April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
A LIFELONG FASCINATION with the stories of a famous pioneering family finally drove the writer to South Dakota in hopes of better understanding the prairie life Laura Ingalls Wilder lived there and later gave to the world.
When she was a little girl in Wisconsin in the 1870s, her father would take her and her sister on his knee after supper in their log house and tell them wonderful stories about bears and panthers and little boys who sneaked out to go sledding on the Sabbath. Then later she would drift off to sleep in her trundle bed hearing her father play his fiddle. Even after they left their comfortable house, and meals became unpredictable, the stories went on, as did the fiddle music. It was too good to be altogether lost.
When she was a little girl in Wisconsin in the 1870s, her father would take her and her sister on his knee after supper in their log house and tell them wonderful stories about bears and panthers and little boys who sneaked out to go sledding on the Sabbath. Then later she would drift off to sleep in her trundle bed hearing her father play his fiddle. Even after they left their comfortable house, and meals became unpredictable, the stories went on, as did the fiddle music. It was too good to be altogether lost. Years later that little girl wanted people to know how it had been.
So Mrs. A. J. Wilder, a farm woman in her sixties, began to write. In a first-person memoir she detailed her life from the ages of three to eighteen as she and her family moved about on the frontier during the last phase of the westward expansion. She entitled the manuscript “Pioneer Girl” and gave it to her daughter, who wrote for a minor magazine, to edit. Then she submitted it to publishers, combining her girlhood name with her married one, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Nobody would accept it. Events were described pell-mell with no unifying theme, and although the narrator emerged as determined and gritty, everyone else in the account remained shadowy. “Pioneer Girl” was a historical work, not a literary one.
Mrs. Wilder was undeterred. With the failure of one project, she merely embarked on a more ambitious one. She would create a work, ostensibly for children, that could stand as both history and literature. “I” became “Laura”; a story of a “girl” became a story of a household; and the daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, made the leap from editor to collaborator.
Of the eight Little House books that appeared between 1932 and 1943, five won the Newbery Medal, the highest honor for juvenile fiction. The books recount the Ingalls family’s attempt to wrest prosperity from the land, first in the Wisconsin woods and then on the prairies of Kansas, Minnesota, and Dakota Territory. Laura wrote of blizzards and grasshopper plagues, of the conflicts between European Americans and Native Americans, of town building and the advance of railroads, of washing dishes and braiding hair. Above all, she created an enduring portrait of her parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, whom she called Pa and Ma; of her sisters, Mary, Carrie, and Grace; and of herself. It has been said that more people have learned about the frontier from Laura Ingalls Wilder than from Frederick Jackson Turner, its acclaimed historian. (But also, more people have heard about Laura Ingalls Wilder from a slick television series supposedly based on the books than from the books themselves.)
Wilder believed she was doing something unusual by writing a multi-volume saga, in which the viewpoint of a child narrator matures as her character grows up. However, her venture was more uncommon than that. Many people have written novels with autobiographical overtones or historical fiction about famous people or events. Wilder wrote historical novels about her previously unknown family, using actual names, places, and incidents. She streamlined events, created scenes for dramatic effect, and sometimes changed things for the better.
In real life the family’s good dog Jack was left behind early in their Westward trek; in the books Jack looked out for the girls until they left Minnesota. The actual Charles Ingalls may have been, as Laura characterized him, “inclined to be reckless"; she was probably referring to his tendency to make impulsive decisions without thinking through the consequences. For instance, after the grasshoppers destroyed his crops, he put the little money he had into a hotel in Iowa even though he had no experience in running one. But as the fictional Pa he could be merely optimistic. Yet Laura always stayed close to the essential story. When Rose suggested to her that she omit from the books Mary’s becoming blind as a teenager, she flatly refused, since everything the family did after that point was in some way affected by Mary’s blindness.
By the mid-1950s the Little House books were considered classics. I doubt, though, that my own mother knew what she was starting in me when she read me Little House in the Big Woods . Before I was five we had raced through all the books. When I learned to read, I went back to them again and again. At first I simply found the stories exciting. The experiences of the Ingalls sisters presented an intriguing contrast with my own childhood in the suburban New Jersey of the 1950s and 1960s. I might worry abstractly about the atom bomb; the Ingallses had to fight prairie fires.
