L’Étoile du Nord State

The sun is rising over the prairie grasses and I’m on the road again. Instead of an old wagon and horses, I’m relying on the horsepower of a Uhaul truck and a rusted-out ’99 Pontiac Grand Am to take me east. This fall I accepted a post-doctorate fellowship position teaching Native American and Indigenous studies and the history of the American West at the University of Minnesota, Morris. I’ll be trading the grasslands of the Great Plains for the woodlands at the edge of the prairie. Don’t worry—I will still be researching and blogging for the Prairie Girl Project. Perhaps it is serendipity that as my research on Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts turns towards the North Star state I will now make my home there.

Moving is never easy. Ferrying boxes back and forth from an apartment to the truck is not walking from Wisconsin to Kansas, but it shares some unpleasant characteristics with that task. Harder still are the goodbyes to good friends. Though technology helps to shorten the distance, nothing replaces the good-morning smiles that working with the folks of the South Dakota Historical Society Press provided. Thank you Nancy, Jeanne, and Jenny for making my time in South Dakota so wonderful.

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Garth Williams illustrated the 1953 edition of Little House on the Prairie. On page twenty-eight, he depicts Caroline Ingalls using a cast-iron “spider skillet.” 

As my last day in Pierre approached, I found myself smiling at the comparison of a covered wagon to my soon-to-be overstuffed Uhaul. My smile quickly vanished as we piled a second couch into the truck. A box with kitchen goods contained an old cast-iron skillet bought from an antique dealer near Watertown, South Dakota. The first such skillets came into widespread use in the late 1800s, and the Ingalls family found them useful when traveling or on the homestead. And while Laura Ingalls Wilder may have appreciated my ever-growing home library, Charles Ingalls may have asked whether I could condense the collection a bit to ease the weight in the wagon.

My family came to help me pack and begin a new chapter in Minnesota. With the last box safely stored in back, my dad and I climbed into our rig. I guided the truck down a hill and out across the grasslands. As I transition from the edge of the West to the northern outpost of the Midwest, stay tuned in coming weeks for essays on the Dakota War of 1862, maple sugaring, and plagues of locusts.

Jacob Jurss

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An Ocean of Green and Yellow Surrounds Me

“Almost at once we drove through the breaks along the river; crossed the Sioux river and were out on the broad prairie that looked like a big meadow as far as we could see in every direction” (Wilder, Pioneer Girl, p. 153).

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Photographs by Jacob Jurss

I do not have a covered wagon. My horse is made of aluminum, carbon fiber, and rubber. It is fueled by coffee, not hay, and rolls instead of gallops. When I’m not researching and writing, I cycle on the backroads west of our offices in Pierre, South Dakota. I clear my head and quietly enjoy the beauty that surrounds me. Peddling my bicycle, I climb up out of the Missouri River valley and turn out onto the wind-swept flats that seem to stretch out forever. Blue skies with the occasional white cloud float lazily overhead. The sun burns the paved road, but there is nearly always a stiff headwind to help cool me down.

Perhaps the most common comparison of the wind in the prairie grasses is the comparison to waves rolling on the ocean. Watching the wind play with the grasses, I consider it an apt description. The road I travel down is far smoother than earlier roads, and livestock fences are more prevalent, but there are still long stretches of uninterrupted grasslands that stretch for miles. I think about the region’s people—the Arikaras and Lakotas, French traders, Norwegian and other immigrants and settlers—watching the same grasslands racing the sky to the horizon. I am reminded that for many readers of Wilder’s collected works it is the descriptions of place, the idea of home, that causes them to read and read again. Wilder’s vivid depictions never fail to create detailed images in my mind, but sometimes it’s important to place oneself physically in a place. I smell the air; I listen to the breeze. I race along backroads and quietly enjoy the vastness of the South Dakota sky.

Jacob Jurss

Following the Trail of Wilder

No so long ago, I found myself making another trip along U.S. Highway 14, this time from Pierre—pronounced “peer”—to Brookings in eastern South Dakota. As I drove, my thoughts meandered between summer road-trip plans and contemplation of the railroad tracks running alongside me. For those of you who don’t know, Highway 14 follows the very railroad line, the old Dakota Central Railway of the Chicago & North Western, that brought Charles Ingalls and his family to Dakota Territory. As I raced trains past Huron, the few remaining buildings of Manchester, and on through De Smet, my thoughts focused on how different distances are now in comparison to the 1800s.

Pierre to Brookings

The famous frontier family traveled thousands of miles by wagon, as well, and as readers of the Little House novels and Pioneer Girl know, it could take days, even weeks, to get from one place to another, depending on the weather and the condition of the “road,” or what we would call a trail today. And, with wagon travel not being especially popular in 2015, it can be hard for a modern audience to fathom the time and effort it took to travel among the homesteads, geographical landmarks, and towns that Wilder mentions in her original manuscript. With the advent of first the railroad and then the car, places have become much closer than they were, figuratively speaking.

That is why one of my favorite things about Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is the eight maps created for various sections in the book. Taken together, they give contemporary readers a better perspective on the scope of the Ingallses’ journey. Along with several historical maps reproduced in the book, they help me begin to visualize just how big the “Big Woods” were, where New Ulm is situated in relation to Walnut Grove, MN Mapand how close the Loftus store was to “Residence C. P. Ingalls, Justice of the Peace” in De Smet.

As detailed in our blog post from 2012, these maps did not simply appear on our desks one day. Since we did not have Laura Ingalls Wilder there to help with the finer points, Pioneer Girl Project editor Jeanne Ode dived into Wilder’s manuscript and waded through historical maps from archives throughout the region to give readers a clearer picture of the Ingallses’ now-famous voyage. The map-making journey, like the family’s sojourn, was “filled with twists, turns, and the occasional dead end,” Ode says. Determining locations from sources that sometimes conflicted and creating preliminary sketches to guide the illustrator who created the final, well-designed versions was not always a walk in the park. As readers will discover, though, the trip was worth the trouble. As for me, the drive down Highway 14 now has a bit of extra meaning.

Jennifer McIntyre