Little House: Political Storytelling

The making of the “Little House” books is fascinating. It was written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But it appears that her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, heavily edited and informed the writing process, some considering her to have co-written it as she was already a published professional writer. The letters between them show how closely they worked in creating the series.

That relationship was central. There seems to have been an odd and sometimes unhappy relationship between mother and daughter. Yet they shared some common views of the world that framed their work together. Maybe this is because they both were born into the same era following the Civil War, only 19 years separating their births. It was a time of change and destabilization, not just because of war and the following Reconstruction but also because of a mix of violent frontier life, ongoing genocide of Native Americans, mass immigration, increasing racial and ethnic conflicts, poverty along with growing inequality, Gilded Age industrialization, labor conflict, and much else.

They were of two generations, Missionary and Lost. But they were close enough in age to face the challenges from the forming of a new order (socially, economically, and politically). There were important differences, though. Wilder spent her entire life in rural farm communities. But even there the entire world was shifting around her. Lane, as with many in her generation, went to the cities where opportunities were great but so were risks and costs. Cities were brutal places at the time, bustling concentrations of opulent wealth and desperate poverty, along with a small middle class beginning to grow. Lane was able to get a toehold into the middle class, although she always struggled and fell back into poverty during the Great Depression. Her mother, Wilder, never knew any of that.

What they did share was both having grown up in that last era of pioneer life. They used that common bond to shape the ideological world of the fictionalized Wilder family. And it was heavily fictionalized, removed from it were all the darkness and ugliness, all the struggle and suffering, all the violence and sexual debauchery, all the sickness and death, but also all of the support from community and government that made pioneer life possible. They created an ideological fantasy that struck a chord for many Americans.

Interestingly, their political beliefs took many decades to form. The late 1800s was a time of populism, a strange mix of ideologies, movements, and alliances. The Soviet Union didn’t come into existence until 1922, when Wilder was 55 and Lane 36. And the New Deal wasn’t to happen until 11 years after that. So, during the Populist Era, there was no clear distinction between impulses toward Marxism, commmunism, communitarianism, Christian socialism, labor organizing, anarchism, anti-statism, and libertarianism.

When you look at the views held by mother and daughter across their lives, it’s hard to find much consistency other than an attempt to make sense of their personal experience in terms of changing politics, not to mention a heavy dose of nostalgia that grew over time. For Lane, there was also a worsening sense of isolation, depression, anger, and bitterness; probably from untreated mental illness and lack of healthcare in general through most of her life. Even though her mother was much more stoical, self-denying and emotionally unexpressive, the two of them turned ever more toward right-wing libertarianism, verging on a harsh social Darwinism. The basic attitude seems to be that they had suffered horribly with few opportunities and somehow survived, and so no one should have anything they had lacked.

This ignores all that they were given, all that government made possible: ‘free’ land taken from Native Americans, subsidized-building of railroads, publicly-funded schools, etc. That is also to overlook how rural farmers were absolutely dependent on their neighbors and communities. Neither of them was ever as self-made as they liked to believe. There were many conflicts in their worldview, such as a conflict between how government helped them and how it helped others, a conflict between agrarianism and industrialization, etc. An example of this is how ‘libertarians’ like Lane came to be among the strongest supporters of Cold War militaristic neo imperialism, such as Lane’s later support of the Vietnam War.

In this, they were like many other Americans. The entire country was conflicted between rhetoric and reality, between competing economic interests and political visions. Americans were looking for stories that made sense of what didn’t actually fit into a simplistic narrative. A failure in terms of historical accuracy and moral accountability, the “Little House” series nonetheless offered such a compelling story to paper over the cracks. Generations since have had their minds shaped by this vision, the kind of rhetoric that would make possible the election of Ronald Reagan and the creation of our own conflicted age of neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Lane supported Reagan when Goldwater introduced him into politics and, in return, one of Reagan’s favorite tv shows was the adaptation of the “Little House” series which he watched while in the White House.

Never doubt the power of stories.

* * *

Little House with a Bigger Story
by Kjerstin Johnson, Bitch Media

Rose and her mother supported populist politics, but “ultimately, both women’s experience of adversity—or their selective recall of it—made them less sympathetic to the homeless and jobless.” Rose, who had supported union organizer Eugene Debs, lived with bohemians, and mixed with Soviet communists, eventually became known as one of the “mothers of Libertarianism” along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. While one could wonder if her socially conservative politics made it way into my bedtime stories, it seems that Rose saved most of her politics for her later works, which didn’t meet with the critical success of her best-selling pioneer novels.

Autobiographical Sketch of Rose Wilder Lane
by Rose Wilder Lane, Library of Congress

Politically, I cast my first vote — on a sample ballot — for Cleveland, at the age of three. I was an ardent if uncomprehending Populist; I saw America ruined forever when the soulless corporations in 1896, defeated Bryan and Free Silver. I was a Christian Socialist with Debs, and distributed untold numbers of the Appeal to Reason. From 1914 to 1920 — when I first went to Europe — I was a pacifist; innocently, if criminally, I thought war stupid, cruel, wasteful and unnecessary. I voted for Wilson because he kept us out of it.

In 1917 I became convinced, though not practicing communist. In Russia, for some reason, I wasn’t and I said so, but my understanding of [Bolsdevism?] made everything pleasant when the Cheka arrested me a few times.

Wilder Women
by Judith Thurman, The New Yorker

“Little House in the Big Woods” was a great success, critically and commercially. Seven months after it was published, Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover. His victory bitterly dismayed the Wilders—Rose, in particular. Shortly after the Inauguration, she noted in her journal, “We have a dictator.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Wilders, along with other disillusioned pioneers, had briefly rallied to the incendiary populism of William Jennings Bryan. By the middle of the decade, Rose had become a follower of Eugene Debs, the union organizer and Socialist candidate for President. In her days as a bohemian, she had flirted with Communism. Laura was a Democrat until the late nineteen-twenties; after the First World War, she served as the local secretary of a national loan association that dispersed federal money to farmers, and as the chairwoman of her county’s Democratic Committee. But, ultimately, both women’s experience of adversity—or their selective recall of it—made them less sympathetic to the homeless and the jobless. “The Greatest Good to the Greatest Number,” Rose argued in a letter to Dorothy Thompson, “will obviously be reached when each individual of the greatest number is doing the greatest good to himself.”

Laura had kept in touch fitfully with her sisters, and when she began to research her childhood they sometimes provided details that she’d forgotten. Mary had died in 1928, but Grace, a farmer’s wife, and Carrie, a journalist, were both still living in South Dakota—Grace and her husband receiving welfare and surplus food. Nevertheless, from Rocky Ridge, the predicament of the urban poor was a remote abstraction, and the Wilders blamed rural poverty on the Democrats’ support, as they saw it, of industry at the expense of agriculture. They opposed legislation that compelled farmers to plow crops under as a strategy for price support. Miller writes that, according to Rose, Almanzo was ready to run off an agent from the Agriculture Department with a shotgun, telling him, “I’ll plant whatever I damn please on my own farm.” In 1943, the year that Laura published “These Happy Golden Years” (the final installment of her saga), she told a Republican congressman from Malone, New York, “What we accomplished was without help of any kind, from anyone.”

The Wilders had, in fact, received unacknowledged help from their families, and the Ingallses, like all pioneers, were dependent, to some degree, on the railroads; on taxpayer-financed schools (Mary’s tuition at a college for the blind, Hill points out, was paid for by the Dakota Territory); on credit—which is to say, the savings of their fellow-citizens; on “boughten” supplies they couldn’t make or grow; and, most of all, on the federal government, which had cleared their land of its previous owners. “There were no people” on the prairie, Laura, or Rose, had written. “Only Indians lived there.” (Hill writes that Wilder agreed to amend the sentence when an outraged reader objected, calling it “a stupid blunder.” It now reads, “There were no settlers.”) […]

Last June, Anita Clair Fellman, a professor emerita of history at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, published “Little House, Long Shadow,” a survey of the Wilders’ “core” beliefs, and of their influence on American political culture. Two streams of conservatism, she argues—not in themselves inherently compatible—converge in the series. One is Lane’s libertarianism, and the other is Wilder’s image of a poster family for Republican “value voters”: a devoted couple of Christian patriots and their unspoiled children; the father a heroic provider and benign disciplinarian, the mother a pious homemaker and an example of feminine self-sacrifice. (In that respect, Rose considered herself an abject failure. “My life has been arid and sterile,” she wrote, “because I have been a human being instead of a woman.”)

