The Enduring Myth of the Great American Desert

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s earliest memory of hearing a railroad whistle is documented in the Minnesota section of her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript. “I thought it was calling me,” Wilder claimed of her initial response to the engine’s distinctive wail.1 In one of the revised versions of the manuscript, however, her daughter and editor Rose Wilder Lane aimed to make this moment more instructive. In that version, Wilder’s father uses the train sighting to inform his children of the “building of railroads across the Great American Desert,” a grand project indicative of the fact that the family lived in “an age of wonderful invention and enterprise.”2 This bit of exposition reflected the way that many early twentieth century historians had come to view the settlement of the Great Plains. Prior to the devastation of the Dust Bowl, Americans’ ability to thrive in this allegedly uninhabitable region was a testament to their pioneering spirit.

A hand-colored wood engraving depicting settlers moving west across the Great American Desert, ca. 1875. Library of Congress

Edwin James coined the phrase “Great American Desert” to describe the vast prairies of present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska in his chronicle of Stephen H. Long’s exploration of the region in 1820. James proclaimed this area “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture for their subsistence.” Zebulon Pike had come to a similar conclusion following his journey across the Great Plains in 1806, declaring that Americans would have to “leave the prairies . . . to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines of the country.”3 Clearly, these early explorers had little knowledge or appreciation of the ways that Plains Indian tribes used the land. Further, these descriptions had a limited impact, as only a few northeasterners bought into this view of the region. Still, this expansive “desert”—a term used at the time to describe any undeveloped lands—appeared on at least a few mid-nineteenth century maps.4

While interlopers from the verdant northeast balked, those living closer to the Mississippi River viewed the region’s prospects favorably. Following the Civil War, railroad expansion and a humid weather cycle made the area appear ripe for settlement. Boosters touted the Great Plains as ideal for farming, claiming that the recent spate of favorable weather proved rain “follows the plow.”5 In an 1878 report to the United States Congress, however, geologist John Wesley Powell cautioned that the area beyond the one-hundredth meridian—which comprised both the “sub-humid” or semiarid Great Plains and the arid lands west of the Rockies—could not be farmed without irrigation and would see periods of debilitating drought.6

Few heeded Powell’s warnings; instead, many romanticized the Great Plains as a man-made garden, using the idea of the “Great American Desert” to suggest that hardy pioneers had conquered what was once thought to be a barren land.7 Lane’s edits reflected that celebratory trend and foreshadowed the family’s move west to Dakota Territory, where they would settle between the ninety-seventh and ninety-eighth meridians. Belying boosters’ promises, however, their success as homesteaders would be uneven to say the least. Moreover, Lane’s 1930 revisions came at the beginning of a sustained drought that coincided with the worst economic downturn in the nation’s history. All told, the 1930s were a disastrous decade for farmers in the region. Americans, it turns out, still had a lot to learn about life on the Plains.

Cody Ewert


1. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 62.

2. Wilder, “Pioneer Girl—Revised” [Brandt Revised], p. 15, Box 14, file 207, Laura Ingalls Wilder Series, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

3. Both quoted in The American West: A New Interpretive History, by Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 160.

4. Martyn J. Bowden, “Great American Desert,” in Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, ed. David J. Wishart (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), p. 389.

5. David M. Emmons, Garden in the Grasslands: Boomer Literature of the Central Great Plains (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), p. 128.

6. Donald Worster, A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 356, 480–81.

7. In contrast, the historian Walter Prescott Webb would use the term “Great American Desert” in his classic 1931 study The Great Plains to argue that many aspects of the settlement of the plains had been misguided. Bowden, “Great American Desert,” p. 389.

At the Hoover

Earlier this month, I cleared my schedule so that I could spend five uninterrupted days researching Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. It was my second trip to this amazing repository in a lovely little Iowa town of about twenty-five hundred people just outside of Iowa City. Although the leaves carried a tinge of yellow, signaling the onset of autumn, the weather had turned summery, and people were enjoying the Hoover park and museum. As an added bonus, on Friday, September 15, the grounds were a sea of bright colors as friends and relatives came to watch more than seventy immigrants become proud United States citizens. On that same day, I was privileged to see the original manuscript of Wilder’s “The First Three Years,” another highlight of the trip.

