Carrie Ingalls, A Pioneer Woman

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.

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.

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.

Jennifer McIntyre

Rare Charles Ingalls Letter Discovered

In working with newspapers as we conducted background research for Pioneer Girl, we ran across a letter, dated February 2, 1880, from Charles Ingalls to the Brookings County Press that has gone unrecorded until now.

In the 1870s and 1880s, newspapers relied on “correspondents” for news of outlying towns. For example, the Redwood Gazette of Redwood Falls, Minnesota, published newsy letters on a weekly basis about Walnut Grove from a number of different writers, one of whom was a member of the Ensign family. The Ingallses lived briefly with the Ensigns when they moved back to Walnut Grove from Iowa in 1877.

In the short period before De Smet acquired its own newspaper in the spring of 1880, Charles Ingalls appears to have tried his hand at corresponding with the Brookings County Press. Appearing in the February 12, 1880, issue, Ingalls’s letter was headlined “From Kingsbury County” and is datelined “De Smet, Feb. 2d. 1880.” It is signed “C. S. I.”  At first glance, this signature does not appear to match Charles P. Ingalls, but several clues indicate that it actually does. First, De Smet had few residents in February 1880 and only one man with the initials “C. I.” Second, the letter mentions another county resident, “W. H. Seck,” who can only be W. H. Peck, the man whose livestock Walter Ogden, a boarder at the Ingalls home, had been caring for through the winter. Clearly, the typesetter was misreading Ingalls’s capital “P” for a capital “S.”

But it is the content of the letter that most clearly reveals its writer:

From Kingsbury County.

                                  De Smet, Feb. 2d., 1880 .

   Editor Press.—Thinking a few lines from this vicinity might be interesting to your readers I take the liberty of sending them to you.

   De Smet is situated in the center of Kingsbury county, on the Chicago & N. W. R. R. and on the bank of Silver Lake. It is surrounded by as fine a country as can be found in the west. There are some claims to be had here yet; some very fine chances for stock-raising.

   Times are lively here again. W. H. Seck has removed his herd of stock from this place to his homestead 15 miles east. D. I. Egleston and party gave us a call last week. They seemed very much pleased with the country and its prospects; they were a jolly good natured party and seemed determined to have a good time. We hope they will call again.

   Trappers and hunters have been on the go to and from the “Jim” all the winter. They seem to have had a poor success in both vocations.

   The wolves, foxes, coyotes, and keeping warm have made lively times for your correspondent this winter; he has made a successful warfare and hopes to bring more stirring news when next he enters your sanctum.                         

C. S. I.

As Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels and Pioneer Girl clearly show, Charles Ingalls did successfully trap foxes and coyotes, among other animals, during the winter of 1879–1880. Having settled at De Smet, rather than thirty-some miles farther west on the James, or Jim, River, Ingalls was not only broadcasting his own prowess but advertising the greater bounty of the De Smet vicinity at the same time.

Nancy Tystad Koupal