Later I enjoyed just being with Pa, Ma, and the girls. Jolly, generous Pa had two desires: to do what was best for the family and to push farther and farther into unsettled territory. Only slowly did he realize he could not do both. Ma could make a cultured home anywhere, be it in a covered wagon, dugout, or shanty. She was a traditional woman—but only on the surface. Each daughter made her own distinctive contributions to the family too.
In high school I decided to see what else I could learn about the Ingallses. I wrote to the various Laura Ingalls Memorial Societies that had formed during the decade after she died, at ninety, in 1957. They sent me pictures and pamphlets. Research into the background of the Little House books at that time mainly centered on verifying the routes of the actual family’s travels. The result was the discovery that the Ingallses had been to places not mentioned in the books.
I was disconcerted to learn that there was a story behind the story. Why hadn’t Laura written of her parents’ attempt to run a hotel in Iowa? How could she have failed to mention her brother, Freddie, who had lived only nine months? However, my eagerness to know more only increased. I read newspaper clippings and got copies of deeds and census records. I wrote a letter to “Any Stepchild of Carrie Ingalls Swanzey, Keystone, SD” and was answered warmly by Carrie’s stepdaughter, Mary Harris.
I put my interest in the Ingallses aside in college and law school, although I sometimes read the books on the sly. After I started working, I from time to time came across new material on Laura Ingalls Wilder. People by now recognized that the series could be read as an adult work, with Laura’s parents as the focal point. Scholars were studying both the historical roots of the books and the fascinating process by which they had been written. When I read something that interested me about them, I wrote to its author, and he or she invariably wrote back, often referring me to other articles. Suddenly I found myself sucked back in. As one history professor told me, “I never intended to get into it this far, but now there’s no turning back.”
Obtaining reams of photocopies from Midwestern libraries, I read two versions of the coarse and chaotic “Pioneer Girl.” Then I started in on Laura’s correspondence with Rose.
Some people collect stamps. Learning about the Ingallses and the nature of Wilder’s literary endeavors is what I do. This is something entirely separate from my job as a lawyer for an insurance company and my freelance writing on disability issues. It allows me occasionally to have a different persona and to think about issues that I would not ordinarily think about—issues as diverse as whether sex roles were less confining in the West than in the East in the late nineteenth century and whether fiction can reveal more about a writer than autobiography.
I have followed the controversy over whether Little House on the Prairie , which concerns the Ingallses’ misguided attempt to settle in Indian Territory (now southern Kansas), should be read at all by young people today. Individual Indians are described respectfully in the book, but remarks about Native Americans in general reflect the racism that existed both when the events occurred and when the book was written. (I think the solution is not to remove the book from library shelves, as some communities have done, but to give the children the tools they need to identify the racial bias and not be influenced by it.)
By 1993 I was contacting scholars to discuss my own views and not just ask for information. It occurred to me then that I should write something myself. I knew, though, that first I needed a sense of place.
The prairie was the dominant landscape of Laura’s childhood. The word prairie is in the title of two of the books. Indeed, Laura mentioned the prairie so often that it almost seemed to be a family member, if a mercurial one. Of her first view of the Kansas plains, she wrote: “In a perfect circle, the sky curved down to the level land and the wagon was in the circle’s exact middle. ... There was only the enormous, empty prairie with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising.”
Always having lived in the Northeast, I am familiar with cities, suburbs, hills, and beaches but not with vast expanses of land. I had to see the prairie. I did not want to go alone, but no else was interested until at a family gathering in May 1994 my sister-in-law Jane asked me where I was going that summer. “Maybe the Cape,” I answered. “Actually, I’d really like to go to South Dakota, but none of my friends want to go.”
“I’ll do it,” she said. Jane was the last person I would have thought of going on a trip with. She leads a very busy life with my brother and their children, and her reaction to the one Little House book she had read was that it was “cutesy.” However, she is always ready for adventure, and we get along well. She was the perfect choice. She even promised to read another one of the books.