Fellman concludes, “The popularity of the Little House books . . . helped create a constituency for politicians like Reagan who sought to unsettle the so-called liberal consensus established by New Deal politics.”

Lane’s Forgotten Writings on Race
by Roderick T. Long, Austro-Athenian Empire

Before her discovery of the Courier, Lane by her own admission had had a blindspot on the issue of race; she had “heard of lynchings and other racial injustice, but had assumed they were isolated incidents.” After she began reading the Courier’s documentation of the extent of racial oppression in the u.s., she declared that she had been an “utter fool” and a “traitor” to the “cause of human rights.” (p. 284) Soon she had joined the paper’s campaign against racism by becoming one of its regular writers.

Race was not the only topic of her columns; she advanced libertarian ideas across the board, often taking left-libertarian positions. For example, she defended the striking United Mine Workers for “refusing to submit to tyranny” (p. 288); praised Samuel Gompers as a proponent of an antistatist form of labour activism (for Gompers’ actual merits or otherwise, see here); championed “free mutual associations” as an alternative to the welfare state (p. 285); expressed concern about the tendency of women to subordinate their interests and identity to those of men and family (p. 286); and saw the “Big Boys” – politically connected plutocrats – as the chief enemies of the free market, declaring that “they can get themselves murdered in cellars for all I’d care.” (p. 285) (Her views on such subjects could be complicated, though. During her early flirtation with Marxism she’d even written a book praising Henry Ford as a practical implementer of Marxism.)

Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve
by Frances W. Kaye, University of Nebraska

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a person of her time and place. She fictionalized her memories to give what she honestly believed was the truest possible account-true in deeply human ways as well as in accurate details-of one family’s settlement history on the Great Plains frontier. I have never really liked her work. While my sister read all the Little House books, I read … Zane Grey. That I do not share Wilder’s values and point of view is no argument against the books-I do not share Zane Grey’s values and point of view, either. But Zane Grey is not held up to contemporary parents, teachers, and children as a moral exemplar. We accurately recognize him as a prolific popular writer whose work is violent, sexist, racist, and almost self-parodically anti-Mormon and, after 1914, anti-German. Laura Ingalls Wilder, on the other hand, has spawned a minor industry in criticism. Her work, and particularly Little House on the Prairie, has been almost universally praised, especially by feminist critics, as a humane and feminist alternative to the myth of “regeneration through violence” of the masculine frontier of Zane Grey and the Wild West. What we think about the Little House books matters. It seems to me that Wilder’s proponents are fundamentally mistaken. I honestly cannot read Little House on the Prairie as other than apology for the “ethnic cleansing” of the Great Plains. That her thought was unremarkable, perhaps even progressive, for the time in which she lived and wrote should not exempt her books from sending up red flags for contemporary critics who believe in diversity, multiculturalism, and human rights.

“Can you imagine, a real, live Indian right here in Walnut Grove?”: American Indians in Television Adaptations of Little House on the Prairie
by Amy S. Fatzinger, Dialogue

When Mary enthusiastically exclaims, “Can you imagine, a real, live Indian right here in Walnut Grove?” in a 1977 television episode of Little House on the Prairie (“Injun Kid”), it would seem that the Ingalls family’s attitudes toward Native people have evolved considerably since they first appeared in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1935 novel of the same name. In the novel, Wilder’s depictions of Native characters are often associated with negative imagery and fear; Laura’s sister, Mary, and their mother, were particularly terrified by even the prospect of encountering Native people. Fans and critics alike will recall times that Native people—most likely Osage men—visited the Ingalls home, nights the family stayed awake in terror as they listened to the “Indian jamboree” nearby, and Laura problematically longing for a papoose of her own—the epitome of non-Native appropriation of Native culture—as the Ingalls family watches the long line of Osage people file past their “little house.”

Little imperialist on the prairie
by Will Braun, Geez Magazine

In these books, Indians are wild, exotic and threatening, yet also dignified and peaceable. When the white neighbour says, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Pa objects. They have reason to dislike white folk, given how often they have been forced to move. “But,” he says, honing in on the crux of his colonial justification, “an Indian ought to have sense enough to know when he was licked.”

In Wilder’s world, Indians are not entitled to the land. Indeed, if she believed otherwise, her life’s story, and the entire story of the continent, would fall apart. To maintain her belief she must portray Indians as inferior – interesting, even friendly, but ultimately uncivilized.

This classic colonial narrative is easy to critique. Yet it persists because it is nearly impossible for non-indigenous North Americans to truly untangle ourselves from it without getting back on the boat. We might not share Ma’s disdain for Indians, but our existence here constitutes a tainted sense of entitlement.

Historical Perspective or Racism in Little House on the Prairie?
by Laura McLemore, Little House on the Prairie

News of the impending opening of Indian Territory reached land-hungry settlers back east and caused an illegal land rush into the area.  Congress refused to ratify the Sturgis Treaty, fearing backlash from their constituents who favored free settlement of the land under the Homestead Act of 1862.  The Ingalls family was part of the wave of squatters or illegal settlers who entered and established homes in Montgomery County.  Whether Pa knew this or not is open for debate, but it is highly unlikely that he would have been ignorant of this fact.  In Little House on the Prairie Ma tells Laura that “Pa had word from a man in Washington that the Indian Territory would be open to settlement soon.  It might already be open to settlement.  They could not know because Washington was so far away.”   Pa was most likely betting that the government would allow squatters to claim homesteads once the Osage were removed.

When most of the settlers arrived in Indian Territory the Osage people were off on their annual hunting trips further west and it may have appeared that the land was unoccupied.  Although the land that Pa chose was obviously next to a well-used trail, he preferred to think of the land as unsettled.  In the early pages of Little House on the Prairie, Laura quotes Pa as saying that animals wandered “in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers.  Only Indians lived there.”  As did all of the settlers, Pa chose to ignore the fact that the land and everything on it belonged to the Osage people.  He freely cut logs to build a house, hunted wild game for food and furs, dug a well and broke the land for farming.  When the Osage returned from their trip they found their home and their lands occupied by all kinds of settlers who, in their minds, were stealing from them.

Under the provisions of earlier treaties, the Osage had the right to charge squatters rent if they wanted to.  Laura tells several stories of Indians coming to the Ingalls’ home and demanding food and other goods.  They sometimes just came and took whatever they wanted.  The Osage saw it as collecting rent.  Ma saw it as an intrusion by uninvited guests.  Ma was terrified of these visits.  Wilder says that Jack, the Ingalls’ bulldog, hated the Indians and Ma said she didn’t blame him.  Laura asks Ma, “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma…This is Indian country, isn’t it? What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?”  But why was Ma so afraid of the Osage? In order for readers to understand Ma, you need to understand where she was coming from.

Before moving to Kansas, the Ingalls lived near the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  In late 1862 during the Civil War, many men left their families in Minnesota to fight in the war.  Local militias stretched to their limits, were unable to protect their communities.  The federal government denied any responsibility for protecting the settlers in Minnesota.  The Indians in the area saw this as an opportunity to retake land that they felt belonged to them.  The Sioux Uprising or Dakota Wars resulted in the looting and burning of homesteads and the killing of white settlers in the area, including women and children.  The newspapers were full of graphic accounts of the “Minnesota Massacre.”  Undoubtedly Ma had read these accounts.  Wilder mentions the Minnesota Massacre in her account of Mrs. Scott’s hatred for the Osage: “The only good Indian was a dead Indian.  The very thought of Indians made her blood run cold.  She said, ‘I can’t forget the Minnesota massacre.  My Pa and brothers went out with the rest of the settlers…Ma made a sharp sound in her throat, and Mrs. Scott stopped.  Whatever a massacre was, it was something that grown-ups would not talk about when little girls were listening.”

The whiteness of Laura Ingalls Wilder
by Abagond

In 1998 when this book was read at a grade school in Minnesota, one eight-year-old Indian girl came home in tears, having learned from this Beloved Classic that, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Another girl did not cry. When asked why, she said, “I just pretend I’m not Indian.”

Waziyatawin, the Dakota writer, was the mother of the crying child. After she showed the school board how racist the book was, they agreed to stop using it. But when the news got out it was turned into a censorship issue of banning books and the school, backed by the ACLU, changed its mind.

