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.
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.
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.)