And to Think That It All Began with “The Long Winter”

This week, as a heavy winter snowstorm blanketed the Northern Great Plains, I found myself with the happy task of reading or rereading a lot of the popular and critical literature about Wilder: Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow, Ann Romines’s Constructing the Little House, and Elizabeth Jameson’s “In Search of the Great Ma” (Journal of the West 37 [Apr. 1998]), among others. The personal journeys of the women who wrote these works include a childhood familiarity with and love for the Little House books that ultimately led them to make the author the subject of their research. Each has her own personal encounter with Wilder herself (Romines) and/or the books (Fellman, Jameson). Other writers make their encounters with Wilder’s books the subject of their work: Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie or Nancy McCabe’s From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, for example. I came to realize that, just like these women, I have my own “Laura” story.

NTK in 5th Grade

Me in fifth grade.

It begins in the fifth grade at Notre Dame Academy in Mitchell, South Dakota, when Sister Kieran began to read The Long Winter out loud after lunch one day. The timing was significant because most of her pupils lived nearby, and we had just trudged through snow and wind, parked our rubber over-boots and snow-crusted winter coats and scarves in the cloakroom, and taken our seats in the warm classroom. Laura’s hard winter outlasted our own and made us all grateful that our winter had not matched hers (although there were one or two years in the fifties and sixties when that could not be said). It also made us proud that the Ingallses were South Dakota pioneers—after all, De Smet was just a few miles up the road.

Even before Sister Kieran finished The Long Winter, I had visited the Carnegie Library downtown and borrowed all the Wilder books in the original edition with the Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle illustrations. My favorite book would always be The Long Winter, but I also developed a fondness for On the Banks of Plum Creek (which had plenty of blizzards, too) and These Happy Golden Years with its harsh beginning at the Brewsters’ (more snowstorms!)  and its happy ending. As I grew up to become a sort-of hippy at the end of the 1960s, I thought that all I needed was a plot of land and a copy of Little House in the Big Woods to become self-sufficient (in the event of a nuclear blast or some other catastrophe). I never tested the theory, but I remain convinced that, just like Ma and Pa, I am fully capable of making cheese and smoking meatLongWinter1

While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Wilder’s influence directed my career choices, I did eventually turn to American literature (via foreign languages, linguistics, and a brush with archaeology) as my academic path of study and to editing as my profession. Along the way I was fortunate enough to edit and annotate some of the Dakota writings of L. Frank Baum (Our Landlady, 1996), who spent a couple of formative years in Aberdeen, South Dakota. As editor of South Dakota History, I also got to work with and edit two of William Anderson’s groundbreaking biographical and critical studies of Wilder: “The Literary Apprenticeship of Laura Ingalls Wilder” (1983) and “Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: The Continuing Collaboration” (1986). In 1997, I was invited to become a member of the board of directors of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Inc., of De Smet, which is the curator of both the Surveyors’ House and the Ingalls Home. Serving on that board has been a privilege and a pleasure, and it has brought me close to many aspects of the Little Houses.

Then in 2005, when the South Dakota Historical Society Press decided to publish a biography series featuring the region’s important citizens, the first one the Press commissioned was Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (2007). A few years later, we began work on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, and again, I found the winter of 1880–1881 to be one of the high points of Wilder’s memoir, allowing me to sink my teeth into research in the newspapers of the period. Here I found that the burning of hay was an economy farmers practiced even before the long winter, that price gouging among merchants was not a failing only of Mr. Loftus, that the lonesome whistle of the last freight train into De Smet came a little later than Wilder remembered, and that American Indians had in fact acted as weather forecasters on other occasions.

And, for me, it all began on that snowy day in 1957, when Sister Kieran stood in front of the class and started to read, “The mowing machine’s whirring sounded cheerfully from the old buffalo wallow south of the claim shanty, where bluestem grass stood thick and tall and Pa was cutting it for hay.”

Nancy Tystad Koupal

I am grateful to classmate Susan Tessier Mollison who helped me refresh my memory of those long ago days at Notre Dame Academy.

The Hub of the Prairie

The process of western migration in the nineteenth century resembles an avalanche rolling down the sides of a thousand social networks. Here’s how it works: somebody moves out to the newest frontier, survives the winter, and writes back to all their friends and relations. “Come away I say! The water’s fine!” And lo, the smitten readers pack their belongings and jostle into the sunset.

The Charles and Caroline Ingalls family is a good example of this process. They moved to Iowa to go into business with some acquaintances who had bought a hotel. They moved to Dakota to work with family members on their railroad-grading contract. Charles wanted to move to Oregon because some fellow he met once in 1876 said the bees liked it better out there, but Caroline finally put a stop to his wanderlust.