Waziyatawin was told she has a “chip on her shoulder”. Linda Ellerbee on Nickelodeon’s “Nick News” told children across America that all books are offensive to someone. The school defended the book as “history” – yet her daughter’s teacher was not taking apart its racist messages, which has the effect of normalizing them. That, no less, at a white-run school that stands on land stolen from the Dakotas.

The Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Germany are “part of history” too, yet no one thinks of reading their youth literature to schoolchildren without examining their racism. Why is “Little House on the Prairie” any different?

A letter to Mama Bess (a.k.a. Laura Ingalls Wilder)
by Mollie Wilson O’Reilly, Commonweal Magazine

Last week, Rebecca Onion at Slate dug up and posted a document that might be of interest to all you Laura Ingalls Wilder fans out there: a letter from Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder’s daughter, critiquing the first draft of Wilder’s book By the Shores of Silver Lake. […]

The biggest revelation in the letter is this bit of editing advice from Lane:

You have the brief scene in which Laura threatens to kill Charley with a knife, but that has to be cut out.

Wilder did accept that advice, which is why any fan of her books reads that sentence and thinks, Wait, what?! Preadolescent Laura pulling a knife on her cousin would certainly stick in the memory. Lane gives her mother a lot of psychological blarney about why it isn’t “credible” — which seems awfully presumptuous considering she’s talking to her mother about something the latter (apparently) experienced in real life. But what I would guess convinced Wilder to take the scene out was Lane’s admonishment that “if you do make it credible it’s not a child’s book.”

Wilder, as we know from her own words, was very concerned about keeping her books appropriate for children to read. Is Lane right that Wilder “can not have [Laura] suddenly acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight”? Or is she just, as it seems to me, in love with her own worldly cleverness? (See also her weird notions about working men and “sexual degeneracy on the frontier,” elsewhere in the cited letter.) Regardless, the very thought of a character “protecting her virginity,” however authentic to Wilder’s life, must on reflection have seemed beyond the limits of what would be appropriate for young readers. And so it went — although, in subtler ways, Silver Lake still addresses Laura’s ambivalent transition from childhood to womanhood.

Little Government in the Big Woods
by Mary Pilon, Longreads

Although the “Little House” books are universally familiar to adults, Lane and Wilder didn’t publish the series until they were in their forties and sixties, respectively. They spent most of their formative years and adulthood toiling under conditions similar to what had been described in their pages, infusing the lens of the Great Depression on post-Civil War 1870s and 1880s.

In “Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture,” Anita Clair Fellman argues that Wilder’s and Lane’s dark narratives greatly fueled their reflections on the era, which are rife with anti-government, pro-family views of America’s more rugged patches, a contrast to the more chipper, image of Laura and Mary regaling themselves with simple pastimes like tossing a pig bladder that many readers carried for generations. The notion doesn’t sit well with some readers, who have long formed their own relationship with the fiction; finding out that a treasured children’s classic may, actually have been a political polemic.

Wilder and Lane were not alone in their criticism of the New Deal. Others had argued that it was “fascist,” a charged term considering the rise of dictators in Europe at the time, or compared it to Communism. Lane said she would “vote for anybody—Hoover, Harding, Al Capone—who will stop the New Deal” and that it is “killing…the American pioneering spirit.” She even wrote: “I hoped that Roosevelt would be killed in 1933….I would make a try at killing FDR now.” (Holtz, in his analysis of this comment, wrote that Lane’s harshness toward the president “was probably not so much a threat as it was a rhetorical symptom of her anxiety.”) […]

Now, scenes from the books, and later the TV show, like Pa going to the store and discussing prices or Laura and Almanzo farming and refusing welfare, seem like free market anecdotes, Woodside said. Yet, and paradoxically, government action like the subsidization of railroad construction and the Homestead Act is part of what created Wilder’s American frontier culture, Woodside said. “Still, the books have this message of, ‘We need to push on, because we’re Americans.’”

Some scholars posit that the messaging of “Little House” books helped contribute to the rise of conservatism, particularly in the 1980s as another actor-turned-candidate, Ronald Reagan, reframed the Republican party. (The television adaptation was his favorite television show, according to the New Yorker.) Businessman and noted political donor Charles Koch attended the Freedom School, a small institution in Colorado that Lane had championed, and had served as a trustee. Today, the “Little House” books are still an academic mainstay, particularly among homeschooled students, even if their full political context isn’t always known or discussed.

Finding America, Both Red and Blue, in the ‘Little House’ Books
by Maria Russo, The New York Times

“Little House in the Big Woods” was published in 1932, when Laura was 65 and Rose, her only child, was long divorced, an accomplished, but increasingly broke journalist and author. Rose Wilder Lane had lost both her own money and money she invested for her parents in the 1929 stock market crash, and they were scrounging by, with Almanzo hauling loads and Laura selling eggs and apples and writing occasional pieces about farm life.

Out of desperation Rose suggested that her mother write down the stories of her pioneer childhood, heavily revised the resulting manuscript, and found a publisher. In the rest of the books, as well, she provided substantial editing. Some historians insist that Rose — who later became an outspoken anti-government polemicist and is called one of the godmothers of the libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand — should be considered the books’ ghostwriter [see Wikipedia on Rose Wilder Lane, above]. Christine Woodside’s recent book, “Libertarians on the Prairie,” makes this case, cataloging libertarian messages Rose embedded in the books. (Some are overt: “The politicians are a-swarming in already,” says one character in “The Long Winter.” “They’ll tax the lining out’n a man’s pockets,” he cries. “I don’t see nary use for a county, nohow.”)

Still, it was Laura’s life story, not Rose’s, and Laura’s patient, precise voice, filled with awe at the wonders of the natural world, the fascination of making useful things, and the joys of everyday family love, never goes missing in the books for too long.

Both more interesting and more disturbing to me now are the ways the books massaged reality to support the pioneer fantasy of a self-sustaining family living in relative isolation. Newer research on the American West debunks that mythology, showing that settlers lived in close proximity, often as a matter of life and death. The “Little House” books take every opportunity to show the Ingallses as an independent unit. “The Long Winter” portrays family members as alone in their house, while in fact they took in an irksome couple who begged them for shelter.

But farming could not support the family, and Pa took jobs including one as a justice of the peace. Laura worked in later life as an administrator of a federal farm loan program. Mary’s tuition at the college for the blind was paid for by the government of Iowa, though the later books make it seem as though the extra money from Laura’s small jobs paid those bills.

When the New Deal began, Laura and Rose expressed outrage that struggling people were going to get “handouts,” when they had had to tough out so many hard, lean years. Maybe there was a lingering bitterness about the true sacrifices of both pioneer life and the small-family-farm life Laura and Almanzo pursued in Missouri, where Rose grew up and the family was often in penury. Both women attributed their painful dental problems and diabetes to poor childhood nutrition. Rose told piteous tales of having to go to school in town without shoes. When you’re raised with the belief that you don’t need society, that you’re better off suffering through every hardship than accepting help, it’s a small step toward believing that anyone who takes assistance is a drag on others. […]

But personal integrity and strength are not always enough. I came to see something sad about how it all turned out for the Ingallses and the Wilders, these two pioneer families etched onto our national consciousness. “I am the only one of the C. P. Ingalls family left, and Rose is the only grandchild,” Wilder wrote in a 1946 letter. None of Laura’s sisters had children, nor did Rose, so “the Almanzo Wilder branch will die out with us.” I thought of the hunger, illnesses and injuries in the books: the scarlet fever that left Mary blind, the diphtheria that withered Almanzo’s leg. Rose, who several times approached suicide, was clearly in the throes of untreated mental illness most of her life. Ma, Pa and Almanzo had come from large families that lived relatively comfortably. The hardscrabble way they raised their own children yielded adventure but also ill health.

Some of the blanks Wilder left have been filled in by other voices. Alongside the “Little House” version of the American westward push, we now also have Birchbark House, the cunning children’s series by the acclaimed novelist Louise Erdrich, which tells the story of white expansion in the upper Midwest from the point of view of a Native American girl. The books, engaging and addictive in their own right, have the satisfying ring of corrective truth about them.

