The Long Winter: What really happened?

The winter of 1880-1881 was one of the worst winters that South Dakota had ever seen. Blizzards began in early October and continued into late April, bringing catastrophic conditions to the western plains.  The blizzards themselves would come every few days and last 2-3 days. Houses were completely covered and trains were trapped on the tracks. Men attempted to clear the way for trains, but it ended up being a lost cause when another blizzard arrived. Newly formed towns, like De Smet, were quickly running out of supplies. Settlers soon found themselves without food and a way to keep warm. At this point in history, it was rare to see a tree on the Dakota prairie. The town of De Smet had one lone tree standing, otherwise it was flat, open prairie. Once they ran out of coal and wood wasn’t an option, settlers began to burn hay. Pa and Laura would spend hours making the hay into twists. It would take a lot of them to keep the back room of the store building warm. Food was becoming scarce. Laura describes Ma using her coffee grinder to make the seed wheat into flour, which was a long and exhausting task. The family lived on bread for a couple of months. By the end of the winter, Laura never wanted to see brown bread again.

long winter

A train trapped in snow during the winter of 1880-1881

Laura originally titled her sixth book The Hard Winter, but the publisher thought that children wouldn’t want to read about something that was “hard”, so Laura agreed to change it to The Long Winter instead. Laura also chose to leave out a very big detail when it came to this book. The Ingalls’ were not alone in the store building Pa had built. A young couple, named George and Maggie Masters, and their newborn son lived with the Ingalls the entire winter.  George Masters was the son of Walnut Grove schoolmaster Uncle Sam. He had moved out west and started working for the De Smet railroad. He brought his Scottish wife, Maggie, with him. The situation with the young couple was a difficult one. Caroline Ingalls said that Maggie would have a baby, but to soon after the time she was married. George’s family were disgraced that he had married Maggie and refused to let the couple stay with them. They had no where to go and the Ingalls felt bad for them. The couple’s stay was supposed to be brief. When winter set in the Ingalls had no choice but to let them stay. The alternative would be kicking them out in the street. The Ingalls family would soon find out that the hard winter was going to be even worse than expected.


Around one hundred people were trapped in De Smet during the long winter. Pa was stuck with nine mouths to feed instead of six. Servings got smaller and smaller as the winter dragged on. George was usually the first one at the table and always took more than his share. Laura despised the man for his careless attitude towards other people. He never helped Pa with chores. Instead, he would stay huddled by the stove with his wife and son. When it came time to grind seed wheat into flour, Maggie took no part in helping Ma and Mary. She sat in one of the prime spots near the stove and left the household chores to everyone else as well. George told Pa that he would pay his part of living expenses once he found work in the spring. In Pioneer Girl, Laura wrote that he paid a “scant” amount next fall. When winter was over and the Masters finally left, Laura wasn’t ashamed to be happy about it.

Laura did not include the Masters in The Long Winter because she wanted to keep the focus on her family and their struggles. In a letter written to her daughter Rose, she further explained her decision, saying the couple would have to be portrayed “as they were and that would spoil the story” (Pioneer Girl 215). Laura was happy when she finished writing The Long Winter because it had been a trying time for her and her family. She felt like she had been transported back to that time and in no way did she want to relive it for longer than she had to.


Fraser, Caroline. Prairie Fires. New York, Metropolitan Books, 2017.

Wilder, Laura I, and Pamela Smith Hill. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. Pierre, South Dakota Historical Society, 2014.

5 comments on “The Long Winter: What really happened?

  1. Debbie says:

    I hate that their time in The Long Winter was even worse. It is my favorite of the series.

  2. ourgildedabode15 says:

    This book is my favorite and I especially love to read it in the Winter to set the mood for trying to relate to what they went through.

    I’m glad Laura didn’t include the Masters in the book … it made for a better story and the negativity of the Masters’ careless attitudes would have taken away from the Ingalls’ survival as a close-knit family.

  3. Chellsheart says:

    Thank you Whitney for writing this. I appreciate this blog and all the others. It makes me feel even more thankful for the hardships we have today in comparison to Laura’s. She and her family endured so much, times were different back then, although hardships are difficult we can be thankful for today’s are not as hard as they could be. Thanks for putting a “new” perspective on my Iowa winters!

  4. Therese Klopfenstein says:

    The interesting thing about Laura’s story about the Masters family in Pioneer Girl is that it doesn’t fit the facts. George and Maggie Master’s oldest son, Arthur Kingsbury Masters was not born during the Hard Winter at all, but well before then, on May 23, 1880. The Masters undoubtedly stayed with the Ingalls family during the Long Winter, but Arthur would have been a five or six month old baby when they moved in with the them.

    Also, according to LIW researcher and author Nancy Cleaveland, George and Maggie were married in July 1879 so theirs was not a “shotgun” wedding at all, despite what Laura surmised. At times, she remembered things incorrectly, or made things up to write a more interesting story. It would appear that there is more to this story than first meets the eye…..

  5. Christine says:

    I’ve been listening to the audio version of The Long Winter as we go through a long Wisconsin winter. I have really enjoyed listening to the story of Laura and her family surviving through a tough and challenging winter. It does give some perspective to how much better things are today versus back then. What I enjoy most about the story is how they used such simple things, such as reading memorized text aloud to keep them “warm.” And how their Ma helps keep their spirits bright despite the cold, desolate conditions they were dealing with. Thank you for sharing your insight to what really happened. It is an interesting article.

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