Follow the Breadcrumbs, Find Missouri

The Pioneer Girl Project is always on the lookout for new information, and sometimes, thanks to the courtesy of readers like you, it just turns up out of the blue—or in this case, out of Minnesota. Here’s the story as Project staff experienced it.

During their second stay in Minnesota, the Ingallses were neighbors of Mr. and Mrs. Pool and their grown daughter, Missouri, who kept house for her parents. In Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder remembers Missouri’s wonderful garden full of beautiful flowers and how she would smoke “a very small, white clay pipe” as she told “stories of Missouri, the state for which she was named.” Missouri even helped to care for Mary Ingalls during the illness that caused her blindness.

According to Wilder, Missouri had several siblings and was the only one not married. At last they learned the reason: Missouri’s mother, hoping to keep her daughter home to care for her in her old age, had been working to thwart Missouri’s courtships. Yet, despite her mother’s machinations, Missouri did finally marry and return to Missouri—only to die tragically during childbirth.

That’s Wilder’s memory. The editors of the Pioneer Girl Project read Wilder’s account and asked, as they had before, “What can we verify?”

Census data got us nowhere; there simply was no Missouri Pool listed in Minnesota at the right times. However, Nancy Tystad Koupal’s close reading of the Redwood Gazette for the years 1876–1879 turned up a Thomas Pool, who lived in Walnut Grove, Redwood County, Minnesota, “with his wife and daughter.”  Armed with this information, we went back to the census: was there ever, anywhere in the United States, a Thomas Pool with a daughter Missouri? There was—and moreover, there was plenty of information to confirm that his family was the one Wilder remembered and to confirm that Thomas Pool and his wife Annie had moved to nearby Brown County, Minnesota, in 1880. But—now here’s the thing—in 1880, Missouri Pool is gone. She’s enumerated with her parents in 1870, but by 1880, she was either married, dead, or both. With no married name, it was impossible to track her beyond that point (Missouri was a more common first name than you might think). So there the matter rested. “There is no further trace of her,” was the conclusion in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. “She would have been about forty years old” (p. 141n76).

Enter Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck.

These residents of Willow Lake Township in Redwood County read this annotation and recognized a familiar local name. They let us know that Missouri Evans, née Pool, was buried on a nearby farm. When we contacted them to follow up, they even went out and took some pictures of the grave marker for us. As you can see, Missouri Evans died in early 1881 at the age of forty—about the right age for our Missouri Pool. Was it the same woman?

Photograph taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck

Photograph taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck

Yes, it was. Now that we had her married name, everything fell into place. Missouri Evans’s 1880 census data matched what we would expect to see in Missouri Pool’s. The census data led to marriage records, and soon we had a clearer picture of Wilder’s friend. Missouri Pool married widower Henry Evans on March 14, 1880, in Brown County but she died thirteen months later. No death records are immediately available, but according to the Irlbecks, local tradition says that Missouri, like too many women of the nineteenth century, died in childbirth. Clearly, she did not return to her name state of Missouri, as Wilder believed, but had stayed nearby in Minnesota. By the time of her death, however, the Ingalls family themselves had moved on—to Dakota Territory and the Hard Winter.

Incidentally, two of Henry Evans’s other wives are also buried in this private cemetery: Anna, who died February 27, 1880 (we know, right?!), and Amelia, who died March 29, 1884. The women of Minnesota must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the multiple widower packed up and moved to Canada—taking one final wife with him.

Jennifer McIntyre & Rodger Hartley

We thank Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck for contacting the South Dakota Historical Society Press with information on Missouri Pool and for taking the pictures of the Evanses’ gravesites.

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Photographs taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck

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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

Mary Ingalls Goes to School

In our work on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we found an interesting series of documents illuminating Mary Ingalls’s path to the Iowa College for the Blind.

When Mary suffered the illness that led to her blindness in the spring of 1879, she was fourteen years old. Her education prior to that time had been inconsistent, interrupted by her family’s various moves across the country. More dramatically, she had no training in how to function as an adult without vision, making her totally dependent on others for most of her basic needs. Compounding the situation, her father, Charles Ingalls, had just taken a job on the remote Dakota Territory frontier. What would become of Mary far from doctors and specialized schools?

Charles Ingalls was a resourceful man, and he soon found helpful colleagues in the new town of De Smet. One, attorney Visscher V. Barnes, mentioned frequently in Pioneer Girl, set to work to find resources for Mary Ingalls. In a series of letters to George Hand, the secretary of Dakota Territory, in the summer and fall of 1881, Barnes described Mary as “a young and intelligent lady,” who “ought to be provided for in some way.” Barnes outlined the situation—“her parents are unable to make much provision for either her treatment or mental culture”—and he inquired about any territorial laws that might apply (Barnes to Hand, Aug. 29, 1881).

