The odds of there being a white Christmas here in Pierre are looking slim. Festive decorations abound, but the unseasonably warm temperatures make it hard to believe that we are in the thick of the holiday season. This year being my first living in South Dakota, I can’t help but be somewhat disappointed. The lack of cold, snowy weather certainly seems a stark contrast to the Ingalls family’s idyllic first Christmas in Dakota Territory in 1879. As Wilder describes it in Pioneer Girl, they enjoyed ample snow, homemade gifts, and a bountiful feast of “jack rabbit roast, mashed potatoes, beans, warm biscuit and dried apple pie with tea.” While jackrabbit would not be my first choice—especially considering the precipitous decline of South Dakota’s jackrabbit population in recent years—I don’t doubt that Wilder had, as she claimed, a “jolly Christmas” (pp. 185–186).
A white Christmas often means bad roads, like the ones this horse-drawn plow attempted to clear in Fort Pierre, circa 1915. South Dakota State Historical Society
Jolly, at least, for the Ingalls clan. Ella and Robert Boast seemingly had a less pleasant experience. The Boasts, who hailed from Iowa, had acquired a homestead near De Smet and planned to spend the winter there. They made it to Dakota just in time for Christmas but arrived in a harried condition. As Wilder writes, due to deep snow on the roads, “they were many days later than they had planned and at last about six miles back their sled had stuck in a snow drift” (p. 185). The Boasts unhitched their horses and rode to the Ingalls house, where they warmed up by the fire. The next day, they joined the family for Christmas dinner, and the Ingalls children hastily made them presents. Things turned out fine for the Boasts, and the weather improved, too—“the snow was nearly gone” by New Year’s Day (p. 186). Of course, the denizens of De Smet would not be so lucky the following year, when they endured a winter so hard that it inspired a stand-alone book in the Little House series and at least one in-depth climatological study.
While a conspicuous lack of winter weather—or jackrabbits, for that matter—is no cause for celebration, there is a silver lining to this holiday season’s dearth of snow. Those planning to drive long distances this weekend, myself included, will not have to grapple with the treacherous road conditions that befell the Boasts.
Happy Holidays, and safe travels, from the Pioneer Girl Project.
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.
“Now that Christmas is over,” a South Dakota newspaper recently stated, “it’s time to start thinking about celebrations to welcome the New Year. And what to serve at any parties you’re hosting. Why not do as the pioneers did and include oysters?”
Ancient Greeks served them as an incentive to drink. Romans imported and fattened them. American Indians on both coasts considered them a staple in their diet. Abraham Lincoln also served them to guests at parties at his Illinois home. And, while oysters may have declined in popularity since Wilder’s time, when she was a young girl, these bivalves were considered a delicious addition to any special meal—even making an appearance at a gathering of early Dakota Territory settlers on New Year’s Day in 1880.
This small gathering near De Smet included Charles and Caroline Ingalls, their daughters Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace, as well as their fellow homesteaders, friends, and hosts, Robert and Ella Boast. As a biography of Charles Ingalls later declared, it was “the first oyster festival in Kingsbury county.”
The Overland Oyster Express Company advertisement, n.d. The Library of Congress
At the Boasts’ small home, the party “was all the more fun because their one room was so small, that with the table set, we had to go in the outside door and around to our place at the table one by one and leaving the table we must reverse the order and go out the door following the scripture that, ‘The first shall be last and the last first,’” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. She even described the meal: “There were oysters and honey and sauce [from] home dried fruit the Boasts had brought with them. We told stories and joked and had a happy New Year’s day.”
As the Pioneer Girl Project researchers learned, the Ingallses and Boasts probably dined on canned oysters. Fresh or canned, oysters had soared in popularity in the nineteenth century, and packed in hermetically sealed cans, they “traveled the breadth of the wide trans-Missouri region almost as soon as Americans ventured there,” according to historian Paul Hedren. Due to the railroads, oysters were almost everywhere by 1880.
The Oyster Bay in Deadwood, South Dakota, n.d. The South Dakota State Historical Society
However, oysters were not what made New Year’s Day 1880 special. Instead, as readers of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography can tell from the loving way Wilder described this time with the Boasts, the day was worth remembering because it was shared with friends and was full of joy and song.
As the New Year 2015 begins, we hope your celebrations are just as sweet.
—Dorinda Daniel and Jennifer McIntyre on behalf of the Pioneer Girl Project staff