War II era, but today whole grains are once again in the ascendancy.
Nancy Tystad Koupal
Perry to Editor, De Smet News, Mar. 17, 1922.
Quoted in Aubrey Sherwood, Beginnings of De Smet: “Little Town on the Prairie” Locale of Six Books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (De Smet: By the Author, 1979), .
Harding, “Daughter of Homesteader,” De Smet News, May 30, 1930.
Aaron Bobrow-Strain, “Kills a Body Twelve Ways: Bread Fear and the Politics of ‘What to Eat,’” Gastronomica 7 (Summer 2007): 45.
In Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, we will be exploring questions that Wilder left largely unanswered in her handwritten autobiography. For example, the Big Woods, which Wilder said her father delineated as “just north of us a ways” (PGAA, p. 27), creeps closer and closer to the Charles Ingalls cabin in Lane’s editing of the revised texts until it finally encompasses it in the opening line of Little House in the Big Woods. Lane’s edits enhanced the family’s isolation in the forest, but Wilder and her father had been trying to say something about the difference in the woods themselves. To find out what the Big Woods were and where they began, we looked at histories and statewide forest assessments based on surveyor’s notes to find that the wooded areas around Pepin originally abounded in oak, elm, and maple trees. Settlers like the Ingalls families cleared these forests selectively to make room for home plots and farms. They released their pigs into the woods to eat acorns and other tree nuts.
Group of loggers with axes among newly cut logs near Rice Lake, 1872. Wisconsin Historical Society
The “Big Woods,” in contrast, were something else. Wilder’s father was referring to the extensive pine forests that began roughly thirty miles up the Chippewa River and extended north to Minnesota, Canada, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Both the Chippewa and Saint Croix rivers, which enter the Mississippi near Lake Pepin, became shipping routes for the felled trees, and massive log drives would have been a common sight in the early 1870s, when the boomtowns of Chicago and Minneapolis provided a steady market for lumber. In the next two decades, railroads transported carloads of hewn boards to western settlements like Walnut Grove, De Smet, and beyond. It is a sad fact that in the 1850s, the Big Woods had contained roughly one-hundred-fifty billion board feet of red and white pine; by 1898, only seventeen billion remained. Tellingly, a recreation of the Ingalls cabin near Pepin stands next to a corn field, a reminder of the extent to which settlement and market forces reshaped Wisconsin’s landscape.
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.
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.
This week, as a heavy winter snowstorm blanketed the Northern Great Plains, I found myself with the happy task of reading or rereading a lot of the popular and critical literature about Wilder: Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow, Ann Romines’s Constructing the Little House, and Elizabeth Jameson’s “In Search of the Great Ma” (Journal of the West 37 [Apr. 1998]), among others. The personal journeys of the women who wrote these works include a childhood familiarity with and love for the Little House books that ultimately led them to make the author the subject of their research. Each has her own personal encounter with Wilder herself (Romines) and/or the books (Fellman, Jameson). Other writers make their encounters with Wilder’s books the subject of their work: Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie or Nancy McCabe’s From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, for example. I came to realize that, just like these women, I have my own “Laura” story.
Me in fifth grade.
It begins in the fifth grade at Notre Dame Academy in Mitchell, South Dakota, when Sister Kieran began to read The Long Winter out loud after lunch one day. The timing was significant because most of her pupils lived nearby, and we had just trudged through snow and wind, parked our rubber over-boots and snow-crusted winter coats and scarves in the cloakroom, and taken our seats in the warm classroom. Laura’s hard winter outlasted our own and made us all grateful that our winter had not matched hers (although there were one or two years in the fifties and sixties when that could not be said). It also made us proud that the Ingallses were South Dakota pioneers—after all, De Smet was just a few miles up the road.