Hand apparently responded that the territorial council had passed relevant legislation in 1879 that authorized the governor of the territory to enter into a contract for five years at a time with an institution in one of the surrounding states of Iowa, Minnesota, or Nebraska to provide education for a blind resident, “keeping in view economy” as well as the welfare of the student. A letter in the Rose Wilder Lane Papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library indicates that in 1881 the Iowa College for the Blind in Vinton charged $216 per out-of-state student per year. The student had to provide transportation to and from Vinton and his or her own clothing, and in some cases, students were unable to do even that (Robert Carothers to Wm. C. Cort, Dec. 21, 1881). Once the Iowa College for the Blind accepted the contract with the territorial governor to educate its blind students between the ages of five and twenty-one, the school became for all intents and purposes “the institution of the blind of [Dakota Territory]” (D.T., Compiled Laws, 1887, sec. 272).

Amos Whiting, the Kingsbury County superintendent of schools, began the necessary paperwork to certify that Mary Ingalls, age sixteen, was “blind and unable to obtain an education in the common schools” and was therefore “entitled to the benefit of the Institution for the Blind of Dakota for the term of five years, she not having passed any time in a like institution” (Whiting, certification, Oct. 3, 1881). For his part, Visscher Barnes continued to push for additional support, asking if there were any way for the territory to provide for transportation for her and her parents, as well. “The young lady has been blind only a short time,” he wrote in October, “and not long enough to learn to help herself. She is, in fact, at present left almost helpless, and it will be necessary for her parents to attend her” (Barnes to Hand, Oct. 7, 1881).

The records do not show whether or not the plea for additional support was successful, but on October 15, 1881, Dakota territorial governor Nehemiah G. Ordway approved Mary A. Ingalls’s certification of eligibility for five years of schooling (presumably through age twenty-one). She carried a copy of the signed document with her to Vinton when she entered a month later on November 23, 1881. The need to raise funds for transportation may have caused the lag in time. In These Happy Golden Years, Wilder vividly recorded the difference the education made in Mary’s circumstances. During Mary’s first visit home about two years later, a trip that she accomplished on the train by herself, Mary “moved easily around the house,” Wilder wrote, “instead of sitting quiet in her chair.” She was “gay and confident,” and when Pa brought in her trunk, “she went to it, knelt down and unlocked and opened it quite as if she saw it” (pp. 124–26). In Pioneer Girl, Wilder noted that Mary had “pleasant college memories to dwell upon” and was “able to sew and knit and make beadwork, to read her raised-print books and to play the organ that Pa and I together had bought for her as a surprise” (p. 295).

Mary Ingalls in 1889, the year she graduated from the Iowa College for the Blind

Mary Ingalls in 1889. Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

Mary Ingalls would actually attend the Iowa school for a total of seven years from 1881 through 1889, two more than the five she was originally eligible to receive. In 1885, the territorial council had amended the law to read that each blind student was entitled to a total of eight years of schooling. When Dakota Territory became the two states of North and South Dakota in November 1889, however, the state of South Dakota took a different approach to the education of its blind citizens, putting the burden for payment on individuals or individual localities. When Mary Ingalls sought to return to the Iowa College for the Blind in 1892, she was informed that it “would be impossible” because the state of South Dakota had “appropriated no money for the education of the blind” (Mrs. Robert Carothers to Mary Ingalls, Dec. 7, 1892, RWL Papers). The state would not establish a school for the blind until 1900; by that time, Mary Ingalls was thirty-five years old.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

 

 

Mary’s Illness

USA Today contacted the South Dakota State Historical Society last week to discuss an article that was soon to appear in Pediatrics about Mary Ingalls’s blindness (read USA Today’s coverage here). An assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan speculates that the illness that caused Mary Ingalls’s blindness was probably viral meningoencephalitis—a big term that was not likely to find its way into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books or her autobiography.

Mary Ingalls in 1889

Mary Ingalls in 1889
(photo: Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, De Smet, S.Dak.)

In Pioneer Girl, Wilder described the circumstances in this way: “Mary was taken suddenly sick with a pain in her head and grew worse quickly.” A few days later, one side of her face was “drawn out of shape,” and “Ma said Mary had had a stroke.” Two doctors in Walnut Grove attributed Mary’s failing eyesight to the stroke that had damaged the nerves in her eyes, which “were dying.” Wilder concluded: “They had a long name for her sickness and said it was the results of the measels [sic] from which she had never wholly recovered.”

In her fictional retelling of this episode in her sister’s life, which appears in the opening pages of By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder ascribed the condition to a bout of scarlet fever, one of the most deadly childhood illnesses of the nineteenth century. Pamela Smith Hill, Wilder biographer, suggests, “Wilder probably chose scarlet fever for the fictional version because it was such a deadly disease and because after arguing with Rose about whether to include Mary’s blindness in the Little House books at all, it was a swift, clear, and believable alternative.” For the age group she was writing for, scarlet fever was understandable; viral meningoencephalitis is a term best understood by medical researchers and doctors.

Nancy Tystad Koupal