OPINION — Charles Ingalls was a restless man.
Ingalls roamed across the American Midwest in the second half of the 19th century, taking his family with him as he sought a new job, a new home, a new adventure.
It’s a story like many others in the era, as the United States outgrew its original borders and stretched across the continent. But the Ingalls family’s tale was recorded and shared in a series of books, TV shows and movies. A recent episode of the excellent PBS series “American Masters” provided a deeply researched report on the Ingalls clan and their meanderings across the Midwest.
The daughter of Charles and Caroline Ingalls immortalized their family and its footloose father with the Little House stories. Her name was Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Her series of books, published from 1932-43, are still in print. “Little House in the Big Woods” told the story of their time in Wisconsin, where she was born. “Farmer Boy” was based on the life of her husband, Almanzo Wilder.
The third, and most famous title, “Little House on the Prairie,” is about the family’s departure from Wisconsin for an ill-fated trip to Kansas, where they build a house and try to settle down before learning they are illegally residing on land rightfully owned by Native Americans.
The fourth book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” is set in Minnesota, as the Ingalls family settles — briefly, anyway — near Walnut Creek, Minn. The 1970s TV series is set here, even though the Ingalls family only remained there for a few years.
The book ignores the time the family spent in Iowa. It was just another stop on the road for a very restless man, and, as the PBS show reported, an example of how Laura Ingalls Wilder ignored some elements of her family’s history to craft the tales she wanted to write, to tell, and perhaps to believe herself.
Charles Ingalls is connected with the American frontier, but he was born on Jan. 10, 1836, in Cuba, N.Y., a small town on the southwest edge of the state. He married a local woman, Caroline Lake Quiner on Feb. 1, 1860.
They settled in Wisconsin and started their family, eventually having five children: Mary, Laura, Carrie, Charles Frederick, whom they called “Freddie,” and Grace Pearl.
Freddie died as an infant, but the four girls lived into adulthood.
After building a log cabin — a recurring theme in Charles
Ingalls’ life — in the small town of Pepin, located amidst the Big Woods in western Wisconsin, the family moved again. After a months-long journey on rough, even non-existent roads, they settled in Kansas near present-day Independence in 1869, where Charles built another house.
But it turned out the land was in Indian Territory and not available for settlers. The Ingalls uprooted again, moving back to Wisconsin to reclaim their home there, since a buyer had failed to make payments.
They remained there until 1874, then moved to Walnut Grove, Minn., famed as their location in the 1970s-‘80s TV series “Little House on the Prairie” starring TV icon Michael Landon as Pa Ingalls and newcomer Melissa Gilbert as Laura.
While the series lasted for more than a decade, the Ingalls clan spent less than five years in Minnesota. They briefly moved to Burr Oak, Iowa, in 1876 and Charles Ingalls co-managed a hotel. But restless as always, he left the job after about a year and returned to Walnut Grove.
His daughter explained her father’s urge to roam in her book, “These Happy Golden Years.” He just couldn’t help himself.
“My wandering foot gets to itching,” she quoted him as saying when he tried to explain his urge to see new places.
The “American Masters” show, however, also made it clear that a major reason for their restless nature was a quest to survive. Charles Ingalls struggled to provide for his family, and was always willing to try another approach.
He explored Dakota Territory, taking his family with him to spend the winter of 1879-80 in a surveyor’s cabin in De Smet, a small prairie town named for a French priest who lived amongst Native Americans for many years.
I was amazed to learn from the PBS show that another family shared the small home with the Ingalls that winter. It was a poor mix, as the other family declined to help with basic chores, angering Laura so much she left them out of her book.
When we toured the cabin last summer, they were not mentioned.
Charles had a job with the railroad, but he still wanted to explore new opportunities, and filed for a claim in nearby Brookings County in 1880, but by then, Caroline Ingalls had enough. She informed her husband they were staying in De Smet.
The fifth book, “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” is set in De Smet, as are “The Long Winter,” “Little Town on the Prairie” and “These Happy Golden Years.”
For many years, the eight books were believed to be the extent of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work. But in the late 1960s, a ninth book, “The First Four Years,” an autobiographical novel, was published. It was discovered in an unedited form in the late 1960s.
Yet another book, “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography,” was published to considerable acclaim by the South Dakota State Historical Society in 2014.
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