If you could draw a vector on a map to show every move made by every family during this era of settlement, the lines would not be randomly distributed. Many of them would cluster together and form streams, particularly along railroads.

This isn’t really news, of course; once one gets past the idea of the Totally Independent Pioneer—a legend that Laura Ingalls Wilder herself did much to craft—it’s really quite obvious that people followed friends and family in their movements. Examples of this aggregate motion lie just under the surface of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.

We at the Pioneer Girl Project first observed this phenomenon when looking for Walter Ogden. (Remember him? He stayed with the Ingalls family in the Surveyors’ House during the winter of 1879–1880 because they thought it would be wiser to stick together. Later Wilder decided that the Totally Independent Pioneer made a better story and wrote him out of By the Shores of Silver Lake, just as she would later excise the George Masters family from The Long Winter.) Charles Ingalls identified Walter Ogden as “a young man that was working for Henry Peck,”1 who turns out to be William Henry Peck, a farmer and sometime boardinghouse keeper for railroad workers in Beadle and Kingsbury counties.

A map of Grundy County, Iowa. Cartography Associates, David Rumsey Collection

Grundy County, Iowa. Cartography Associates, David Rumsey Collection

Hm. Peck. Another name that sounds familiar, but why? Fort Peck? No, that’s not it. Gregory Peck? Wait, what was Mrs. Boast’s maiden name? Aha!

Ella Boast, née Peck, came from Iowa, where she met her husband. And what do you know? So did W. H. Peck. They came from the same county, in fact; Grundy County, Iowa, was just packed with Pecks. We soon also discovered that both Ella’s and W. H.’s nuclear families moved to Grundy County from the same township in the same county in Illinois. Plato Township in Kane County.

Anybody know why this information is so exciting?

Because there were Ingallses in Plato Township, Kane County, Illinois, that’s why.

In 1850, we find two of Charles Ingalls’s uncles, James C. Ingalls and (Samuel) Worthen Ingalls, living in Plato Township with their families. Charles himself is living with his parents, Lansford and Laura Ingalls, in Campton Township, just to the south. Lansford appears to have followed his two brothers, who were already in Kane County by 1840. This chain of family migration reminds one of the James and Angeline Wilder family’s gradual move from New York to Minnesota and Dakota two to three decades later. Multiply this process by thousands, and you get a picture of the vast churning in the Midwest in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. These people were not moving to random places; they were moving between nodes of preexisting social and kin networks.

Lansford Ingalls and his family, of course, later went to Wisconsin. But what about the other Illinois Ingallses? Where did they go?

Well, at this point, it should be obvious.

They went to Grundy County, Iowa. Same as the Pecks. Worthen Ingalls took his family there, and so did James’s son Jasper. James himself went to Howard County, Iowa, not too far from Burr Oak, although he wasn’t around anymore when his nephew’s family came through in 1876–1877.

And since Wilder tells us that Louis Bouchie was a distant relative of Robert Boast’s, it’s not surprising to find both Louis and Joseph Bouchie in Grundy County, too, in 1880.

Considering the finite cast of characters in Wilder’s pioneering story, that’s a lot of traffic through one random county in Iowa with an 1870 population of about six thousand. And this movement is not the whole picture; I am confident that given more information, and extending the search beyond the circle of people whom Wilder mentions, one could uncover even more links in the Kane–Grundy–Kingsbury chain and more ways in which these people were related to each other by blood, marriage, or other social ties. And this stream is but one of hundreds or thousands in a truly epic but basically methodical migration.

It makes you wonder what might have prompted some of the other moves that the Ingalls family made. Did Charles Ingalls know someone in Kansas before he moved his family there? We may never know.

It no longer seems so strange, though, when Wilder tells us that Caroline Ingalls “was not excited at finding Uncle Henry at the R.R. camp” at Silver Lake.2 It was a small world, founded on social ties; the real surprise would have been not running into family or friends.

Rodger Hartley

1 Ingalls, “The Settlement of De Smet,” n.d., Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society Archives, De Smet, S.Dak.

2 Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, n.d. [1938], box 13, file 194, Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

Reflections on LauraPalooza and the International Wilder Experience

The vast conference room had few empty chairs as LauraPalooza go underway. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

The vast conference room had few empty chairs as LauraPalooza got underway. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In July, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association gathered scholars, amateur historians, and avid “bonnetheads” in Brookings, South Dakota, for LauraPalooza. The association is a worldwide, nonprofit organization whose membership is dedicated to preserving the legacy and encouraging the research of everything related to Wilder. Those who attended LauraPalooza, including myself, wanted to learn more about the famous author who introduced millions of readers to the American frontier.