We made our plans. We would see two of the four areas Laura wrote about. Our focus would be on De Smet, South Dakota, the setting for the latter half of the Little House series. We would also see Plum Creek, in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where Pa raised a fabulous wheat crop when the girls were still small, only to have it destroyed by grasshoppers.
Jane and I flew to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on a Friday in late August and started out. The land at first seemed flat, but then we noticed that it had continuous rises and swells, just as Laura said. There were few trees, but at intervals lines of cottonwoods with puffy little green leaves rose against the overcast sky.
At the junction with Route 14—the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway—we turned west toward De Smet. We drove through Brookings, the site of the first railroad camp the Ingallses lived in, and then through Volga, where Pa went in a futile attempt to clear the railroad tracks during the hard winter. We went by the twin lakes, Henry and Preston, where Laura and Almanzo took their Sunday buggy rides. We passed crops of wheat, alfalfa, and soy. The prairie on both sides of us stretched to the horizon. The road went straight on and on as far west as west could be. We were in Ingalls country . . . sort of.
We were, of course, traveling on blacktop in a rental car, passing gas stations and convenience stores. When a boy in a pickup threw some paper out the window, I remembered that when Ma wrote to her relatives back East, she used both sides of the paper and then turned the paper crosswise to write in the margins.
Our first sight of De Smet was unimpressive. Victorian houses stood next to 1920s-style bungalows, which stood next to raised ranch houses with plastic play equipment in the yard. “I can’t quite make out the historic district,” I said to Jane. I knew, though, that De Smet had never been a picturesque town. During its first few years it had been a collection of shacks, shanties, and stores with false fronts. Not until a few of the merchants painted their buildings did the place look likely to stick.
We spent the rest of that afternoon just seeing De Smet, as did some thirty other people attracted by the Little House books. At the town museum we saw farm equipment, clothes, school report cards, and other items from early days. Then we had dinner at the Oxbow, a family restaurant where we would eat all our meals in De Smet.
The town still follows the grid pattern of its original layout. The tracks and the grain elevator bound De Smet to the north, with Calumet Avenue (Main Street fn the books) running perpendicular. Calumet Avenue was four blocks long in the 1880s; now it is five. Most of the original buildings are gone, but you can still stand on the corner of Second Street where the Ingallses’ house was and look across Calumet to where Fuller’s hardware store, Bradley’s drugstore, and Power’s tailor shop used to be. (Even though I had never been there before, I felt a little like Rip Van Winkle.) Distances are short. The depot, which Laura described as the last outpost of town before the open prairie, is just on the other side of First Street.
I remembered Laura’s depiction of the mixed character of frontier De Smet. She wrote of the quickness with which the settlers opened a school, established churches, and formed a literary society. However, she also remarked on the more raffish goings-on at the two saloons and mentioned one murder of a homesteader.
I told Jane how the town had been almost blotted out by the hard winter of 1880-81. The storms started with an October blizzard and grew increasingly ferocious. The fledgling merchants carried only two weeks’ worth of stock, supposedly enough if the every-other-day train to De Smet was delayed. By December the blizzards were virtually continuous. With no warning all train service to Dakota Territory stopped. Soon the only fuel in town was hay, which had to be twisted into sticks to burn, and the only foodstuff was raw seed wheat, which people ground in their coffee mills to bake into bread. The trains did not come again until mid-May.
That hard winter was talked about in De Smet for as long as there were people alive who had experienced it, much as people in London today still talk about living through the blitz. The Long Winter (renamed from The Hard Winter because the publisher thought children would shy away from anything hard) is, in my view, Wilder’s best book and a great American novel.
Saturday the sky was blue. The morning was, as Pa might say, a fine, large one. At eight-thirty we were walking up the prairie rise where the Ingalls homestead claim used to be. An obscure family had lived here briefly more than a hundred years ago. Now Jane and I, who lead lives that would be utterly unimaginable to the Ingallses, were here because they had been. The shanty is gone, but the five cottonwoods that Pa planted around it stand tall. “Isn’t it incredible?” Jane said. “The family has no descendants, but the trees go on.” I looked at her. She was supposed to provide the comic relief while I saw import in everything.
