Those of us of a certain age remember Monday evenings starting with four notes from a French horn and the Melissas (Gilbert and Sue Anderson) running down a hill of daisies with their baby sister. For the next hour, the nineteenth-century adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family played out across our television screens in Little House on the Prairie.
We all knew at the time that the show came from the Little House series of books penned by Laura (Ingalls) Wilder later in life. The nine books told the story of her family from her parents coming together in Little House in the Big Woods to the early period of her marriage to Almonzo, in The First Four Years.
For the first years, the series followed pretty closely the stories in the books, including sister Mary’s blindness. Then it departed from the books by having Mary meet a man and marry him. It moved even further astray by introducing an adopted son, Albert Ingalls, who never appeared in the books. In the books, and in real life, we knew that Mary died unmarried and the Wilder family never adopted any children.
What many do not know is that Laura’s first book was an autobiography entitled Pioneer Girl. At the time she wrote it no publisher was interested in it, so it never saw print. Many of the stories included in the autobiography were later adapted into storylines in the Little House books.
An updated version of the book, edited by Laura Ingalls Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill, is about to be published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. Hill has done a tremendous amount of additional research, annotating the original manuscript with a great deal of new information. We learn a great deal of new things about Laura and the Little House series.
Many of the stories originally in Pioneer Girl never appeared in the books. Laura’s father Charles, for example, once snuck out of town with his family in the dark of night because he could come to terms about rent with the “rich old skinflint” landlord. One shocker that will come to fans of the television series as well as the books: Nellie Olson never existed. She was an amalgamation of several people Laura grew up with.
This is an important example of how careful we must be in researching our ancestry. Biographies, histories, published diaries, and more are sources we frequently use in our research. But each of these was published for a reason. And the authors, editors, and publishers made many decisions throughout the process. The stories they tell may be filled with errors of omission or commission. This was not necessarily an intentional decision to hide the truth (although often it was), but perhaps ways to move the story along. As with all information we discover in our research, take everything you find in these sources and verify it as much as possible in original records.
You can read more about the new book in stories from the Guardian (Laura Ingalls Wilder Memoir Reveals Truth Behind Little House on the Prairie) and Slate (Those Happy Golden Years: More Than 80 Years Later, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s True Story is Published). A representative of the publisher describes it best: “Wilder’s fiction, her autobiography, and her real childhood as she lived it are three distinct things, but they are closely intertwined, and readers will enjoy seeing how they reflect one another. Even more interesting, though, are the places where one story differs from another, and Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Edition explores these differences too.”