Little Libertarians on the prairie
by Christine Woodside, Boston Globe

Unlike her parents and grandparents, Lane turned up her nose at manual labor, and there’s little evidence to suggest she felt any reverence for the hardscrabble people of the plains. In 1933, Lane sketched an outline, never finished, for a “big American novel.” One of the characters was the pioneer, whom she described as “a poor man, of obscure or debased birth, without ability to rise from the mass.” In a letter to her old boss in April 1929, six months before the stock market crash, she had written: “Personally, I believe what we need—what every social group needs—is a peasant class.”

When Black Tuesday did come, the Wilder-Lane households began a painful two-year downslide, as Lane’s savings deflated from $20,000 to almost nothing. Magazine work dried up. Wilder, too, lost some money but, characteristically, scraped together savings and paid off the farm. Lane fretted about money, missed rent payments to her parents, borrowed thousands from friends, and continued to call herself the head of the household. She also began to consider other possible writing projects.

For a decade already Lane had milked various snippets from her parents’ lives for short stories. Now she saw an opportunity for her mother. Pioneer struggles could eerily mirror the struggles of the Great Depression, and Lane thought Americans were ready to hear about covered-wagon childhoods. After magazines rejected Wilder’s real-life account, Lane began reworking some of the memoir into what would become the first children’s book, “Little House in the Big Woods.”

Published in 1932 by Harper & Brothers, the book was praised by book critics for its honesty and caught the interest of readers nationwide. The Junior Literary Guild, a national book club, paid them an additional fee to print its own run. The income crisis at the Wilders’ ended. In the shadow of the crash, tales of overcoming great adversity resonated, and the editors wanted more.

Wilder and Lane responded with their now-famous sequels. From the start, there was tension between their approaches. Wilder argued for strict accuracy, while Lane, the seasoned commercial writer, injected made-up dialogue, took out stories about criminals and murder, and—most significantly—recast the stoic, sometimes confused pioneers as optimistic, capable people who achieved success without any government help.

Laura Ingalls Wilder never got used to Lane’s heavy rewrites, but the evidence suggests that on the main approach, playing up toughness in adversity, she agreed with her daughter. Both women believed fervently that the nation in the depths of the Depression had become too soft. In 1937, Wilder wrote Lane that people’s complaints about having no jobs made her sick. (“People drive me wild,” she wrote. “They as a whole are getting just what they deserve.”)

The early books celebrated Laura’s early childhood in a cozy log cabin in Wisconsin. They celebrated Pa Ingalls’s storytelling abilities and described in gripping detail how backwoods and prairie farmers took care of themselves—hunted, butchered, cooked, built, and made things like soap and bullets—in the 1860s and 1870s. The third book, “Farmer Boy,” was about Wilder’s husband Almanzo’s life on a New York State farm. In the fourth book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” the Ingalls family relocated to Minnesota (the locale of the TV show), where they built a house and became wheat farmers despite a grasshopper plague.

In shaping the memoirs into novels, Lane consistently left out the kinds of setbacks and behavior that cast doubt on the pioneer enterprise; the family’s story became a testament to the possibilities of self-sufficiency rather than its limitations. The last four books—which tell the story of the Ingalls family’s attempt to homestead in the future state of South Dakota—are particularly fired by Libertarian themes.

Comparing Wilder’s original memoirs to the contents of the published books, it’s possible to see a pattern of strategic omissions and additions. In the fifth book, for example, “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Laura promises to become a teacher to pay for her older sister Mary to attend a college for the blind. Wilder’s own account of her life reveals that although Wilder’s sister did attend a college for the blind, in reality it was the government of Dakota Territory—and not the family’s hard work—that covered the bills.

The next book, “The Long Winter,” stops for a moment of free-market speechifying almost certainly added by Lane. When a storekeeper tries to overcharge starving neighbors who want to buy the last stock of wheat available, a riot seems imminent until the character based on Wilder’s father, Pa, Charles Ingalls, brings him into line: “This is a free country and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property….Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.” It’s an appealing, if perhaps wishful, distillation of the idea that a free market can regulate itself perfectly well. Wilder rarely wrote extended dialogue in her own recollections, the manuscripts show; her daughter most likely invented this long exchange.

The Little House books barely mention the obvious, which is that the impoverished Ingallses never could have gone to Dakota Territory without a government grant: Like most pioneers, their livelihoods relied on the federal Homestead Act, which gave settlers 160 acres for the cost of a $14 filing fee—one of the largest acts of federal largesse in US history.

Wilder’s memoirs offer a picture of the costs and risks of isolation that never made it into the book series: A baby brother who died at 9 months. A miserable year working and living in an Iowa tavern. A pair of innkeepers who murdered guests and buried them out back. Another pioneer couple who boarded with them during the Long Winter whose attitudes were far more whining than stoic.

Perhaps the most telling omission is the book that almost never was. Wilder wrote one final volume, never revised by Lane, and not published until after they’d both died. “The First Four Years,” the ninth book, told of the drought that led to the failure of the Wilders’ first homestead after they were married in 1885. No one is sure why Lane did not revise that book, but it’s no stretch to imagine that she found herself at a loss to mold its dire underlying story—struggling, borrowing more and more money, losing the homestead anyway—into another celebration of self-sufficiency.

How ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Built Modern Conservatism
by Christine Woodside, Politico

It’s not hard to detect this impulse to celebrate individual freedom in the books, and it often appears in almost didactic form—“Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus,” Pa lectures a storekeeper in an argument over wheat profits during a winter famine. In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura, then a young teenager, has an epiphany about being responsible for herself after she hears a speech about independence at a Fourth of July ceremony. Elsewhere, the books minimize the role of government in the life of a family that sometimes did have to rely on it, as they took free land and benefited from state funds that paid sister Mary Ingalls’s tuition at the Iowa School for the Blind for seven years, a public subsidy the books quietly omit.

During the years they worked together, Lane—we know from her diaries, idea notebooks and letters to friends—began to think seriously about the relationship between the family’s farming roots and what makes America strong. Both Wilder and Lane thought that the solution to the Great Depression was to let people ride it out and learn to get by on less. The resulting books were best-sellers that celebrated the power of the individual over the government as an American principle just when that debate was raging over Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

These ideas fit with an anti-government-regulation movement that was beginning to light a fire under political conservatives. And they reached more readers with those ideas than a political manifesto could ever have done. […]

As early as the 1930s, she had started to connect with New Deal skeptics in the business community, and these ties only strengthened over the next 30 years. The greatest rapport with these business leaders was with former DuPont Chemical Executive Vice President Jasper Crane, with whom she corresponded at length through the 1940s. Crane committed himself in retirement “to the cause of freedom in America, which he feared was in great peril,” as Kim Phillips-Fein, a historian at New York University and expert on the conservative movement, has written.

Rose’s influence on Crane’s ideas can’t precisely be tracked, but they exchanged hundreds of letters, most of which I have read. In one of them, just three years after she and her mother finished the last Little House book, she wrote, “These are the most dangerous times in history and I am convinced that they will get much worse before they are better in any obvious or concrete terms. Since 1933 I have not been able to see anything in the near future but a terrific political, economic, social crash and chaos, with violence.”

Crane was just one of a large group of businessmen who banded together over their opposition to FDR and his New Deal. They included Leonard Read, manager of the western division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who’d grown up on a poor farm, and William Clinton Mullendore, who presided over Southern California Edison. These anti-New Deal activists admired the ideas of Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, economists who met in Austria in the 1920s and who argued that a strong economy rode on the freedom of buyers to determine value. These economists figured strongly in the growth of the libertarian movement in America—many years later, former Senator Ron Paul, who ran for president as a Libertarian in 1988, said he raised his son Rand Paul on their ideas.

In the mid-1950s, Rose found a new way to press her influence. Robert LeFevre, a businessman and champion of laissez-faire government and property rights, had written admiringly to Rose about her book The Discovery of Freedom. He began holding classes on an idyllic tract with comfortable rustic buildings north of Colorado Springs, calling the place the Freedom School and welcoming everyone from teenagers through the elderly for two-week sessions. LeFevre and his invited guests lectured for six hours a day, including weekends, on the theory of “nonarchism” (or “stateless capitalism,” an extremely minimalist form of government) and other concepts of the growing libertarian movement. LeFevre argued to his students that labor unions were coercive, foreign intervention was wrong and private enterprise could do better work than governments.

