The Mystery of Ma’s China Shepherdess

A Modern Mystery

The china shepherdess has always been a favorite Ingalls family belonging from the Little House series. However, the whereabouts of the shepherdess have become a modern mystery. The following research explains what is known about the little china figurine:

  • Mrs. Irene Le Count of the Wilder home in Mansfield, Missouri, personally asked Laura about the figurine. Laura replied, “Since it was Ma’s I did not bring it with me to Missouri.” Laura also added, “I have to admit, I didn’t know what happened to it.”
  • Noted historian William Anderson has also researched the topic. His research reveals that most of the family belongings ended up with Carrie Ingalls, and many of the Ingalls’ family items were scattered with the death of each family member. At the time of Carrie’s death, there was a small four-inch bisque figurine of a shepherd, but not a shepherdess.
  • Later findings included a letter from Laura which is now housed in a Detroit public library rare book and gift room in the Wilder collection. Laura wrote, “Sister Carrie has the china shepherdess.”

After much research and debate, the question still remains – where is the china shepherdess?

Quotes from the Books

It is easy to see why Laura fans have come to love the china shepherdess. Laura mentioned the figurine multiple times in her books:

  • Little House in the Big Woods, page 62
  • Little House on the Prairie, page 117
  • On the Banks of Plum Creek, page 301 and 315
  • By the Shores of Silver Lake, page 265 and 283
  • Little Town on the Prairie, page 18

Laura’s Description

“The little china woman had a china bonnet on her head, and china curls hung against her china neck. Her china dress was laced across in front, and she wore a pale pink china apron and little gilt china shoes. She was beautiful, standing on the shelf with flowers and leaves and birds and moons carved all around her, and the large star at the very top.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods, page 62

An Artist’s Interpretation

Although we cannot be sure of how the china shepherdess may have looked, Laura’s descriptive literary power is certainly helpful. Based on the quotes and descriptions from the book, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society in De Smet commissioned an artist to hand paint and recreate the china shepherdess. The shepherdess is for sale in the gift shop for $39.95, plus shipping and handling.


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15 comments on “The Mystery of Ma’s China Shepherdess

  1. carol wunderlich says:

    Hi I am writing concerning the whereabouts of Ma’s china shepherdess. I read in a book some time ago that it was believed that Carrie had it and it was believed to now be in a museum in Key Stone, SD where she used to live. Can 

  2. carol wunderlich says:

    Sorry my email accidently sent before I was finished with it. Concerning Ma’s china shepherdess. I read in a book some where that it may be in a museum in Key Stone, SD where Carrie used to live. I’ve always wanted to go out there and look for myself. Can you confirm if it is there or not or have you ever heard this about its whereabouts? I would love to know. Thanks, Carol Wunderlich

    • Sara Martin says:

      Yes, there is a figurine Shepherd in Keystone, SD. I have seen it and photographed it both times I’ve gone there along with many of Carrie’s belongings. If you ever go to Mt. Rushmore, Keystone is at the base of the mountain and you can visit Carrie’s belongings in the museum there. As I recall, it was free.

  3. pmaghamfar says:

    That’s interesting, thank you for sharing!

  4. Misti says:

    In summer of 2000 I was in Keystone SD. At there museum there is a china shepherdess in a glass case. The lady running the museum said she was the great niece of Carrie (by marriage ) and they believe the china doll there is Ma’s shepherdess. The found it in Carries belonging after she passed. Has any one else seen this?

  5. Connie in Colorado says:

    Readers might want to know that the shepherd figurine prototype is on display in the Keystone (SD) Museum with many of Carrie’s belongings from her long life there.

  6. sacklen says:

    I was wondering when “Pioneer Girl” is coming out. I am on the waiting list.

    Thank you.

    Susan Acklen Plattsburgh, NY (about 35 miles from Burke, NY where Almanzo’s boyhood home is 🙂

    Sent from my iPad


  7. Carolyn says:

    So interesting! The prototype is lovely but I envisioned the colors to be more muted and subtle. So wonderful to imagine it proudly displayed in Laura’s childhood homes!

  8. Robin Schuler says:

    I have always wonder where Ma’s china shepherdess came from. Did she buy it, was it given to her by someone special to her?

    • lori says:

      When Caroline went to live with her aunt an uncle to go to school to be a teacher her aunt had many figures an when her schooling was finished her aunt gave it to her.

      • Dan & Robin Schuler says:

        Thank you so much! I have read some of the Caroline years books, guess I haven’t read that one yet.

  9. bgfairweather says:

    Isn’t it funny/sad that we probably all have little knick knacks like this laying around and we don’t care a whit for them and think they are in the way, but back then people treasured these things like gold. Says a lot about how far (in a bad way!) we’ve come. Sure wish we could go back to the simpler times and appreciate the little things even more!

  10. randomreader says:

    Hello there! I seem to recall in one of the reprints of the books, with illustrations by Garth Williams, that a drawing of the shepherdess included the shepherdess’ hook. It’s how one can tell that the figurine is supposed to represent a shepherdess and is not just a figure of a female. I would most humbly submit that the shepherdess being sold in the gift shop could be tweaked, design-wise, to include this very important feature.

  11. Carolyn says:

    Page 53 of William Anderson’s book, “Laura Ingalls Wilder Country” includes a photo of a figurine found in Carrie’s possessions.

  12. Debbie says:

    I do wish the reproduction china shepherdess was like the picture/drawing. I would love it to be more identical to that image. That is the vision I have of it having looked at it when reading the books starting in my childhood years. I still read them to this day!

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