We stayed and stayed on the rise. It was a glorious spot. The prairie, green and gentle, swept out before us for miles in every direction. I was used to looking up to see the sky; here you could gaze straight ahead and see it. I understood why for a brief time Pa had thought that with hard work the family could “live like kings” on the prairie.
The Ingallses knew, though, that the prairie was changeable. It could be “hateful.” A child could get lost on it. And the stillness, so peaceful in summer when the pioneers usually saw it first, could turn sinister. As Laura wrote about winter, “everything was still. . . . It was stronger than any sound. The silence was no sound, no movement, no thing, that was its terror.”
Most of the farms we had driven past had irrigation systems, reminding us that this part of the country is subject to drought. Pa had succeeded as a farmer in Wisconsin, but he apparently never brought in a good crop on the prairie. However, unlike many homesteaders, the Ingallses did stay long enough to gain legal title to the land.
When we saw other people approaching, we left the homestead and went to the surveyors’ house, where the Ingallses lived for a few months before the founding of De Smet and which is the only house that Laura wrote about that still exists. It was exciting to step through the door into the cheerful room where Pa had played his fiddle and Laura and Carrie had danced polkas. The house is exactly as Laura described it except for one thing: This “big” house is very small. How Ma and Laura ever fixed meals in the tiny pantry for fifteen or twenty boarders during the spring rush is totally beyond me. It made me wonder just how little the other houses had been. “Pioneer Girl” contains a detail about the dugout on Plum Creek that was omitted from the published books; it was “only a little bigger than the wagon.”
Our next stop was the De Smet library, where there is a display of the girls’ schoolbooks and a Bible in Braille that Mary subscribed to. I told Jane that when the Ingallses moved from place to place, they usually left their homemade furniture behind but took their books, which included works by Shakespeare, Pope, and George Eliot.
Ma, who came from a background of education and achievement, encouraged her daughters to have aspirations. As recounted in the books, Mary (with assistance from Dakota Territory) attended the Iowa College for the Blind, where she majored in music. Grace went to a local Congregational college and then taught for several years. The most conventionally successful of the sisters before Laura wrote the books was Carrie, who learned all about running a newspaper when after high school she got a job as a typesetter for the De Smet News and then established local papers in various towns in South Dakota at the turn of the century. Laura, the child who seemed to bear the brunt of the family’s economic problems, had the least schooling of the four sisters.
After lunch at the Oxbow we headed north to the site of Laura and Almanzo’s homestead. The view here is not as spectacular as the view from the Ingalls claim, but there is still an impressive sweep to the land. Here the couple tried for several years to harvest wheat, but the prairie thwarted them just as it had Pa. In 1894 they left the plains permanently to farm in the Missouri Ozarks, an area with agricultural conditions somewhat akin to those of the Wisconsin woods.
A marker at the site quotes Laura in The Long Winter : “No one who has not homesteaded can understand the fascination and terror of it.” This made me think of her reaction to a premature frost: “Every tiniest thing glittered rosy towards the sun and pale blue toward the sky and all along every blade of grass ran rainbow sparkles. Laura . . . knew that the bitter frost had killed the hay and the garden. . . . It would leave every living green thing dead. But the frost was beautiful.”
We headed back to De Smet and to the house that Pa built in town after Laura married and he shifted the focus of his efforts from farming to carpentry. This house is substantial, with a parlor, a dining room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms downstairs, three upstairs. Here Ma and Mary lived on and rented out the upstairs for twenty more years after Pa died in 1902.
In the kitchen there is a striking cabinet made by Pa, and in Mary’s bedroom is the trunk she is believed to have taken to college. The wall telephone in the dining room is the only modern convenience Ma ever knew. After getting it in 1917, Ma wrote Carrie that she had not tried it yet, “but Mary has. She does fine.”
While Jane sat outside and wrote to her children, I went through a display of Ingalls memorabilia. For an hour I pored over letters, photographs, and excerpts from autograph books. It was the type of material that any closeknit family leaves behind, but this family was the Ingallses. I looked at a cartoon sketch Pa did of Carrie as a child. He drew her in a dress that was probably much finer than anything she actually wore. I smiled, thinking about him.