His school, despite its pro-business leanings, wasn’t much of a moneymaker, and he was at risk of closing. A timely, much-needed donation came from Rose’s ample income from the Little House royalties. In 1962, LeFevre named the main log building Rose Wilder Lane Hall. Rose attended the dedication ceremony. Two of the young students who sat under its roof for classes were the sons of industrialist Fred Koch, MIT-trained engineers named Charles and David Koch.

“Little House on the Prairie”: Tea Party manifesto
by Caroline Fraser, Salon

Wilder is now detained at those crossroads by Meghan Clyne, managing editor of National Affairs, former speechwriter for Laura and George W. Bush and contributor to the New York Post (where she worried that an Obama nominee might introduce sharia law). Clyne calls for building an “historical-appreciation movement” around Wilder, who is to model self-reliance for millions of less worthy Americans currently receiving Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and “food stamps or other nutrition benefits.” Citing Jefferson, Clyne warns against “degeneracy” in the dependent, commending Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 paper for its depiction of “the conquest of this last unsettled frontier,” without remarking on the removal of natives that made it possible, paid for by the federal government and intended as the type of benefit she condemns. She takes no notice of the fact that Indians occupy a great deal of real estate in Little House on the Prairie, with its references to the 1862 “Minnesota massacre,” when Sioux warriors angered by treaty violations killed hundreds of soldiers and settlers and were then captured, tried, and hung in the largest mass execution in our history. Or that the little house in question was built illegally on an Osage reserve, which may explain why the Ingallses relinquished it.

Condemning “welfare-state redistribution,” Clyne embraces the 1862 Homestead Act, central to the later Little House books. Yet it was one of the biggest federal handouts in American history. Clyne praises it as policy that “encouraged habits of self-reliance rather than undermining them,” but it sought to give away a trillion acres of “free land,” as it was called, in 160-acre parcels to those over twenty-one if they could live on it and improve it over five years. Homesteading was no picnic, as Wilder makes clear, but everyone at the time knew it was a giveaway. Wilder remembers her father singing, “Uncle Sam is rich enough / To give us all a farm!” a popular ditty that hardly comports with Clyne’s contempt for “the crutch of government support.” The Homestead Act was not a particularly succesful incubator of self-reliance, as only a fifth of the land went to small farmers, and less than half of all homesteaders managed to make the necessary improvements to keep it. The Act was also undermined by fraud and land speculation: Much of the property was acquired by railroads and large ranching interests. […]

In the chapter “Indians Ride Away,” the family “looked and looked” again as a seemingly endless single file of Osage Indians rides by. Earlier, the Ingalls girls have been terrified of “naked wild men,” witnessing their mother’s fear as “fierce-looking men” clothed in skunk skins and armed with hatchets and knives arrive at their cabin while her father is away, demanding food. But watching the Osage file away, Laura’s response is immediate, unfiltered. Entranced by the ponies and ornaments — blankets, beads, fringe, eagle feathers — Laura looks into the eyes of an Indian papoose, “black as a night when no stars shine,” and pleads with her father: “‘get me that little Indian baby!’” Pa tells her to hush, but to her parents’ dismay she begs — “‘Oh, I want it! I want it!’” — as “that long line of Indians slowly pulled itself over the western edge of the world.” It is a singular moment of pure naivete in the literature of the American west, capturing the primitive attitude of white settlers toward Indians: their fears, simplistic admiration, and essential acquisitiveness toward everything possessed by the people they are displacing. While Indians are largely absent from the books that follow, Laura’s cry is the childlike echo of her parents’ appropriation of land from its original owners, human and wild. It becomes her own such act, when Wilder describes her fictional self — casting off her sunbonnet with her mother’s strictures — as “brown as an Indian.”

Pa presents an unlikely fit with conservative ethics. In life, Charles Ingalls was a Populist, a party which opposed railroad interests and promoted those of wheat farmers. In fiction, with his tan skin and unruly brown hair and whiskers, he is a wild man himself: He plays “mad dog” with his daughters, growling on all fours. He tells tales of hunting bears and panthers but sometimes becomes lost in admiration at his prey: At the end of Little House in the Big Woods he returns empty-handed from a hunting trip, telling his daughters that he lured a bear and a family of deer to a salt lick but couldn’t bring himself to shoot them, they were so “‘strong and free and wild.’” This is a very different vision of freedom than that of the Tea Party, at least its hunting wing. Laura listens carefully and says, “‘I’m glad you didn’t shoot them!’” Wilder, who later described the novels as “a memorial for my father,” sees him as the quintessential human animal, forever longing to lose himself in an idealized, depopulated west: “Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either. He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid.”

While Clyne emphasizes “community,” Laura rebels against it, as the family retreats from Kansas to relatively settled Minnesota in On the Banks of Plum Creek. As they prepare to move into their new home, a dugout carved into a riverbank, Ma says, “‘It is all so tame and peaceful. […] There will be no wolves or Indians howling tonight. I haven’t felt so safe and at rest since I don’t know when.’” Her husband’s reply is ambiguous: “‘We’re safe enough, all right. Nothing can happen here.’” Their daughter is disappointed: “Laura lay in bed and listened to the water talking and the willows whispering. She would rather sleep outdoors, even if she heard wolves, than be so safe in this house dug under the ground.”

Crops, cattle, and profits, central to conservative notions of the frontier, are portrayed as false promises. Locust swarms consume the wheat. A pair of oxen runs away with the wagon bearing Laura’s mother and baby sister, threatening to dash them against a bluff. Her father heads them off and later comforts his daughters with hoarhound candy. Savoring it, Laura tells him, “‘I think I like wolves better than cattle.’” In a 1936 letter to her daughter, Wilder describes her emphasis on her mother’s search for a safe harbor as an explicit narrative choice: “The idea is that […] [Plum Creek] was safety and then look what happened. Laura preferred wolves.” […]

Lost in the discussion of whether she was a libertarian or a mere purveyor of liberty is the Wilder who rejoiced in wilderness. “She loved the beautiful world,” she says of herself in The Long Winter. Like those praised by the Sage of Concord, her books “smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects.” They do not celebrate the exploitation of nature, as conservative pundits do, but mourn it. They do not promote anything like the shooting wolves from helicopters, a right cherished by those Emerson called “parlour soldiers” and supported by Sarah Palin. Last year, the governor of Idaho, C. L. “Butch” Otter, declared wolves a “Disaster Emergency,” expressing his desire to “bid for the first ticket to shoot a wolf myself.” By this spring, Idahoans had killed some 500, around half the state’s population. Wyoming is poised to do the same. With taxpayer funds, a host of state and federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture’s “Wildlife Services” — created in 1915 to exterminate wolves — still seeks to “control” the species and eliminate animals the federal government has spent millions to reintroduce, by poisoning, trapping, and aerial gunning. (For more on this federal program, see the three-part series, “The Killing Agency: Wildlife Services’ Brutal Methods Leave a Trail of Animal Death,” Sacramento Bee, April 29, April 30, and May 6, 2012.)

Wilder was a practical farm woman protective of her life and livelihood, but it is impossible to imagine her supporting such wasteful savagery. Indeed, her shift from Democrat to Republican was sparked by a disgust with New Deal policies after she heard that crops were to be plowed under to stabilize agricultural prices. This was an outrage to a woman who had lived with hunger and been forced by debt and crop failures to leave the Dakota prairies and her beloved parents.

The Little House books have always been stranger, deeper, and darker than any ideology. While celebrating family life and domesticity, they undercut those cozy values at every turn, contrasting the pleasures of home (firelight, companionship, song) with the immensity of the wilderness, its nobility and its power to resist cultivation and civilization. In her hymn to the American west, Wilder treasures forest, grasslands, wetlands, and wildlife in terms that verge on the transcendental. Alive in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memory of it, the wilderness she knew — now lost — continues to reflect her longing for a vanishing world, a rough paradise from which we are excluded by a helpless devotion to our own survival.

Libertarians on the Prairie
by Christine Woodside
Kindle Locations 227-246

The factual details of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life seem harsh when held up against the atmosphere of her autobiographical Little House novels. Between Laura’s third and thirteenth years, the Ingalls family moved six times. Her father, Charles “Pa” Ingalls, was a fiddle-playing, poetry-reading adventurer. He and Laura’s mother, Caroline or “Ma,” took Laura and her sisters by covered wagon on a multistage pilgrimage seeking fertile land, good hunting, and wide-open spaces. What reality brought were natural disasters, crop failures, and hunted-out regions. Each time they decided to leave a place, Charles and Caroline loaded the wagon with the most basic supplies—cornmeal, live chickens, a few dishes, iron pots, and blankets—and set off, camping on the prairie or in creek bottoms each night. Until they were big enough to sit up, Laura and the other children sat in their mother’s lap; once they were older (she wrote), they perched on a board placed across the wagon’s sideboards.

