Learning About Laura - A Visit to the Little House on the Prairie Museum


 Dear Henry,

While I was growing up some of my favorite books were the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie.  A couple of years ago, I was able to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield Missouri, and to check out all of the china (including her chicken egg holder) that she had somehow managed to cart about the plains in a covered wagon, a feat, I should add, that I am still highly impressed with. Coincidently, it was around the time of my visit to the Missouri site that the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal was being renamed the Children's Literature Legacy Award because of statements made about Native American peoples in the Little House on the Prairie books.

Most of the damning language occurred in the second book of the series, which was written about the short time the family spent living near what is now Independence Kansas.  Only it wasn't Kansas when the Ingalls moved there, it was the Osage Diminished Reserve and the Ingalls family had settled illegally.

I must admit, it was a rather odd experience, visiting this museum because it is the site where two of my favorite stories, the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the story of the Osage Nation, collide. (Read about the Osage Nation at "Serendipity and Schoenmakers Window")

In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, the US Government began to negotiate a new treaty with the Osage Nation which would ultimately relocate the people to their current lands in Oklahoma. The people were expected to move in 1870 and then the lands of Kansas would be open for settlement. However, in 1868, a railroad attempted to negotiate a new treaty and land sale. Many settlers, upon hearing of this treaty left for Kansas early, with the assumption that the US Government would back them up.


When the Osage people began noticing the settlers, the nation started to collect rent payments, as allowed by earlier treaties and it was amid this situation where we find those terrible words said by Caroline Ingalls. 

I remember reading those words as a little girl and being in shock, even then. I couldn't fathom how anyone could say such a thing about the beautiful dancers (at that stage of my life, my only experience with Native Americans had been watching Grass Dancing competitions) and so I delved into Caroline's story a bit to figure out why she would say such a thing.

Shortly after she married Charles, and the couple was living in the woods of Wisconsin, a conflict known as the Dakota War of 1862, erupted about 100 miles from their home.  Now, the story of the Dakota people follows the same general path that all other Native peoples walked; as Euro-descent settlers moved into Dakota tribal lands, the native people were moved to reserved lands and told to farm. However, the Dakotas were not, historically, a farming people and, in 1861, they faced a cold winter and crop failures.  Then, because of the Civil War, the US Government fell behind on its payments to the Dakota people.  Local traders, unsure of who the "new" government would be, refused to extend credit to the tribe. Starving and desperate, the Dakota nation declared war on August 17, 1862, and attempted to retake, by force, their old territory around Mankato Minnesota. 

With the Army tied up in Civil War conflicts, Dakota Nation fighters were able to take quite a bit of land before they were pushed back by the US Army at the end of September 1862. The war was brutal and it is impossible to get an accurate death toll of this conflict, there were no real counts of Lakota casualties, neither from the battles nor of those who died at Fort Snelling while interred awaiting relocation. At least 350 settlers died and, ultimately, the Dakota people would be forced from their reserved Minnesota lands and 38 Dakota soldiers were publicly hung.

The conflict and the following trials were well-publicized and the media was, even in 1862, adept at whipping up a frenzy and causing panic.  Everyone in the area was terrified, including Caroline Ingalls.

Terrified people usually aren't very kind.

Fast-forward to 1870 and you have a terrified woman, living illegally in Osage Nation territory, with three small girls (Mary would have been about 3, Laura 1, and Carrie a newborn) and one who was sure that every Native American who came by to collect the rent was trying to kill her. I am beginning to wonder if, perhaps, Charles Ingalls wasn't a *wee* bit irresponsible in moving everyone to Kansas.

Anyway, as Laura Ingalls wrote in "The Little House on the Prairie" I mentioned in "Serendipity and Schoenmaker's Window", the United States Government honored its 1865 treaty with the Osage people and it was, to everyone's surprise, the settlers were forced to leave. 

Finding the actual site of the Little House on the Prairie was a real challenge for historians because the settlers couldn't actually file land claims, and it took looking through journal entries, Carrie Ingalls birth records, and looking at parcels of land that didn't have claims filed on them to locate the site.  Finally, in 1969, the hand-dug well described in the book was found and work began to create a museum at the site.

The Little House on the Prairie Museum has been open since the late 1970s and contains a replica of the log cabin Charles Ingalls built, as well as the Wayside Post Office, constructed in 1885 and the Sunnyside School, constructed in 1871.  Both the post office and school were relocated to the site to save them from being destroyed.  The area is a great place to learn about how the early settlers eked out their existence on the plains of America. We had so much fun and I was filled with childhood nostalgia. 

The site is open Mon-Sat 10am to 5pm and Sun 1pm to 5pm. A $3.00 per person donation is requested to keep the site operational.

The museum also has a gift shop, where you can find both prairie-styled handicrafts as well as Little House on the Prairie souvenirs. 

I made sure to pick up a little tin mug, just like Laura's

xoxo a.d. elliott