Even before Sister Kieran finished The Long Winter, I had visited the Carnegie Library downtown and borrowed all the Wilder books in the original edition with the Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle illustrations. My favorite book would always be The Long Winter, but I also developed a fondness for On the Banks of Plum Creek (which had plenty of blizzards, too) and These Happy Golden Years with its harsh beginning at the Brewsters’ (more snowstorms!) and its happy ending. As I grew up to become a sort-of hippy at the end of the 1960s, I thought that all I needed was a plot of land and a copy of Little House in the Big Woods to become self-sufficient (in the event of a nuclear blast or some other catastrophe). I never tested the theory, but I remain convinced that, just like Ma and Pa, I am fully capable of making cheese and smoking meat
While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Wilder’s influence directed my career choices, I did eventually turn to American literature (via foreign languages, linguistics, and a brush with archaeology) as my academic path of study and to editing as my profession. Along the way I was fortunate enough to edit and annotate some of the Dakota writings of L. Frank Baum (Our Landlady, 1996), who spent a couple of formative years in Aberdeen, South Dakota. As editor of South Dakota History, I also got to work with and edit two of William Anderson’s groundbreaking biographical and critical studies of Wilder: “The Literary Apprenticeship of Laura Ingalls Wilder” (1983) and “Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: The Continuing Collaboration” (1986). In 1997, I was invited to become a member of the board of directors of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Inc., of De Smet, which is the curator of both the Surveyors’ House and the Ingalls Home. Serving on that board has been a privilege and a pleasure, and it has brought me close to many aspects of the Little Houses.
Then in 2005, when the South Dakota Historical Society Press decided to publish a biography series featuring the region’s important citizens, the first one the Press commissioned was Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (2007). A few years later, we began work on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, and again, I found the winter of 1880–1881 to be one of the high points of Wilder’s memoir, allowing me to sink my teeth into research in the newspapers of the period. Here I found that the burning of hay was an economy farmers practiced even before the long winter, that price gouging among merchants was not a failing only of Mr. Loftus, that the lonesome whistle of the last freight train into De Smet came a little later than Wilder remembered, and that American Indians had in fact acted as weather forecasters on other occasions.
And, for me, it all began on that snowy day in 1957, when Sister Kieran stood in front of the class and started to read, “The mowing machine’s whirring sounded cheerfully from the old buffalo wallow south of the claim shanty, where bluestem grass stood thick and tall and Pa was cutting it for hay.”
Nancy Tystad Koupal
I am grateful to classmate Susan Tessier Mollison who helped me refresh my memory of those long ago days at Notre Dame Academy.
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.
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.
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.
Readers of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography continue to share interesting information with the Pioneer Girl Project staff. A good example is Nami Hattori, who follows our blog from Canada. She recently wrote to us that she had found some additional information about Laura Remington, whom Wilder mentioned twice in her autobiography. On page 243 of Pioneer Girl, Laura Remington is “among the younger girls” at school, and on page 275, Remington is paired with Alfred Ely as a participant in the sleighing parties on De Smet’s main street in the mid-1880s. The annotation about Laura Remington reads: “The 1880 census includes one family named Remington in Kingsbury County: Francis P. Remington and his wife, Ellen. They had one daughter named Grace—not Laura—and she would have been about six years old in the fall of 1881” (p. 244n46).
Nami Hattori, though, has discovered another source that sheds a little more light on the elusive Laura Remington. A girl by that name not only lived in De Smet in the 1880s, Hattori pointed out, but she also “wrote a message on Wilder’s autograph book,” which the “LIW library in Mansfield owns.” Hattori shared with us and our readers the photograph that she took of Wilder’s autograph book in the 1990s. It contains this handwritten line, “Your true ‘enemy’ Laura Remington.”
Laura Ingalls’s autograph album, photographed by Nami Hattori
While Remington did not date her entry, Hattori noted that many others who signed the book, including Charles Ingalls, Cap Garland, and Ida Brown, had dated theirs from 1882 to 1885. “Judging from her handwriting,” Hattori wrote, Laura Remington “was not a little girl at the time.” Because the signatures appear to have been penned after 1882, Hattori continued, “we can speculate that she might have moved to Dakota after 1880,” which would explain why she is not listed on the census.
