JULY / AUG 2017: BY VERONICA LEIGH
Since America’s beginning (before, really), strong, brave, and intelligent men and women forged their way westward to make new lives for themselves and their families. In the Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder chronicled her family’s journey from their home in Wisconsin through various states and territories to the Dakota Territory where they settled permanently. While some scholars now debate the authorship and consider some of the material to be fictional, the basic story is the same. The Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Ingalls family, and many of those she crossed paths with, were pioneers.
Laura’s father Charles was born in New York State and the wandering spirit began with his father. His family left their home in the east and settled in Wisconsin. In his twenties, he met and married Caroline Quiner. Young, impetuous, and a dreamer, Charles longed to go as far west as he could. To California if he were able. Though more mild-mannered than her husband, Caroline supported her husband and proved willing follow him where his heart led. In the course of their marriage, they had four daughters: Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace. They also had a son, but he did not live long and died en route from one destination to another. When Wisconsin grew too crowded for Charles’ taste, he heard of land in the Kansas Territory free for the taking—or so he thought. He packed up his family in a covered wagon and moved them out to the prairie, illegally squatting on land that belonged to the Native Americans. This exotic place, far from cities and towns, entranced young Laura, where they had to hunt, and protect themselves from the natives. The Ingalls family soon realized their lives were at stake and they couldn’t stay in Kansas. They returned to their home in Wisconsin.
It wasn’t long before Charles became restless and longed to move on. Hearing about Minnesota, he and his family traveled to the small town of Plum Creek and put down roots. Laura had inherited her father’s indomitable spirit and loved exploring this new land. First, her family lived in a dugout in the side of a hill, before building a cabin for themselves. Laura, Mary, and Carrie could go to school and receive an education.
Everything was looking up, until the grasshoppers infested the land and devoured everything green in sight, destroying their crops and threatening their livelihood. At one point, Charles had to venture three hundred miles on foot to find work, and send money home to his family. Like many pioneers, the Ingalls family weathered hard times by banding together and believing they would overcome. Losing Charles Jr. and when Mary fell ill and lost her eyesight were two of the most difficult adversities they faced.
Once more, Charles felt claustrophobic. New settlers arrived in Minnesota and the west continued to beckon to him. Caroline agreed to uproot the family once more, for the last time. She wanted to have a permanent home and for the girls to have a proper education. Unlike their previous moves, they traveled by train and moved to De Smet, a small town in the Dakota Territory, later South Dakota. By now Laura was fourteen and though her father was the primary breadwinner, she worked to supplement the family’s income. Since Mary dreamed of going to college, through a friend, they learned of a special college for the blind in Iowa. Laura worked as a seamstress, and through her parents’ encouragement, she studied to become a school teacher.
On passing her examinations, and though barely older than her students, she taught school twelve miles away from De Smet. Twelve miles was too far for her to travel back and forth every day, so Laura boarded with the superintendent and his family. His wife resented her presence and Laura feared for her and the rest of the household’s safety when the woman pulled a knife on her husband. If she gave up and went home, she would never get another school and Mary could not go to college. Laura’s deliverance came in Almanzo Wilder, a young homesteader ten years her senior. He drove out to take her home for the weekends. A friendship developed between then and when her term teaching ended and Laura returned home, Almanzo continued to call on her.
In the 19th century, and in the west, age differences between couples were not uncommon. Almanzo was intelligent, ambitious, kind and good looking—a perfect match for the feisty Laura. They courted two years and married when Laura turned eighteen. Laura and Almanzo embarked on new adventures, but the chapter of Laura’s childhood and her youthful escapades came to a close.
The young girl who had once traveled in a covered wagon would live to see the automobile, had a daughter with a successful literary career, would travel by flight, and published a series of best-selling books for children.
Charles never made it to California; however, in 1915 Laura traveled there and lived out her father’s dream of making it all the way through the west.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Leigh has been published in several anthologies and her work has appeared on GoWorldTravel.com and the Artist Unleashed, and she has published a couple of fictional stories. She makes her home in Indiana with her family and her furbabies. To learn more about her, please visit her new blog.