Archivists Spencer Howard and Matt Schaefer brought the manuscript from the vault, laid it on a research table in the reading room, and ordered me to “glove up.” Pulling on white cotton gloves, I gingerly touched the manuscript just as I had carefully explored the Pioneer Girl manuscript six years earlier. As with her autobiography, Wilder had written this adult novel of the first years of her marriage in pencil on cheap, wide-lined school tablets. Overall, however, the manuscript, and especially the first tablet, is in much rougher shape than the original Pioneer Girl manuscript, with strike-overs and eraser holes rubbed into the cheap paper. In a seemingly helter-skelter fashion, Wilder had appended text, crossed it out, and covered it over with scraps of paper, leaving a puzzle for researchers to decipher. In contrast, the extant tablets of Pioneer Girl are clean, with almost no strike outs or false starts and clear instructions for following the author’s intentions. Wilder’s care with that manuscript compared to the haphazard nature of this one confirms my speculation that the original Pioneer Girl is a fair copy prepared for her typist. It is not a first or working draft as “The First Three Years” manuscript clearly is.

Through special fundraising efforts, the Hoover library staff has had “The First Three Years” treated for acidity and stored in acid-free wrappers. Damaged pages have been stabilized, and the three tablets of the manuscript are housed in a specially made case. It is a beautiful presentation. Congratulations to the staff at the library for their foresight in preserving this important manuscript for future generations of Wilder scholars.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

 


 

1. Nancy Tystad Koupal and Rodger Hartley, “Editorial Procedures,” in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. lxv. Some of Wilder’s other remaining manuscripts, especially those of Little House on the Prairie, are clearly first or working drafts as well, showing the same characteristics as “The First Three Years.” Others, like Pioneer Girl, are fair copies prepared for the typist.

A Wilder Conference Wrap-up

“Outstanding!” “Loved it!” “Amazing!”

Forgive us. We at the Pioneer Girl Project need a moment to toot our own horn. For the past several months, we had been working to organize and host the 2017 South Dakota State Historical Society History Conference, April 28–29, an annual event for which the society’s various programs choose the theme in rotation. This year, we chose “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-year Legacy” to celebrate Wilder’s one hundred fiftieth birthday (February 7). The event was a tremendous success! Those attending represented over twenty states, and all of the contributing authors to Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder made the trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to be featured speakers.

In a true meeting of minds, the speakers and an audience that asked superb questions probed important topics and demonstrated that there is still much to learn about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Panelists and conference-goers discussed Wilder’s relationship with truth and whether it morphed under the editorial leadership of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Caroline Fraser and Amy Mattson Lauters considered the career of Lane and in turn debated how her work and experience influenced her mother—the budding novelist—or vice versa. Sallie Ketcham took a different route, examining how the fairy tale tradition and Wilder’s own familiarity with these old tales informed the development of her works. Ann Romines, Elizabeth Jameson, and Paula Nelson pointed out several commonly held misconceptions about family life, childhood, and the female experience on the frontier and explored the historical realities of the woman who shaped our understanding of this time period. John E. Miller compared Wilder to other prominent midwesterners. William Anderson treated conference attendees to an examination of Pioneer Girl’s path into print, relating his own firsthand experiences with the people and circumstances that kept Pioneer Girl semi-underground until 2014. Michael Patrick Hearn presented his observations on the changing attitude towards Wilder’s novels.

Given that nearly seventy-five years have passed since the final Little House book was published during Wilder’s lifetime, what keeps audiences captivated by her writing? Noel Silverman, representative for the Little House Heritage Trust spoke to this question in his luncheon address, “Her Stories Take You with Her.” Sharing his experience in working with Wilder’s literary legacy for over forty-five years, Silverman observed that readers discover something about themselves in Wilder’s writings. Her lasting legacy, he asserts, tells us that we can all live an adventure, learn to be self-reliant, find comfort in our families, and much more.

“Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-year Legacy” was a great experience. The conference focused attention on a legacy that continues to shape our understanding of the American past. Thank you to all of the speakers, attendees, vendors, and coordinators who made it possible.

