Real People

Who’s real? How real?

We know that many of the characters in the Little House novels are based on real people—and sometimes in interesting ways. Take, for example, the notorious Nellie Oleson, a girl so persistently odious that you just know (or hope) that she cannot have been “real” in quite that way. As it turns out, this character is an amalgam of no less than three unpleasant people of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood acquaintance; Nellie as we know her combines all of their unpleasantnesses into a perfect triune arch-nasty.

The example of Nellie Oleson is well known, but the research and editorial team for the Pioneer Girl Project are probing the real basis of even the most occasional characters in Laura’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl. Historians wonder about any good story: Who’s real? How real? The answers are frequently gratifying, sometimes puzzling, and occasionally—well, occasionally, there’s no answer at all. That, too, is part of the practice of history.

Census records are the first tool in our box, an easy way to establish the basic fact of reality. Sometimes. Cap Garland, for example. Real? Yes. “Garland, Edmund”—for such was the lad’s given name—was enumerated outside De Smet in the 1880 census, living with his mother and two sisters, whom Laura mentions by name in Pioneer Girl.

Occasionally, the census has its little quirks that make the research all the more interesting. What about the Heath boys?

Wait, the Heath boys? you ask. Who are they?

Nobody crucial. Their story didn’t make it into the published novels. “The youngest Wilder boy and two other boys, Homer and Horace Heath, from near De Smet, were in the railroad camp when all this happened,” Laura wrote in Pioneer Girl. Well, I’m very much mistaken if you don’t know who the youngest Wilder boy is. But these Heath boys: real? Yes. So real that they were counted twice.

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from ancestrylibrary.com.

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from ancestrylibrary.com.

On 24 June 1880, a census taker enumerated a “Heath, Horice S.” and his brother, “Heath, Homer N.” on a farm just across the line in Brookings County. They were respectively twenty-five and twenty years old and were born, respectively, in New York and Wisconsin to parents who were also born in New York. They were listed as laborers.

Now, at some point in June—we don’t know exactly when—the following two laborers were enumerated in Beadle County, to the west of De Smet, boarding with thirty-two other laborers (smells like a railroad camp to me): “Heath, Horace” and “Heath, N. H.,” twenty-four and nineteen years old, born in New York and Wisconsin to parents born in New York. The first thing you learn in dealing with nineteenth-century census records is that the transposition of someone’s initials, or a year’s discrepancy in age, are commonplace. These were the same guys, counted twice in the 1880 census. I suspect that railroad camps—and other places using a seasonal workforce—were fertile ground for errors of this kind.

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy ancestrylibrary.com

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy ancestrylibrary.com

Oh, and look who appears on the same manuscript page, between Horace and Homer:

Wilder, A. J., twenty-two years old, laborer, born in New York to parents born in New York and Vermont. (Almanzo Wilder, too, was counted twice in 1880: once in this railroad camp in Beadle County and again outside De Smet with his brother Royal and sister Eliza.)

Real people.

Rodger Hartley

Mapping Pioneer Girl

There are many tasks associated with producing a book such as Pioneer Girl. Some are obvious: getting the words written and checked, for instance. But others might not seem so apparent at first glance.

One of those less-obvious tasks is that of preparing the information needed by the mapmaker. There are many places, towns, trails, and areas covered in Wilder’s autobiography, and we think it is important to help readers know where they are as they follow her story. As such, we’re working with high-quality mapmakers to ensure that we get a useable and helpful series of maps. But mapmakers cannot be expected to simply guess what needs to be on the maps they are preparing. We must give them the names of the places and towns and so on that should be included. They also need historical base-maps from which to build these new maps.

We’ve been scouring through the manuscript, highlighting any geographical term that might be important or useful to a reader. Then we start searching for original maps from the era in question that will provide us with the markers/locators for the modern mapmakers. We scan and photocopy any and all useful material, add a thesaurus of places, rivers, boundaries, and so on, and package it all up and send it off to the mapmaker.

When the final maps appear in the published book, most of us will enjoy them but perhaps not consider how they got to be there in the first place given that no single, original map could provide everything necessary. We won’t be disappointed; we’ll just be pleased that the maps make enjoying Pioneer Girl all the easier.

Martyn Beeny

The Sources

Today a copy of Barnaby Rudge arrived for me at the South Dakota Historical Society Press offices through interlibrary loan. No, it’s not my light reading for the morning coffee break. It’s for the Pioneer Girl Project. But what, you may ask, do Laura Ingalls Wilder and Charles Dickens have to do with each other? Other than their mutual status as classic authors?

(If you can guess why this book is on my desk, you’re good.)

As we research, edit, and write annotations for Wilder’s Pioneer Girl, I am impressed by the breadth and depth of background it takes to understand a life. Even a normal person’s life. For isn’t that what makes Laura Ingalls Wilder special: that for most of her life, she was not a celebrity? To her contemporaries, she was literally the girl next door (or on the next quarter section), yet as an author, she makes her readers see what is extraordinary and worth telling in the everyday lives of everyday people.