The conference did not disappoint. From novelists and academics to translators and meteorologists, the presenters were varied, and each one looked at unique facets of the Wilder experience. For me, having grown up on the prairie that Wilder writes about, the session covering non-American perspectives of the pioneer family was especially interesting. I find it amazing how Wilder’s novels, and now Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, speak to readers everywhere. How can you understand the harshness of a prairie winter if you have never experienced one—the wind blowing ice into your eyes as you struggle to figure out where you are in a vast white landscape? Even though some of the commentators at LauraPalooza had never seen snow or the limitless prairie until well into adulthood, Wilder’s writing had forged a connection with them and thrust the author into international stardom.

Wilder scholars William Anderson and John E. Miller took time to speak with attendees. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

Wilder scholars William Anderson and John E. Miller took time to speak with attendees. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

Japanese translator Yumiko Taniguchi, for example, was one of those children who, though living in a mountainous region of Japan, connected with the Ingalls family’s struggles on the open prairie during the long winter of 1880–1881. Little did Yumiko know at the time that she would go on to translate all of Wilder’s books for new generations of Japanese children. From the earliest translation of The Long Winter, the first of Wilder’s books to be published in Japanese, prairie life and frontier themes worked their way into Japanese popular culture. According to presenter Hisayo Ogushi, in addition to the television show Little House on the Prairie, Japanese comic books and resorts give visitors the “Laura Ingalls Wilder” experience. Both Taniguchi and Hisayo spoke about how the resoluteness of the Ingalls family and the strength of character they found in Laura made them fans of her books.

In another vibrant presentation, Eddie Higgins talked about the joy and confusion of reading the Little House books for the first time in a version of English—American English—that sometimes seemed as obscure as Japanese. For Higgins, growing up in England, it became a matter of deciding whether Wilder’s words were simply antiquated or different. Scenes like the one in which Laura and Carrie go to the Loftus store to buy Pa suspenders for Christmas made Higgins pause and reread the words over and over again. In England, “suspenders” refers to what we in the United States would call a woman’s garter belt (the conference hall in Brookings burst into laughter at this revelation). Other words, however, can give even Wilder’s home audience pause, much as they did in the Pioneer Girl Project staff post New Words. Higgins and young American readers today may try to imagine what a “pie plant” is, but, in Wilder’s day, it was simply another name for rhubarb.

In contrast to the lack of technology in Wilder's day, the facilities at South Dakota State University were top-notch. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In contrast to the lack of technology in Wilder’s day, the facilities at South Dakota State University were top-notch. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller

In reminiscing about their first experiences with the Ingalls family, LauraPalooza presenters also shared their exuberance for works like Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, which gives more detail to the Little House stories that, though they were worlds away, made these women dream of life on the American frontier. In the end, their comments about the place, spirit, and community of the books gave me more insight into why Wilder’s work remains so popular.

Jennifer McIntyre

“New Characters” in Pioneer Girl

There is nothing quite like seeing a photograph of someone you have read about. Melding the writer’s words with the physical image can give a rush of recognition or, in some cases, wonder. In our research with Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, we have worked to find images of the people, places, and events that fill Wilder’s manuscript. Because Wilder wrote about an era when not many people had a camera, the task was, at times, difficult. However, we also had our share of serendipitous moments.

The adorable Masters children and their dog (name unknown). Standing (left to right) Alex and Arthur Masters; sitting (left to right) Vere, Nita, and Claude Masters. From the photo collection of Lucille (Masters) Mone. Used with permission.

The adorable Masters children and their dog (name unknown). Standing (left to right) Alex and Arthur Masters; sitting (left to right) Vere, Nita, and Claude Masters. From the photo collection of Lucille (Masters) Mone. Used with permission.

One such incident came when, through this website, we were able to contact a descendant of Samuel Masters and his son and daughter-in-law George and Maggie Masters. Although Wilder did not put George and Maggie in her book The Long Winter, in her autobiography, the presence of these two boarders and their infant son intensified the Ingallses’ hardships during the winter of 1880–1881. As Wilder documents in Pioneer Girl, Arthur Kingsbury Masters was actually born in the upstairs room of the Ingallses’ home in De Smet during the Masters family’s stay.

While Wilder’s portrayal of the family is not flattering, the extreme winter tested everyone’s endurance and may help to explain her unpleasant memories. Imagine how thin Pa must have been in real life with nine people to feed, compared to the six in the novel. As the photograph shows, George and Maggie Masters would go on to have more children, and George and Charles Ingalls would remain friends, for Masters served as a witness for Ingalls’s 1886 homestead-patent application. And I can certainly say that it was a pleasure to work with the modern-day Masters family.

Jennifer McIntyre