In fall 1869, Ma and Pa loaded her and her older sister, Mary, into the wagon. They left their log cabin in Wisconsin—their “little house in the big woods”—and made their way, along with possibly thousands of other settlers, onto a small band of land that the federal government had kept closed to all but some thirty-one tribes of Plains Indians in the future state of Kansas, near the Oklahoma border. The region was called the Osage Diminished Reserve because the Osage had been there the longest and lost the most. The Osage had signed a treaty to relinquish the land just before the Ingallses headed there, but the treaty had never been ratified. In Little House on the Prairie, Laura would call this land Indian Territory, although it lay just north of the actual Indian Territory (another region also closed to non-Indians at that time).

Laura recalled little from the year they tried to farm there, but she and Rose combined family stories with best guesses and some invention in writing Little House on the Prairie. We do know that Pa built a house of logs from the creek bottoms and the family began breaking land for crops and planted a garden. Their third daughter, Carrie (Caroline), was born there. With the tending of the vegetables and livestock and the planting of crops, daily life settled in, but tensions rose between the settlers and the Osage Indians. Later, in a letter to Rose, Laura would remind her daughter that the family had had no right to be there, since the treaty hadn’t been ratified. She called Pa a squatter, and he was one of many.

It seems likely they left in 1871, in part because of mounting worry about conflict between the settlers, the Osage, and the federal government.

Bloodland
by Dennis McAuliffe
Kindle Locations 1352-1442

One day, I was staring at a map of the Osages’ rectangle of reservation in Kansas, and my eyes stuck on a red dot in the middle of it, signifying a “Point of Interest.” The words “Little House on the Prairie” came into focus.

Little Laura Ingalls, her sisters and their beloved Ma and Pa were illegal legal squatters on Osage land. She left that detail out of her 1935 children’s dren’s book, Little House on the Prairie, as well as any mention of ongoing outrages-including killings, burnings, beatings, horse thefts and grave robberies-committed by white settlers, such as Charles Ingalls, against Osages living in villages not more than a mile or two away from the Ingallses’ gallses’ little house.

Mrs. Wilder’s unwitting association with the Osages would last a lifetime. She started writing the “Little House” children’s books-there were nine-in the 1930s, in her sixties, while living in a big house located on former Osage land in the Missouri Ozarks. The “Little House” books-especially especially the one that took place “on the Prairie” of the Osage reservation in Kansas-would be much read, broadcast and beloved. Shortly after World War II, the State Department ordered Mrs. Wilder’s books translated lated into German and Japanese, the languages of the United States’ most recently defeated enemies, who had just joined the list of America’s other Vanquished, including American Indians. The “Little House” books were “positive representations of America,” the U.S. government decreed, a good way to show other peoples of the world the American Way. Obviously ously someone in government forgot to consult the Osages.

After the Civil War, caravans of white settlers started overrunning the Osage reservation, and the Ingalls family joined them in 1869. They were drawn there by the U.S. government’s giveaway of 160-acre plots of free land to each adult settler under the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln early in the Civil War as a way to keep the hearts and minds of poor northern people planted firmly in the Union, and maybe win some from the South. The subliminal message of the law was “Stick with us, and we’ll reward you-if you win this war. Trade in your slums for the wide-open spaces of the West, where you can be your own boss, on your own land. All you have to do is kill a couple of Confederates.” Railroads roads passed the good news to Europe-or at least to northern Europeans such as the hard-working Swedes, Norwegians and Germans. The railroads’ roads’ flyers, however, never made it to the Italians or Slavs. A song was even written to give settlers something to sing while traveling west, either to America or to their new homesteads west of the Mississippi:

Oh, come to this country
And don’t you feel alarm
For Uncle Same is rich enough
To give us all a farm!

[… The Osage] appear in her book only as beggars and thieves, and she adds injury to insult by comparing the Osages-who turned Thomas Jefferson’s head with their dignity and grace-to reptiles, to garbage or scum (depending on the definition of the word she actually uses). Mrs. Wilder assigns them descriptive adjectives that connote barbarism, brutality, and bloodthirstiness, and makes much ado about their odor. But she makes light of their obvious plight: In one passage, she describes almost mockingly the skeletal figures of two Osages who are fed cornbread by Ma, the eating noises they make and the pitiful sight of them stooping to eat specks of food they spot on the floor.

The Osages were hungry because white men such as her father were burning their fields, forcing them at gunpoint from their homes and threatening them with death if they returned, stealing their food and horses, even robbing their graves-all to force them to abandon their land. There is no proof, of course, that Charles Ingalls took part in these crimes, but I assume that he did, since he was sleazy enough to willfully steal their land, their most valuable possession. He did disappear for four days-according according to the book, it took that long to get to Independence and back, all of ten miles away-and returned with food and other supplies. He unabashedly abashedly told little Laura, trying to explain why he had moved the family to the Osage reservation, that because they and other whites were there, the Army would drive the Indians away.

In the words of the Osages’ U.S. agent in 1870, even being “kind and generous to the Indians . . . [does) not relieve these men from the reproach of being trespassers, intruders, and violators of the nation’s law.”

The annual reports of the Osages’ U.S. agent to his superiors in Washington, the commissioners of Indian affairs, provide the chapter of Little House on the Prairie that Laura Ingalls Wilder failed to write:

The Ingallses moved onto Osage land in 1869, about ten miles southwest of Independence, and only about five miles from the Kansas border with Indian Territory. The Ingallses were not alone. That year, more than 500 families trespassed on the reservation and “built their cabins ins near the [main} Indian camps”-in the Ingallses’ case, only a mile or so away. The 1870 U.S. census listed the Little House-and the Ingallses as its occupants-as “the 89th residence of Rutland Township,” although “a claim was not filed because the land was part of the Osage . . . Reserve.” serve.”

Squatters had “taken possession of [the Osages’) cornfields, and forbidden bidden them cutting firewood on `their claims,’ ” wrote agent G. C. Snow. “Their horses are constantly being driven off by the white men,” he said. The Osages “have had, to my certain knowledge, over 100 of their best horses stolen [in the past month). I learn that scarcely a day passes that they do not lose from five to twenty horses. . . . Not one of [the horse thieves has] as yet been brought to justice, or one in a hundred of the Indians’ ans’ horses returned to them.”

The settlers “threaten me with Crawford’s militia, and say they will hang me if I interfere with them,” the Indian agent complained, referring to the Kansas governor. Samuel J. Crawford was so opposed to Indians in general and Osages in particular that he once told a white constituent, Theodore Reynolds, complaining about problems over filing a claim because cause of a mixed-blood Osage, Augustus Captain: “Shoot the half-breed renegade and I will pardon you before the smoke gets away from your gun.”

U.S. agent Isaac T. Gibson wrote in his annual report for 1870 that settlers had grown bolder, forming vigilante groups “pledged to defend each other in the occupation of claims, without regard to the improvements, possession, or rights of the Indians. Many of the latter were turned out of their homes, and threatened with death if they persisted in claiming them. Others were made homeless by cunning and fraud.

“While absent on their winter hunt, [the Osages’} cribs of corn, and other provisions, so hardly earned by their women’s toil, were robbed. Their principal village was pillaged of a large amount of [casks), and wagon-loads of matting hauled away and used by the settlers in building and finishing houses for themselves. Even new-made graves were plundered, with the view of finding treasures, which the Indians often bury with their dead. . . .

“The question will suggest itself, which of these peoples are the savages?”

