The Hub of the Prairie

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.

A map of Grundy County, Iowa. Cartography Associates, David Rumsey Collection

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.

Rodger Hartley

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. [1938], box 13, file 194, Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

“Your true ‘enemy’ Laura Remington”

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 Ingall's autograph album, photographed by Nami Hattori

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.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

The First Oyster Festival in Kingsbury County

“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.”

Oysters Ad

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

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