George A. Tann and Black History in the West

George A. Tann’s gravesite in Independence, Kansas, identifies him as “a negro doctor that doctored the Ingalls for malaria in 1870.” Tann, who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War before uprooting to the Osage Diminished Indian Reserve from his native Pennsylvania, remains tied to the Ingalls family in popular memory because of his brief appearance in Pioneer Girl and Little House on the Prairie. Tann’s example, however, suggests the multifaceted nature of black settlement in the late-nineteenth-century American West, offering insight into the evolving constraints African Americans faced when seeking political, social, and economic freedom on the frontier.

tann-grave

Not merely significant for his place in Little House lore, George A. Tann’s life offers unique insight into the African American experience in the West. findagrave.com

Tann was among the seventeen thousand blacks who called Kansas home by 1870. The state’s relatively large black population reflected its abolitionist heritage. Following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which let territorial residents decide whether to sanction slavery by popular vote, pro-slavery interests and abolitionists alike flooded the territory hoping to influence the coming election. A period of violent struggle popularly known as “Bleeding Kansas” ensued. Anti-slavery forces eventually prevailed, and Kansas entered the union as a free state on 29 January 1861, just before the start of the Civil War. Due to its proximity to slave states like Missouri and Arkansas, many of Kansas’s black residents were former slaves. In contrast, Tann had been born free in Pennsylvania. His migration reflected the growing status of Kansas as a haven for black Americans seeking political and economic freedoms unavailable even in the liberal north.1

Tann’s life also sheds light on African Americans’ shifting relationship to the medical profession. Tann, like many doctors of his time, received no formal training and worked on an on-call basis, providing medical care to Osage Indians and white settlers while also maintaining a homestead. A practitioner of homeopathic medicine, he likely learned the trade through an apprenticeship. Such arrangements became increasingly rare as the twentieth century approached, and organizations like the American Medical Association worked to establish shared standards for medical professionals. By century’s end, Kansas and Indian Territory—where Tann eventually moved his practice—would require that all doctors obtain a license through an examination.2 Medical school increasingly became the chief means of preparing doctors, but most of the leading institutions denied admission to blacks. Harvard Medical School, for example, admitted its first three black students in 1850 but expelled them only a year later following outcry from white students. Howard University Medical School, which opened in 1868, was the first to admit students without considering race or gender.

Discriminatory admissions practices at white-dominated medical schools persisted well into the twentieth century, leaving blacks underrepresented in the profession. By 1968, over sixty percent of all black medical school graduates attended either Howard or Meharry Medical School, a historically black institution in Nashville, Tennessee.3 Kansas’s perceived status as a site of opportunity for black Americans also waned in the decades following Tann’s arrival, as Jim Crow laws permitted cities to create racially segregated school districts. Tellingly, a black student in Topeka filed the lawsuit that led to the groundbreaking 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated educational facilities were inherently unequal.4

George Tann died in 1909, remembered fondly for his service to the community. Like thousands of other African Americans, Tann moved to Kansas in search of opportunity. By the time of his death, however, new legal and extralegal forms of discrimination constrained black opportunity in Kansas and throughout the American West. Tann’s example nonetheless offers insight into a moment, however fleeting, when many black Americans saw the burgeoning cities and remote towns of the West as their surest path to freedom and equality.

Cody Ewert


1. Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998), pp. 94–102.

2. Michelle L. McLellan, “There Is a Doctor in the House—and He’s Black,” Interpreting African American History at Museums and Historic Sites, ed. Max A. van Balgooy (Lanham, Mary.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), pp. 47–54.

3. American Medical Association, “African American Physicians and Organized Medicine, 1846–1968,” The History of African Americans and Organized Medicine, https://www.ama-assn.org/about/ama-history/history-african-americans-and-organized-medicine.

4. Alwyn Barr, “Jim Crow Laws,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, ed. David J. Wishart (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), pp. 454–55.

Reflections on LauraPalooza and the International Wilder Experience

The vast conference room had few empty chairs as LauraPalooza go underway. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

The vast conference room had few empty chairs as LauraPalooza got underway. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In July, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association gathered scholars, amateur historians, and avid “bonnetheads” in Brookings, South Dakota, for LauraPalooza. The association is a worldwide, nonprofit organization whose membership is dedicated to preserving the legacy and encouraging the research of everything related to Wilder. Those who attended LauraPalooza, including myself, wanted to learn more about the famous author who introduced millions of readers to the American frontier.

The conference did not disappoint. From novelists and academics to translators and meteorologists, the presenters were varied, and each one looked at unique facets of the Wilder experience. For me, having grown up on the prairie that Wilder writes about, the session covering non-American perspectives of the pioneer family was especially interesting. I find it amazing how Wilder’s novels, and now Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, speak to readers everywhere. How can you understand the harshness of a prairie winter if you have never experienced one—the wind blowing ice into your eyes as you struggle to figure out where you are in a vast white landscape? Even though some of the commentators at LauraPalooza had never seen snow or the limitless prairie until well into adulthood, Wilder’s writing had forged a connection with them and thrust the author into international stardom.

Wilder scholars William Anderson and John E. Miller took time to speak with attendees. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

Wilder scholars William Anderson and John E. Miller took time to speak with attendees. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

Japanese translator Yumiko Taniguchi, for example, was one of those children who, though living in a mountainous region of Japan, connected with the Ingalls family’s struggles on the open prairie during the long winter of 1880–1881. Little did Yumiko know at the time that she would go on to translate all of Wilder’s books for new generations of Japanese children. From the earliest translation of The Long Winter, the first of Wilder’s books to be published in Japanese, prairie life and frontier themes worked their way into Japanese popular culture. According to presenter Hisayo Ogushi, in addition to the television show Little House on the Prairie, Japanese comic books and resorts give visitors the “Laura Ingalls Wilder” experience. Both Taniguchi and Hisayo spoke about how the resoluteness of the Ingalls family and the strength of character they found in Laura made them fans of her books.

In another vibrant presentation, Eddie Higgins talked about the joy and confusion of reading the Little House books for the first time in a version of English—American English—that sometimes seemed as obscure as Japanese. For Higgins, growing up in England, it became a matter of deciding whether Wilder’s words were simply antiquated or different. Scenes like the one in which Laura and Carrie go to the Loftus store to buy Pa suspenders for Christmas made Higgins pause and reread the words over and over again. In England, “suspenders” refers to what we in the United States would call a woman’s garter belt (the conference hall in Brookings burst into laughter at this revelation). Other words, however, can give even Wilder’s home audience pause, much as they did in the Pioneer Girl Project staff post New Words. Higgins and young American readers today may try to imagine what a “pie plant” is, but, in Wilder’s day, it was simply another name for rhubarb.

In contrast to the lack of technology in Wilder's day, the facilities at South Dakota State University were top-notch. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In contrast to the lack of technology in Wilder’s day, the facilities at South Dakota State University were top-notch. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In reminiscing about their first experiences with the Ingalls family, LauraPalooza presenters also shared their exuberance for works like Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, which gives more detail to the Little House stories that, though they were worlds away, made these women dream of life on the American frontier. In the end, their comments about the place, spirit, and community of the books gave me more insight into why Wilder’s work remains so popular.

Jennifer McIntyre