When you mention the name Eliza Jane Wilder to readers of Little House, they immediately think of Laura’s former teacher that had a difficult time teaching her class and keeping her pupils focused on their lessons. Laura and Eliza Jane did not get along then and they never became particularly close after becoming sisters-in-law. Was Eliza Jane really like the person described in Laura’s books? Research shows that she wasn’t. Laura perceived Eliza Jane’s character when she was a young girl and wrote her in a way that children could relate to. Was everything that Laura said about Eliza Jane wrong? I would say no. No one will ever know for sure what the relationship was like between the two women, nor will we know the true personality of Eliza Jane Wilder. However, for this blog I wanted to talk about the woman behind the character and hopefully shed a new light on Eliza Jane’s life.
Eliza Jane Wilder was born in Malone, New York in 1850. She was the third child of James and Angeline Wilder and joined her older sister, Laura, and older brother, Royal. The family lived a comfortable life in New York. Angeline and James were equal partners when it came to their farm and expected hard work and determination when it came to their children. The couple also believed an education was necessary and enrolled all of their children in Franklin Academy, a boarding school in Malone. Eliza Jane excelled in school and taught her first school at age 19. While teaching wasn’t her only profession through the years, Eliza Jane relied on it throughout her life. It was a way for her to earn extra money when she needed it.
Angeline Wilder’s brother and the Day family relocated to Western Minnesota. While James Wilder was visiting his wife’s family, he fell in love with the land and decided to buy a farm near the town of Spring Valley. He moved his entire family there, but Royal, Almanzo, and Eliza Jane stayed behind to run the farm in Malone. Eliza Jane became the woman of the house. She was in charge of the cooking and cleaning and she was also teaching a school during this time as well. The three siblings eventually joined their family in Minnesota a year later. The land boom in 1879 caught the attention of Eliza Jane and her two brothers. They heard about “free land” and thought the best place to homestead would be in the town of De Smet, where the railroad was currently being built. Eliza Jane, Royal, and Almanzo all filed on their own homesteads, paying $14.50 in fees. The three claims neighbored each other. Eliza Jane’s adjoined the soon to be town of De Smet, SD.
Almanzo built a small shanty on his sister’s homestead and Eliza Jane paid for her land to be broken up and corn and potatoes to be planted. She spent a lot of time tending to her garden. She planted sweet corn ,peas, beans, lettuce and kept the garden watered and free of weeds. Eliza Jane would have a difficult time on her homestead in the years ahead. Like many homesteaders, she dealt with the loss of crops and a dwindling amount of cash. She would spend days on her homestead alone, listening to the wind that never stopped. During the infamous long winter, Eliza Jane stayed with her parents in Spring Valley. She heard about the conditions back in De Smet and was glad that she didn’t have to experience them herself.
Eliza Jane returned to De Smet that spring and continued to work on her homestead. Later that year in September she was offered the teaching position at the new school in town. She reluctantly accepted the position and started school. Two of her students would be Laura and Carrie Ingalls. Eliza Jane didn’t write much about her time teaching, only that she was extremely tired once it ended. For the next couple of years, Eliza Jane continued to improve her homestead, but she constantly faced set back after set back. She began having trouble with her health and friends and family tried to convince her to sell her land and do less strenuous work. She finally gave into their demands and moved to Washington, DC in 1888. Here, she worked for the Appointments Division of the Department of the Interior and was a secretary. Eliza Jane was a very big supporter for equal rights and made friends with fellow suffragists while in Washington. In 1892, Eliza Jane returned to Spring Valley, MN. She did not stay for long, however, because she met Thomas Jefferson Thayer and the two began courting. The Thayer family was also from Franklin County, NY, and the two families may have already been acquainted.
Thomas was an older, rich, retired gentleman who lived in Crowley, Louisiana. The two got married on September 6, 1893 and eventually made their home in Crowley. Eliza Jane became the homemaker and mother to Thomas’s 6 year old daughter, Etta. At the age of 44, Eliza Jane became pregnant with her first child. She have birth to a son on June 15, 1894 and named him Walcott Wilder Thayer. Eliza Jane loved her life in the south and wanted her family to join her. She convinced some of her siblings and her parents to move to Crowley and invest in a rice farming venture that eventually left the family in financial ruin. Eliza Jane’s husband passed away in February 1899, leaving behind his wife and their four year old son. Once again, Eliza Jane was alone. She continued to live in Crowley and invited her niece, Rose Wilder Lane, to live with her while Rose finished her high school career. The two women hit it off. Rose looked up to her aunt and adopted her feminist views. The two often attended political meetings, which might have influenced Rose’s future view on politics. After Rose graduated and returned home to Mansfield, Eliza Jane married Maxwell Gordan on July 1, 1904. She had met him through her political work. Their marriage wasn’t successful. He was always in financial trouble and feared that he would be the cause of Eliza Jane losing her home and assets. Maxwell left Eliza Jane sometime in the early 1910s.
Eliza Jane’s son, Wilder, was now grown and out of the house. She decided to live with her younger brother, Perley’s, family. They also lived in Louisiana. Eliza Jane became a door to door salesman, selling soap. She was finally able to establish her own home in Lafayette and she spent the rest of her life in her little home. She enjoyed the days spent with her grandchildren, often telling them stories of her experiences out west. In 1930, Eliza Jane became ill. During the next few months she suffered two separate strokes but did not pass away until June 1, 1930. She was 80 years old.
Eliza Jane lived during the period of history where women were seen as inferior to men. She didn’t conform to the social norms that were expected. Instead, she became a farmer, business woman, feminist, wife, and mother during her long life. Despite suffering many hardships, Eliza Jane didn’t let them stop her from achieving what she wanted.
Want to learn more about Eliza Jane Wilder? Purchase a copy of A Wilder in the West by William Anderson and learn more about her life!
Anderson, William. A Wilder in the West. Anderson Publications, 1985.