With Hattori’s speculation in mind and the album as proof that there was a Laura Remington in the area, we went back to the census data from a different angle and found a second candidate for the family: Laura Remington could be the daughter of William and Helen M. Remington, who moved to Dakota Territory from Wisconsin sometime before June 1883. Their daughter Laura would still have been six years younger than Wilder, closer in age to Alfred Ely with whom Remington went sleighing. However, because the state census records for Kingsbury County are missing, we still cannot be absolutely certain that this Laura Remington is the one Wilder knew. As with so many of the people mentioned briefly in Pioneer Girl, little can be uncovered about them all these years later. Even with the wonderful autograph album, we do not know much more about Laura Remington.
But the album itself is fascinating. It is a resource for modern researchers, and it apparently served Wilder herself as a source of information. “Ida Brown’s verse on the real autograph album is the same as the one in Little Town on the Prairie,” Hattori wrote. “It tells that Wilder used this album when she wrote LTOP.” We are grateful to Hattori for bringing this treasure to our attention.
I had the enjoyable task of researching and writing several of the annotations on flora and fauna that appear in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. As a young girl, Wilder was outdoorsy, observing everything from crabs to coyotes to the wide variety of plants that grew on the prairies of eastern Dakota Territory while she lived there. In addition to knowing the common names of many of the area’s various grasses, Wilder mentioned numerous prairie flowers, including the “may flowers, thimble flowers, wild sweet Williams, squaw pinks, buffalo beans and wild sunflowers, each blooming in its season” (p. 234) around her family’s homestead near De Smet. Her curiosity about the natural world is one reason that I find a certain omission so curious.
Wilder’s Pioneer Girl never mentions the blossom that is one of the first signs of spring and which, in 1903, became the official state flower of South Dakota. The fuzzy buds of the American pasqueflower (Anemone patens/Pulsatilla patens) typically emerge from the ground in March or April, opening into two-toned purple blossoms with bold yellow centers. Still fairly common, pasqueflowers must have been abundant in Wilder’s day. Why didn’t she mention them?
A little research leads me to some speculation. First, botanist Dave Ode writes in his book Dakota Flora: A Seasonal Sampler (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2006) that pasques prefer “gravelly hills, buttes, and river bluffs” (p. 13). The Ingalls homestead, situated in a fairly low spot next to the Big Slough, might not have had just the right soil, drainage, or exposure for the little plants to establish themselves. Second, the blooms can be delicate and fleeting, lasting as little as a couple of days if a spring blizzard buries them or if hot, dry winds shrivel them (both scenarios are possible during a South Dakota spring). They can also be extremely localized, with numerous plants clustered on a single knob or hillside and none occurring on the next one over.
Photograph of a pasqueflower in bloom taken by Jeanne Ode
Finally, pasqueflowers don’t always come up in the spring. In drought years, they may lie beneath the surface for months or until another year, when enough rain falls to make them emerge. On the Ode “homestead” east of Pierre, the north side of a bluff is dotted with some fifty markers pegging the locations of pasqueflower plants. Every spring, we climb the hill to take inventory. This year, after a winter with little snow and a spring with no rain, not a single pasque has popped up. Maybe Wilder never walked past just the right spot at just the right time.
Or, the explanation might be simpler. Pasqueflowers are sometimes called prairie crocus for their resemblance to the domestic crocus, goslinweed for the fuzzy buds that resemble a gosling’s down, and prairie smoke for the plumes that appear once the plant is done blooming. Recently, I also found some sources that list “May Day flower” or “May flower” as an alternate name for the pasque. In Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we speculated that Wilder’s may flower may represent the meadow anemone (p. 235). We can’t know for sure, but perhaps those in and around De Smet during the 1880s knew the pasque as the may flower.
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.
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, and 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.