—Jennifer McIntyre

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All of the conference speakers participated in the final panel, which explored the question of Wilder’s lasting legacy.

 

The Story of the “Diggers”

I was dubious when Nancy Koupal invited me to contribute to Pioneer Girl Perspectives. What, I thought, could I possibly add? The comprehensive, incisive essays in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography ably tell the origins of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s apprenticeship manuscript.

Then Nancy gave me a pep talk. She has done this for lo, these past thirty years, during writing projects and sundry historical-literary affairs. She challenged me to consider the “first diggers”—the fraternity of people who started the initial research on Wilder. One enthusiastic old regular in early Wilder studies cheerily told me, “I hope our spades never get rusty.”

As a fledgling researcher in the 1960s and 1970s, I was welcomed into that coterie of folk dedicated to Wilder. The “diggers” were scattered throughout the Wilder country in America’s heartland and farther afield—even reaching to Japan and Australia. Many of them actively toiled to preserve Little House sites. Aubrey Sherwood, editor of the De Smet News and a friend of the Ingalls daughters, was among the most influential, a true mentor to me and countless others.

I had a brief brush with the great Rose Wilder Lane. She answered my letters, vetted my first writing, and lectured me on research technique. She autographed books for me and was incredulous that I had unearthed many of her early writings. She claimed she’d forgotten writing some of them.

How does all this connect with Pioneer Girl? Through ongoing involvement with Wilder people and places, some best-forgotten early writing of mine, and continuing research, I was cognizant of Pioneer Girl’s existence. The manuscript had its own surreptitious life, long before its 2014 appearance. I was charged to prepare a version for publication during the 1980s. I witnessed others using Pioneer Girl, all within an aura of secrecy. It was a dishy slice of literary lore, indeed.

I’ve told the story from my perspective in the chapter “Pioneer Girl: Its Roundabout Path into Print.” Writing this history was one more Wilder adventure, locating forgotten files of mine, drawing on long-held memories, and constructing a previously untold tale.

Yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder is still most relevant during this, her sesquicentennial year.

William Anderson, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

A Midwestern Pioneer

When Nancy Tystad Koupal invited me to contribute an essay to Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, I felt honored. Then I wondered, “Is there something that I can contribute that hasn’t already been done?”

becoming-liw_illusNearly a quarter century ago, while researching my first book on Laura Ingalls Wilder, I, like every serious scholar working on her, visited the Hoover Presidential Library, which houses the major collections of papers on her and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. At that time, I photocopied the drafts of Pioneer Girl that Lane had typed and sent to her editors in 1930 and 1931 (she switched agents in the middle of the submission process). I culled information from Wilder’s memoir of her childhood and used what I found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town and then in the biography Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. The information contained in those manuscripts was gold for anyone who wanted to know “what really happened” in Wilder’s childhood, and those of us aware of the material treated it as the treasure it was. Pioneer Girl provided a more detailed, nuanced, and surprising picture of Wilder than we could find anywhere else.

But now is now, and I had to come up with a novel idea for Pioneer Girl Perspectives, or so I thought, but a subject rose to the surface that I had been considering for some time: the idea of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s identity as a midwesterner throughout her life. The places she lived in and wrote about are steeped in the identity of the Middle West, and it seemed to me that that fact alone had a significant impact on her life and writing.

Reinforcing this line of thinking was the 2014 publication of a book I had been working on for over a decade and a half, Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America. It contains twenty-two stories of small-town and farm boys who grew up in the Midwest and whose rural boyhoods significantly shaped their identities and success as adults. The men I wrote about range from Henry Ford, William Jennings Bryan, and Carl Sandburg to Ernie Pyle, Walt Disney, and Sam Walton. My interest in the subject also stems from the fact that I am a small-town boy from the Midwest myself. In addition, the brand-new Midwestern History Association, spearheaded by a former student of mine, is directing major attention to the region. So, I decided to look at Wilder as a midwestern pioneer girl.

My chapter studies midwestern places that shaped Wilder’s life, values, thoughts, and actions through her experiences and interactions with the people who lived there. It places Wilder alongside other important midwesterners—Harvey Dunn, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Willa Cather—to deal with concepts of the frontier, land, rural values, cultural patterns, and socio-economic realities that provided the context for her life and writing. In this way, I note the supreme importance of place, in terms of the Midwest as a region, in Wilder’s work.

