Friday, June 19, 2015

Why I love Laura

When I read to my young children many years ago, our favorite books included the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for its gently fictionalized depiction of the author’s pioneer life. On a cross-country road trip we even visited DeSmet, South Dakota, where there is a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum. 

This was long before genealogy grabbed me by the throat, mind you.

As you may recall, Laura’s family, Pa and Ma, Carrie, Mary, and Laura herself, lived in Wisconsin, Kansas and Minnesota in the post-Civil War period. Their tales of log-cabin living, threats from wild creatures, and plagues of grasshoppers, were counterbalanced by accounts of Pa’s fiddling and singing, the girls’ playthings, and the descriptions of the endless prairies, ice-bound lakes and dark woods where they made their home at various times.

To me it was simply a delightful set of stories from a far-off time and place, with no particular relation to my own experience. So when “Pioneer Girl: the Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder” came out recently, it caught my interest just for that reason.

However, it turns out the scholarly notes that accompany the text are enough to make the genealogist’s heart sing.  Not only do the editors pay homage to census and vital records for research, but the work also includes period photos, maps and references to such sources at the Bureau of Land Management, and it is rich with historical details about the realities of living on the land in that time and those places.

But there is a more personal reason I find the book of particular interest. From 1877-1879, Laura’s family lived in southwestern Minnesota’s Redwood County. And I have a letter from my grandmother’s sister, written in 1885, when she was in adjoining Murray County. Lizzie Records and her husband Josiah moved there from Indiana in the 1860s, so would have been in the region at the same time as the Ingalls family. Now, to me, that is an interesting coincidence! And it tells me what living conditions might have been like for my own kin. 

Lizzie was writing to my grandmother, who had evidently asked for some family information. She said: “Well, for a history of my life in the last twenty years, we came to this far off western country twenty two years ago, the same fall your Ma died. … It seems but a day since I left my motherland and yet it seems like ages to think of the changes that has taken place.” They had five children, more or less contemporaries of the Ingalls offspring.

That letter is a treasure to me, and its significance is enlarged now by the knowledge that she and her family lived so near Laura and her family, and probably shared similar experiences.

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