The outrages of 1870 were a turning point for the Osages. At that spring’s payment in provisions of promised treaty annuities, the government again pressed the Osages to sell their Kansas lands. In 1865, the Osages ceded under pressure nearly 4 million acres on the northern and eastern perimeters of their reservation, and in 1868 were forced to agree to sell their 8-million-acre “diminished reserve,” as the government called the remainder of their land, to a railroad corporation for 19 cents an acre. But President Ulysses S. Grant withdrew the treaty in 1870 when it became came obvious that the Senate would not ratify it amid an explosion of outrage rage from settlers that the sale would put the Osage lands in the hands of the railroads and not in theirs. Gibson noted the weariness of the Osages at the 1870 spring annuity payment, quoting “one of their head-men” as complaining, “Why is it that our Great Father can never even send us our annuities, without asking us to sell and move once more?” The Indian added, “We are tired of all this.” Gibson described the Osage as having “the look and tone of a man without hope.” […]

The morning after they signed the treaty, “the air was filled with the cries of the old people, especially the women, who lamented over the graves of their children, which they were about to leave forever,” a Kansas newspaper reported.

Most of the Osages left Kansas in late fall for their annual winter buffalo hunt on the plains, and did not return, staying instead in Indian Territory. Laura Ingalls—and her readers—did not know it, but she witnessed a watershed moment in the history of the Osages—their removal from Kansas—when one morning she looked out the window of the little house and saw a traffic jam of Indians riding past. They came from the creek bottoms to the east and rode west, past the house, on an old Indian trail that later was paved and became U.S. Route 75.

One of the Osage warriors who rode past the little house that day was my great-great-grandfather, and one of the Osage women Laura saw was my great-great-grandmother.

The Ingalls family left Kansas a few weeks later. Mrs. Wilder claimed that a cavalry troop rode in one day and warned Pa to vacate or be evicted, since the house was located just inside the Osages’ diminished reservation. But that could not have been the reason the Ingallses left Kansas and moved back to Wisconsin. The U.S. Army had not moved one squatter off the Osages’ land when it was their reservation, so why would that happen when there no longer was an Osage reservation in Kansas?

The Ingallses’ neighbors were not through with the Osages yet. Nearly twenty mixed-blood Osages had decided to remain on farms they had developed and improved over the years, and to formally enter the white man’s world by becoming U.S. citizens. They secured a special treaty with the good citizens of Independence to allow them to stay. But in the weeks after the main body of Osages left Kansas, the mixed-bloods’ farmhouses, one after another, were burned down.

One night, the white neighbors of Joseph Mosher broke into his house-a mile or two from the Little House on the Prairie-dragged him, his wife and children out of their beds and into the yard, where they beat them and torched the house.

Then they took the Osage man to the nearby woods, and pistol-whipped whipped him to death.

Ghost in the Little House
by William Holtz
pp. 72-73

Her ingrained assumptions were essentially Protestant and individualistic, the inheritance from her pioneer parents, however tempered by her infatuation with Eugene Debs. But her naive faith in Debs had waned during her real estate days, she recalled, as she “fought for commissions and sales, too busy getting them to worry about the Golden Rule in business, especially as I never happened to encounter it there.” And the religious certitude of that inheritance would be set aside: “there wasn’t any Eden ever, you know,” she wrote to Mama Bess. “Drunk on Darwin, Huxley, Spender, my generation nonchalantaly abolished God,” she later observed and Marx and Freud were part of the heady drink as well. Moral absolutes, under the eye of science, became simply conventions she and her cohorts sought to ground themselves in a newly discovered natural order that underlay the shattered culture of the nineteenth century.

What fell into place was a melange of ideas that essentially substituted a romantic naturalism for the departed theism and a social meliorism for the discredited gospels. As she had come to maturity in an urban business world, she had encountered the easy adaptation of the earlier tradition of individual struggle to the Darwinian hypothesis: social Darwinism had become a cliche by her adult years, and she had read Herbert Spencer while still a telegrapher. […] the instinctive, self-serving energies that had carried her in her business career found a new challenge in the vaguely socialist liberalism of many of her friends. Certainly the limitations of social Darwinism were on her mind as she wrote not merely in her willingness to consider government solutions to social problems in “Soldiers of the Soil” and “The Building of Hetch-Hetchy,” but also in her fiction and her local color pieces. In “Myself” her heroine is lectured on “survival of the fittest” by her business-school teacher, whereupon she immediately gets her first job by keeping from a more needy classmate news of an opening that she might fill it herself. And in one episode of “The City at Night,” Rose ironically invokes the Darwinian phrase as a hard-working immigrant boy, sole support of his family, learns of the death by disease of his infant sister. Years later Rose would proclaim at one time she had been a Communist, which was probably an overstatement; but from this period until her visit to Europe she accepted as more or less inevitable the eventual arrival of a benign socialist order. She was attracted to Jack London’s theoretical socialism, and when she recalled in a letter to Dorothy Thompson their generation’s enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution (“The sun is rising in Russia,” they said to each other), she was remembering an attitude, if not a creed, that she shared with many of her contemporaries. That she was willing to debate the Bolshevik war resisters who organized under Jack London’s name shows the pragmatic streak underlying her fling with socialism, but it is likewise no surprise to find in her FBI file that in 1919 her name was on the mailing list of the Finnish Singing Society, identified by the FBI as a propaganda group associated with the IWW. The mailing address was 1413 Montgomery, The Little House on Telegraph Hill.

Little House, Long Shadow
by Anita Clair Fellman
XVII-XVIII

As I was beginning to flirt with the idea of working on the Little House books someday, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. During that first election campaign, I was very much struck by the individualist, antigovernment nature of his rhetoric: his view of government (and taxes) as burdensome and an impediment to individual autonomy; his insistence that individuals are essentially responsible for themselves and that government is not needed or wanted to protect them from the fluctuations of the market or other misfortunes. We have become accustomed to such ideas and language now, but in 1980 it had been a long time since such language was used so fulsomely and frequently in the national political arena, regardless of similar rhetoric in business circles and the trend toward federal government downsizing in the Carter administration. Because the New Deal had changed the nature of American political discourse, the language of conservatism, from the 1930s until the mid-1970s, was usually more traditionalist and anticommunist than it was expressly antigovernment. Interestingly, Rose Wilder Lane’s papers indicated that she had had a positive response to Reagan’s rhetoric very early as he spoke on behalf of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign, which, in its assault on the welfare state, was labeled extremist at the time.

Whatever I thought of the match between Reagan’s rhetoric and the actuality of most Americans’ daily lives in the complex economy had siphoned a stream of laissez-faire assumptions that ran forcefully and persistently just under the surface of American life. What fed that stream? I wondered. What kept such ideas alive? What gave them such emotional force? How were they conveyed? Beyond the relatively small core of people who were consciously developing a new conservatism in those years, most Americans had not heard a strongly articulated individualist perspective in mainstream politics for more than a generation, save for the rhetoric of the Goldwater campaign that was undercut by his cold war hawkishness. Why did Reagan’s antistate ideas immediately resonate for them? Why did they sound so familiar? How did such ideas get transmitted, generation after generation? I considered the possibility that other sources besides mainstream political rhetoric were responsible for maintaining an individualist vision among the population at large. Although I started studying the Little House books trying in general to understand their “hook,” I began wondering if the books’ appeal had something to do with that vision.

pp. 44-59

The only letter from a reader that Lane ever copied into her diary expressed appreciation that her serial on pioneer life, unlike the pessimistic writings of Hamlin Garland and Willa Cather, could help “lead the world back from the defeatist thinking of the socialistic militarist” European patterns, toward a vindication of the individual’s ability under stress to endure and flourish. Her book publishers, in the midst of the economic depression, used the political dimensions of this theme in their advertisements of the book: “What these two heroic young pioneers in con trast to much other advertising in the thirties that played on people’s fears and anxieties and promised security of one kind or another. […]

Watchful and at first neutral, Wilder and Lane became increasingly alarmed by President Roosevelt’s efforts to combat the Depression. Wilder left the Democratic Party and firmly opposed Roosevelt. In later years Lane liked to depict herself as a 1920 convert from near-communism to firm individualism, claiming to have attended meetings establishing the founding of the American Communist Party when she lived in Greenwich Village immediately after World War I, and becoming disabused of her ideas when she traveled in the Soviet Union in 1920. In actuality, she was cautiously feeling her way in the late 1920s and early 1930s from vague liberalism and internationalism toward an increasingly strong conviction that altruism stood in the way of progress, and that anything more than minimal government was an unnecessary evil. Unlike her parents, Lane seems always to have been vulnerable to the political currents of the times. She remembered being fervently in favor of William Jennings Bryan and the free coinage of silver, in opposition to the Republican-promoted gold standard in the 1896 election. Influenced by her aunt Eliza Jane during the year she spent living with her in Louisiana, she considered herself a socialist and an enthusiastic Eugene Debs supporter during his 1904 try at the presidency. Lane’s San Francisco and Greenwich Village sojourns as a young adult reinforced her inclination to be critical of the political status quo in the United States and interested in the Georgia remained just observations and not criticisms for almost a decade.