John E. Miller, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

 

Bloody Benders

In 2011, when I was working on notes for the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, the one that was the most fun to write and research was about the Bloody Benders. These serial killers in Kansas played a starring role in the most important statement Wilder ever made about her work, the speech she gave at the Detroit book fair.  And no wonder:  the Benders had it all—murder, mystery, sex appeal.

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The illustration page from a feature on the Bender murders in Harper’s Weekly on June 7, 1873

When Pioneer Girl:  The Annotated Autobiography was published, I was thrilled to see that it included, among its other gorgeous accoutrements, a meaty little appendix about the Bloody Benders.  Then Nancy Tystad Koupal and Pioneer Girl Perspectives offered me the perfect excuse to indulge my morbid fascination with this killer family and to delve into the story of why the Benders became something of a touchstone for Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.  Why were they always bringing up the Bender account—what did it mean to them?  And what does their adding the episode to the Pioneer Girl narrative say about their understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction?

My essay aims to provide some answers to those questions, but to give you a teaser:  Lane’s early journalism goes back to a lurid period in the history of newspapers—what used to be called “yellow journalism,” named for the “Yellow Kid” comic strip immortalized during the circulation battles between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.  Yellow journalists gave rise to both good and bad trends, to investigative journalism as well as tabloid fodder—they were the pioneers of “fake news.”

Lane cut her teeth in the “journalistic kindergarten” of yellow journalism in San Francisco, California.  Within weeks of being hired at the San Francisco Bulletin, she began churning out fake celebrity “autobiographies.” At the same moment, she was teaching her mother the tools of that strange trade.  It’s an astonishing chapter in their story. The saga of the Bloody Benders dramatizes the editorial struggle between them, a struggle over values represented by truth, on the one hand, and fiction on the other.  My essay features new information on the Bender-Ingalls connection and how Wilder and her daughter may have come across the salacious tale, as well as a long-lost letter of Lane’s, described for the first time.

Caroline Fraser, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

A Mother/Daughter Story

I have been a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder since I was a little girl. Like many, I received my first copy of Little House on the Prairie when I was five or six from my grandmother, Elsie Mattson, and I continued to receive all of the books, out of order, for varied birthdays and Christmases. Playing “Little House” was a favorite pastime; I lived in northern rural Wisconsin when I was small, and my cousins and I had no shortage of personal experiences to relate to our reading and playing of “Laura’s” story. Grandma Elsie was even friends with the real Laura’s cousins who lived in the area, and I knew early on that the fictional Laura had a real-life counterpart. That knowledge lent realism to my childhood experiences, and that connection fostered my adult interest in women’s history.

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Rose Wilder Lane in 1942. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

But as I grew up and uncovered the story of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, I discovered that I related much better to her than I did to Wilder. Lane was a “modern woman” who left rural America and built a career as a freelance writer in a time when that just wasn’t done. Lane defied convention and gained notoriety in a period when women were actively encouraged to stay home. She also faced significant hardships—a failed marriage, a lost child, and lifelong struggles with depression—and when it came to public opinion, her “give-a-darn” broke long before her divorce in 1918. Lane educated herself, and she valued intellectual thought. I admired her willingness to speak out for her beliefs. Her tenacity led her to carve out a career that allowed her to support herself, her parents, varied friends, and foster children throughout her life.

In the chapter I wrote for Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, I focus on Lane’s story, particularly her later career, her interactions with the FBI, and her less-than-subtle political commentary in the Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework. My essay reflects on the fact that this extraordinary person was every inch her mother’s daughter. The values that Wilder articulates in Pioneer Girl and her early journalistic writings clearly appear as a theme in Lane’s work and personal choices.

Rose Wilder Lane was not perfect; she made some poor choices that put her at odds with her mother and, later, with her mother’s fan base. Laura Ingalls Wilder was not perfect either, but the lessons each woman’s story holds for the contemporary reader remain valuable to women’s history in the United States.

We can learn a lot from Lane’s story.

Amy Mattson Lauters, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.