Last, Jane and I went to the De Smet cemetery. Set amid carefully tended trees on a prairie rise, it is a lovely place. Here rest not only the Ingallses (except for Laura) but others from the books: their friends the Boasts, the merchants Fuller, Loftus, and Wilmarth, the Reverend Brown, and David Gilbert, the mail boy during the hard winter. “‘Gilbert had made it to Preston and back [Pa said]. He brought the mail!’ It was as if Christmas had happened unexpectedly.” Everywhere we looked, we saw familiar names. “This seems to be some kind of reunion,” Jane said.
On Monday we headed east on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway. Our destination was the very small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where the Ingallses lived on the banks of Plum Creek before moving to Dakota, where they thought they were finally in the West. Indeed, the Minnesota prairie was different from the prairie we had just seen. It was a little more wooded and there were occasional hills. It seemed almost as if east and west were blending. The Ingallses were not connected to Walnut Grove the way they were to De Smet. Members of the family lived in De Smet for almost fifty years, and their contributions to the town, over and above the fame the books brought it, were great. Walnut Grove was merely a way station. When Laura wrote her books, she used the name of the creek but not that of the town, perhaps because that was what she best remembered. The town seems to focus more on the Ingallses as characters than as actual people.
“There is no history here, only places,” the guide at Walnut Grove’s museum told us. Her enigmatic remark turned out to be apt. The museum, with its pictures of the actors from the television series, did not interest us, so we went quickly to the creek.
Plum Creek, running through a spacious prairie meadow, matches Laura’s descriptions. Flanked by willows, it sparkles and gently babbles. I could imagine Laura and Mary, seven and nine, wading here. Mary’s eyes still flashed.
We crossed the footbridge put up for visitors and climbed up the bank to a small dip in the earth thought to be the site of the dugout. The Ingallses lived there in a hole in the bank with a door and one window. It must have been damp at times, and the family undoubtedly worried that Carrie might wander out and slide into the water. No wonder Pa borrowed money to build a real house without waiting for the first harvest.
We went beyond the dugout to the flat field. I imagined Charles Ingalls looking at his shimmering fields after the wheat had made a good stand and could almost feel his anticipation. His wife would wear silk. His children would have candy every day. But then the grasshoppers had come in a glittering cloud and eaten everything.
Returning to the creek, we eavesdropped on an older woman and a little girl who were also visiting there. “Grandma,” the child was saying, “can you imagine living in a dugout? One day a cow stepped through their roof.” They asked us where we were from. “Connecticut and Massachusetts,” we said. They were from Michigan.
Pa, Ma, and Mary died with no inkling that simply by living their lives, they would become part of the national culture. Carrie and Grace, though, lived to know. As they continued to go about their everyday routines, they were always a little amazed by what their sister Laura had wrought.
I’m glad I made the trip. It helped give me a sense of the land the Ingallses lived on and a better understanding of the contradictions and complexities they lived with. It is impossible to know how closely the plots of the books approached the truth of the Ingallses’ lives. Laura admitted that she used considerable discretion in her account of her childhood, and the historical record is scant. Although Laura’s parents occupy center stage in her fiction, we know little of Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s private concerns. All we can be really sure of is that they lived on the prairie, they sang songs together, they made mistakes, and they never let circumstances destroy them.
I think of Laura’s mother, Caroline. She was the type of woman who could express dismay about living in a dugout in the morning but be laughing about it by evening, the type of woman who when a daughter became blind could encourage her to go to college. As an older woman, a widow for more than two decades, she took in boarders and did everything to make ends meet. Yet Caroline Ingalls always had time to talk to the young women of De Smet who came to her door to seek her advice on how to manage life.
I believe that the Ingallses had a certain spirit and that Laura captured a spark of that spirit in her work. Someone once said that the Little House books can be about anything you want them to be about. For me, they are about how people who experienced hardship and fear can still behave civilly toward one another and gaze with kindness on the outside world.