Living isolated on the Missouri farm in the early 1930s, save for occasional trips and visitors, Lane was left more on her own to dig down to her own intellectual bedrock. Everything, positive and negative, she had experienced and was then undergoing contributed to her evolving political perspective. Traveling and even living in some of the world’s trouble spots, combined with putting together a good if uneven living as a freelance writer, gave her a sense of the inevitable precariousness of life. Helping to support her parents, involvement with her mother on many levels, and writing about her family’s history led her to perceive how difficult it was to maintain the proper balance between care for others and for oneself. Feeling abandoned by many of her friends and battling ongoing psychological depression and periodic ill health exacerbated the sense that, in the final analysis, she was on her own in the world.

Wilder’s political outlook underwent fewer changes. No matter that Laura in These Happy Golden Years had disclaimed any interest in women obtaining the vote, the middle-aged Laura Ingalls Wilder had long been active in local politics in Mansfield. Like her sister Carrie, she and Almanzo apparently were loyal Democrats. Throughout the nineteenth century, during the couple’s formative years, the ideology of the Democratic Party, though strongly predisposed to the yeoman farmer as an independent producer, was consistently antistatist. Political scientist John Gerring characterizes the national party’s opposition to the federal government in those years as “virulent,” explaining, “No other single issue was repeated so adamantly or so persistently as limited government.” Charles Ingalls apparently had Populist leanings, along with a firm commitment to state rather than federal resolution of problems, but the Wilders do not seem to have been involved in the various farmers’ protest movements in the nineteenth century. William Jennings Bryan, in his long tenure as leader of the Democratic Party, from 1896 to 1912, worked to reform-minded goals, but as John Milton Cooper puts it, “Many aspects of the party’s ultimate reformation appeared only tentatively during Wilson’s time and would not fully capture the hearts and minds of party stalwarts—much less the country as a whole—until decades later.”

It is very possible that the Wilders were among those who never accepted substantial aspects of the evolving Democratic platform. Laura Ingalls Wilder was not opposed to all the federal regulatory agencies that had emerged during World War I, but thought that they should be evaluated for retention on a case-by-case basis. She could make an argument for the sugar board, for instance, because the existing monopoly on output had contributed to the exorbitant prices of sugar. It was when the reach of federal regulatory agencies penetrated their local community that the Wilders reassessed the implications of government power. Their fundamental expectations of the federal government were largely that it cease favoring industry over agriculture. In 1918 Wilder helped organize the Mansfield National Farm Loan Association, of which she served as secretary for ten years. The association dispersed money from the U.S. government in the form of loans to farmers at the reasonable rate of 5.5 percent. “I believe,” Wilder wrote in 1925, “that this amount of money [more than one hundred thousand dollars], brought into our community from the government, has increased our prosperity by that much, and has been of direct or indirect value to us all.” Presumably administered by farmers themselves rather than by bureaucrats, the association, in the Wilders’ view, evened the odds a bit for farmers in relation to the protected industrial sector. […]

Despite their long affiliation as Democrats, the Wilders were not prepared to make the shift in philosophy implied by the New Deal. Not only were they likely to have been influenced by their daughter, but the upending of economic and moral verities and the transformation in conceptions of the role of government also ran counter to their interpretation of their own experiences. Thinking back over their family’s struggles—the battle with the weather in South Dakota; Almanzo’s crippling illness; their survival of the 1893 panic; the long, slow transformation of a small, unpromising piece of rocky Missouri land into a moderate-size, productive farm; the eventual realization of their dream farmhouse—the Wilders and Lane increasingly became angered by government farm-relief programs that implied that individuals were incapable of coping with setbacks on their own. This may have been the Democratic policy that pushed them out of the party. As Lane wrote to her literary agent in April 1933, “My father is opposed to all ‘farm-relief’ measures, as such. Agriculture’s dilemma as we see it has been caused by industrialism’s having had special political favors; we believe the balance would be restored by giving agriculture equality with industry in tariff protection, available market data, and easy credit facilities for short-time loans, and that farming needs no direct governmental aid.” Three years later she made her indictment more sweeping: “Government’s paternal interference in agriculture has always done harm, and to date no visible good.”

Having spent fifty years in trying to wrest crops from recalcitrant soils, the Wilders were aghast at the prospect of plowing crops under so as to cut down on so-called surpluses. To do so seemed to violate the natural order and common sense. […]

In many ways besides the grasshopper invasion, Mansfield was deeply affected by the Depression. Even before the crash, the town had been in the doldrums, ceasing to grow economically and losing ground to other towns around it. Like others of its size, it had experienced changes owing to the delayed aftermath of national industrialization. However, without the dynamism and optimism accompanying growth, these changes seemed merely disruptive rather than challenging or promising. This, in turn, fostered resistance to changes in values and nostalgia for the old ways, as exemplified by the old-time fiddling and chicken-calling contests that took place in Mansfield in the late 1920s.

The Ozarks had never taken kindly to change. The transition from a subsistence to a cash economy, which had occurred only a short time before the Wilders arrived, had been accompanied by significant amounts of resistance and violence. Once the 1929 Depression hit, unemployment, high in Missouri, was even higher in the Ozarks. Although the two local Mansfield banks managed to stay open, stretches of area railroad were abandoned. Agricultural prices plummeted, as did farm income and land values. As had happened in 1893, drought exacerbated the economic decline. legislative sessions in Missouri for infighting rather than for tackling the ongoing economic disintegration of the state. But unlike 1893, this time the federal government was prepared to step in to alleviate the distress of at least some affected individuals. What John E. Miller characterizes as “a considerable number” of local farmers and unemployed workers obtained jobs through various New Deal projects in Mansfield, building roads and a new grade school, working in sewing rooms and workshops sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. Wilder complained about the shortage of farm labor, which she believed was owing to the work-relief programs. […]

None of these programs helped the Democrats win votes locally. Mansfield was normally Republican, and although the town supported Roosevelt by a slight margin in 1932, it reverted to its usual pattern of voting in 1934. That was also the year in which conservative Republican Dewey Short, a favorite of Wilder’s, regained his congressional seat for the district, which he maintained for the next twenty-two years on the basis of his opposition to liberal New Deal–type programs. Unlike the rest of the state, which Roosevelt carried by a two-to-one margin, the Ozarks went for Alf Landon in 1936. Consequently, throughout and Lane were surrounded by people also hostile to Roosevelt and presumably to the New Deal. […]

Theirs was a vision nourished by their experiences as mother and daughter in a specific historical context that reinforced their austere view. Their childhoods on the American frontier and their adult experiences as self-employed people evoked the virtues of self-sufficiency to them. The transition that occurred in their lifetimes to a more collectivist notion of society and a more interventionist role for government violated their interpretations of their own histories. “The old spirit of sturdy independence seems to be vanishing,” Wilder noted in her later years. “We all depend too much on others. As modern life is lived, we have to do so, and more and more the individual alone is helpless.” The two women’s final assessments of what people could realistically expect from one another, greatly influenced by their own family relationships, predisposed them to a kind of “ontological individualism,” a perception of the solitary individual as the true social and political unit, more basic than any entity termed society. It led them to a belief in political individualism, the notion that government should do as little as possible to intrude in the lives of individuals. “She is an extreme individualist,” Lane wrote of her mother in the 1940s, adding, “(so am I).” Of course, such a stance has other sources as well, outside the dynamics of family life. Nonetheless, Wilder’s and Lane’s responses to their relationship and to their life histories contributed to a view of the world that was at once uniquely theirs yet resonant Americans.

Each woman in her way turned her sense of deprivation into a moral principle by which to gauge the world. To both, the material world—Mother Earth—although for moments beautiful, was ultimately an unyielding place that granted nothing without a struggle. In parallel fashion, their beliefs about human society provided the individual with no sure allies. For Rose Wilder Lane, these beliefs led to an individualist libertarian philosophy that has gained in influence since 1940. The warm and broad reception of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books shows that aspects of a more extreme vision of individualism are widely shared by Americans and, in fact, are so generally accepted as truthful as to not be deemed “political” in implication.

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