Guest Blog Author: Caroline Fraser
A few years ago when I was doing research in De Smet for my forthcoming biography, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I was lucky enough to find in the Loftus Store one of the models of Pa Ingalls’ Store, developed by Richard Kurz, Jr. A packet with a 1/48 scale model of Charles Ingalls’s store printed on heavy card stock, the kit also included assembly notes, an invaluable history of the building written by Nancy S. Cleaveland, and Kurz’s essay on how the store was visually reconstructed.
That store was, of course, where the Ingalls family spent the “Hard Winter,” along with their inconvenient guests—George Masters (brother of Laura’s rival Genevieve Masters and one of several models for Wilder’s character, the notorious Nellie Oleson), Maggie Masters, and their ill-timed baby boy, born not long before the winter set in. Thanks to Kurz’s and Cleaveland’s research, I was able to “see” much more clearly the grim conditions facing the nine people trapped together for months in the back room of a building with a cramped attic, the whole structure scarcely larger than a one-car garage. (Kurz measured the building at 14’2” wide by 17’10” high by 24’10” deep). Imagine the squalid conditions: the severe cold and drafts caused by constant blizzard winds, the crying of the baby, the lack of privacy, the hunger, and the fear. Wilder, of course, left the Masters family out of her novel, The Long Winter, still bitterly resenting them decades later: In her memoir, Pioneer Girl, she said that George selfishly gobbled more than his share of potatoes and shirked doing chores.
So this past summer, attending the LauraPalooza 2017 academic conference, I was thrilled to hear Richard’s talk on his recreation of the building. Describing the history of the Ingallses’ property purchases in depth, he raised an important question that puzzled him: Why did Charles Ingalls transfer the store lot to his wife’s name?
I think I may have an answer to that question. There was, in fact, a marked pattern of female ownership, or transfer of property, in both the Ingalls and Wilder families. In 1880, Charles Ingalls did indeed sell his corner lot on Calumet Avenue (Lot 21, Block 4) and “all his personal property” to his wife, essentially transferring it to her name alone. In 1886, Caroline Ingalls purchased two lots on Third Street in her name, from Eliza Jane Wilder. (This would be where Charles built his family’s last home, which still stands). In 1892, Laura E. Wilder bought a lot in De Smet, in the neighborhood known as Brown’s Addition, in her name, but when it was sold, two years later, both Laura and her husband Almanzo made the sale. Most significantly, in 1894, after Laura, Almanzo, and their daughter Rose made their long journey to the Ozarks in Missouri, it was she alone who purchased the forty acres that would become Rocky Ridge Farm.
That puzzled me too, for a long time. Having studied the original manuscript of The First Four Years, with its litany of debts, many attributed to Almanzo, I knew that Laura had included a sentence questioning her husband’s prudence, a sentence cut from the published book: “How much could she depend on Manly’s judgment, she wondered.” I’d also uncovered in the Kingsbury County court records a suit filed against Almanzo in 1887, the day after Laura’s birthday, by Harthorn & Son—De Smet’s so-called “Red Front Store”—for the poignant sum of nine dollars. Almanzo promptly paid the debt, but it was doubtless a humiliating moment. Did all this mean that Laura didn’t trust her husband?
Or was there some other explanation? I talked to historians at the Homestead National Monument and other sites, searching for possible tax implications. Was there some obscure benefit to putting property in a woman’s name? Nothing turned up. But eventually, I came across something that may explain Charles Ingalls’ transfer of property to his wife, as well as Caroline Ingalls’ purchase of the Third Street property in her name and the Wilders’ rationale for placing Rocky Ridge in Laura’s name: The Married Women’s Property Acts.
As I would learn, these were state laws enacted to protect women’s property from the catastrophic consequences of economic depressions and “panics.” Such crises had afflicted the Ingalls family for generations. It’s widely assumed, for example, that Charles Ingalls’s father, Lansford, may have left New York state in the long aftermath of the Panic of 1837, an event that triggered a prolonged and severe depression and sent thousands westward. At that time, married women were “civilly dead” in the eyes of the law, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed at Seneca Falls in 1848. Women whose husbands lost their homes and property to foreclosure or bankruptcy could be turned out onto the street, with their children.
To address that peril, beginning in the 1830s, states began to enact laws allowing women to own, keep, and (with various exceptions), control their own property. Far from being a moral recognition of women’s rights, the laws were meant largely as a practical matter, to prevent women and children from becoming indigent or homeless based on the financial misfortunes suffered—or caused—by their husbands. The laws varied widely, state by state, but many of them allowed women who owned property in their own names to avoid having their homes or “separate property” seized by their husbands’ creditors. Dakota Territory (and later South Dakota) and Missouri had such regulations on the books, the Territory’s law coming into effect in 1877, and Missouri’s much earlier, in 1849.
We can’t ask Charles and Caroline Ingalls or Laura and Almanzo Wilder whether they meant to take advantage of these laws. But my assumption is that Laura had every intention of protecting and securing her family’s assets, especially after the Wilders’ disastrous early years, marked by debt, drought, and displacement. We may never know for sure. But one thing we do know: Laura Ingalls Wilder—who would spend a decade handling complex financial transactions for the Federal Farm Loan program—was her father’s daughter and a very smart cookie.
Caroline Fraser is the editor of the Library of America’s two-volume edition of Wilder’s Little House books and the author of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, an Amazon Best Book of November, on sale from Metropolitan Books on November 21, 2017. She attended her first LauraPalooza this summer and gave on a talk on the U.S.—Dakota War of 1862. She’s looking forward to finally having time to build the model of Pa Ingalls’ Store.