And how many details make up such a life! All the source materials for the annotations come across my desk. For the first quarter of the manuscript, I have several articles on the Osage Indians, a book on medicine during the Civil War era. Another on women’s hair ornaments, a pamphlet on public-land laws, and a serious tome on the history of Redwood County, Minnesota. And a Dickens novel.

Image from Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

An image from an early Barnaby Rudge

We don’t know if Wilder read Barnaby Rudge, but we do know that Dickens and his work had a far-reaching effect on the popular culture of the time. In the original, unedited Pioneer Girl manuscript, Wilder says about one of her cousins: “Edith was to [sic] small to know us but she laughed at me and held out her little hands. They all called her Dolly Varden because she had a pretty dress of calico that was called that.” Not being an English major, I had no clue what this passage might mean. But Dolly Varden, it turns out, was a character from Barnaby Rudge, a flirtatious beauty who inspired a style of dress in the late nineteenth century. So even this unlikely source provides a little more insight into Wilder’s world.

Imagine writing about your own childhood. How many of the details would be obscure or incomprehensible to a reader eighty years hence? When I visited my own cousins earlier this year, I teased one of them about his Justin Bieber haircut. Someday, a remark like that will require annotation. One of the greatest values of the Pioneer Girl Project is the way in which it enriches our experience of the things that Wilder and her family, friends, and neighbors knew on a day-to-day basis.

Rodger Hartley

A Pioneer Girl’s Treasures

On my most recent visit to Rocky Ridge Farm in the Missouri Ozarks, I was once again struck by all the things Laura Ingalls Wilder had managed to save from her childhood— her sampler, her handkerchief, the slates she and Mary used when they attended school in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, even the jewel-box she describes in such loving detail in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

It’s remarkable that so many objects from her childhood survived, given how often the Ingalls family moved—from Wisconsin to Missouri to Kansas and back to Wisconsin again; on to Minnesota, then Iowa, and back to Minnesota; finally on to Dakota Territory. All these moves were made either by covered wagon or by train, which meant the family had to travel light. I suspect Caroline Ingalls supervised her girls’ packing closely, but based on accounts in “Pioneer Girl” as well as the Little House series, both the real and fictional Ma understood how important it was to make a home wherever the family settled. That clearly included letting her girls take their small but precious possessions with them from one little house to another.

Wilder and her husband Almanzo made plenty of moves too—from South Dakota to Minnesota to Florida to South Dakota again and from there to Missouri, where they lived out their lives together. And they too traveled by train, wagon, or buggy. So it’s literally a small miracle that Wilder’s jewel-box from Plum Creek days survived.

A Childlike Sense of Wonder

I’ve long assumed that Wilder saved these things because, in a childhood marked by frugality and poverty, even the purchase of those slates must have seemed like an extravagance. But I’m not sure that an impoverished childhood entirely explains why Wilder saved those treasures from her past. My father, a child of the Great Depression, grew up in an Arkansas log cabin and like the Ingalls girls, he and his sisters delighted in simple pleasures and learned to live happily with less. Yet nothing except photographs from my father’s childhood remains; he didn’t save his childhood treasures.

I suspect that Wilder kept hers because part of her never entirely grew up. Yes, like most of us, she kept important and official family documents, the papers that define a family’s history. The archives at Rocky Ridge Farm, for example, include Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s wedding license, Mary’s diploma from the Iowa College for the Blind, and Wilder’s own teaching certificates. Wilder became the family member responsible for preserving family history and documentation. But she also continued to nurture that childlike sense of wonder, a characteristic that often defines children’s book writers.

A Writer’s Ambition

Among the items Wilder saved is her essay titled “Ambition,” written when she was seventeen for her teacher, Mr. Owen, in De Smet, South Dakota. It was a piece of writing that she was proud of. Perhaps her secret ambition had long been to become a writer.

Years later when Wilder, her husband, and daughter moved to Missouri, she began to act on that ambition. Almanzo had made her a portable writing desk, and throughout the journey to Missouri in 1894, Wilder kept a diary in a small notebook of her impressions along the way. She drafted a letter home to friends and family in De Smet, and it was published in the De Smet News and Leader in August 1894. Of course, she kept the clipping with a handwritten note, “First I ever published.”

Wilder began to write her life story in 1930, two years after she and Almanzo moved into the Rock House, a gift from their daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Here Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl, as well as the first three novels in the Little House series. It’s impossible to know all the details of Wilder’s writing process, but I like to think of her at the dining room table in the Rock House, a supply of No. 2 lead pencils and a Fifty Fifty tablet from Springfield Grocer Company at the ready. Perhaps as she struggled to find the right word or to describe the sound of Pa’s fiddle, she looked across the living room and out the window at that hazy Ozark sky and found the inspiration to continue, one word at time, one memory at a time.

Pamela Smith Hill