Let’s Have A Good Old-Fashioned Birthday Party

birthday girl

Laura Ingalls Wilder at the dedication of the Wilder Library in Mansfield.

 

One hundred and fifty years ago this February, something very special happened to the world. At the time of its occurrence, however, only a few friends and family members knew about it. The two people in the world that were the most excited about this special event were 31-year-old Charles Ingalls and his 27-year-old wife, Caroline Ingalls. Two-year-old Mary Amelia Ingalls may have also been a bit excited too, because the special thing that had happened was the birth of her baby sister, Laura Elizabeth Ingalls.

Beloved author of the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was born in a little log house near the town of Pepin, Wisconsin, on February 7, 1867. This year, in celebration of her 150th birthday, our blog will be featuring a number of posts about Laura’s birthdaysthe ones she writes about in the Little House series as well as the ones she doesn’t write about. These posts will give you a taste of what birthdays and celebrations were like for kids growing up on the prairie the good old Pioneer Days.

To start us off, let’s take a look at some basic facts about birthday parties in the 1800s.

According to an article entitled “A Brief History of Birthday Parties,” birthday parties in the Victorian era were often “large and extravagant” events thrown by the parents on behalf of the birthday kid. These sorts of birthday parties required enough room for a ball and the help of plenty of servants. It wasn’t exactly your average “pin the tale on the donkey” sort of party. (Check out this article for more information about the history of birthday parties.)

Of course, Laura and her family wouldn’t have been able to pull off birthday parties like these extravagant Victorian parties. But how about birthday cakes and the birthday song? Would Laura at least have had those? Well, according to a Huffington Post article, although the birthday song wouldn’t become a thing until the 1920s, birthday cakes were around by the time of Laura’s childhood. In fact, late 18th century Germany was the originator of the whole contemporary birthday-cake-with-candles tradition. (Take a look at this article for more birthday trivia.) But birthday cakes in the Little House books just doesn’t seem to be much of a thing. If that’s the case, then, what exactly did Laura do for her birthdays?

In order to find that out, we’ll just have to look and see what Laura said herself. Come back next time and join us as we take a look at Laura’s birthday in Little House in the Big Woods.

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Charlotte Wallis Tucker Quiner Holbrook

5In our last two posts, we spent some time talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s grandmother, Charlotte. Most recently, we learned about her travels from New England to Ohio and from Ohio to Indiana and later Wisconsin with her husband, Henry Quiner, and their growing family. Within the first six years of her time in Wisconsin, however, Charlotte became a widow. Henry drowned in a shipwreck in Lake Michigan in 1845, and Charlotte was left in the Wisconsin woods with her six children who were all under the age of eleven.

violets

The violet is the state flower of Wisconsin, the birthplace of Charlotte’s daughter and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother, Caroline Lake Quiner.

Martha Quiner Carpenter, Charlotte’s oldest daughter of the children who survived to adulthood, recounts in a letter to Laura Ingalls Wilder that her mother sold the claim that she and her husband Henry had settled on and bought another nearby. They made the move in 1847. William Anderson, in his biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, explains that the family was able to farm on this new land. As Martha describes it, “When [my mother, Charlotte,] had a piece of land cleared she would take her spade and hoe to make the garden, [and] plant her corn and potatoes among the stumps. It was no easy work I can tell you. She went at it with a will.” The family also had bees on their farm and would have harvested the honey as well as the crops they planted.

The year after the family moved to this new farm, Charlotte remarried. The man she married was named Frederick Holbrook. By this time, Charlotte’s full name would have been Charlotte Wallis Tucker Quiner Holbrook, Wallis being her middle name, Tucker her maiden name, and Quiner the surname from her first marriage.

William Anderson explains that Frederick purchased the land next to the Quiner farm so that the family could have more space to plant crops and let their animals graze. By the 1850 census, Frederick Holbrook, Charlotte, and all of her kids appear listed together as living in the town of Concord in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. According to the record, Frederick was also from back east, having been born in Connecticut. The census lists him as a farmer by trade. His age is also recorded in this account, and it appears as if he was about 11 years younger than Charlotte, who would have been 39 when she remarried.

In January of 1854, Charlotte and Frederick had their only child together, a very pretty little girl named Charlotte E. She would grow up to be the “Aunt Lottie” that Laura Ingalls Wilder talks about in Little House in the Big Woods, the aunt who answers Laura and Mary’s question about whether she likes brown or golden hair better.

In the 1860 census, the Quiner-Holbrook family is still listed as living in the town of Concord. However, by the 1870 census, the family has moved to the town of Sullivan in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. According to modern maps, Concord and Sullivan are only about 5 miles apart. Sixteen-year-old Lottie is the only one of the Quiner-Holbrook children still living at home in 1870 since all of the other children were out of the house or married by that time.

Sadly, by the 1880 census, Charlotte had become a widow for the second time in her life. Her husband Frederick died in February of 1874. He was not even 55 years old. After his death, Charlotte moved in with her youngest daughter, Lottie, who had married a man named Henry Moore. Charlotte most likely stayed with them for the rest of her life. She passed away in 1884 at the age of 75 and was buried next to her second husband, Frederick Holbrook, in the Hoffman Cemetery in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. Their tombstones can still be visited today.

A sign that sits between these two graves describes Charlotte as the “Mother of Caroline Quiner Ingalls” and “Grandmother of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series.” Laura would pass on the pioneering legacy of her grandmother Charlotte for generations to come through the stories told in her beloved books.

Grandma Charlotte: The Original Pioneer Girl

Last time, I introduced you to Charlotte Wallis Tucker, the grandmother of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Although we don’t know much about Charlotte’s early life (even her birth date is uncertain), we actually have quite a few details about Charlotte’s life after her marriage to the silversmith named Henry Quiner, mostly thanks to a letter written by Charlotte’s daughter Martha Quiner Carpenter to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

After outlining the details of her mother’s marriage, Martha spends some time discussing the early years of her family. One thing that she skips over in her account is the birth of her only older sister, Martha Morse Quiner, whom Charlotte named after her own mother. I’m not sure if Martha was born in New Haven or elsewhere, but, thanks to a Quiner family tree from the Memorial Society archives, we do know that she was born in the year 1832.

carnation

The scarlet carnation is the state flower of Ohio, the birthplace of Charlotte’s first two sons.

Although I found no records to back this up, I agree with Laura’s Aunt Martha that her parents likely lived in New Haven for those first three years, moving to Cincinnatti, Ohio, in 1834. With this move, Charlotte left New England for the first time. By leaving New England, the place where both her mother and father spent their whole lives, Charlotte began the westward movement that would continue throughout the lives of Caroline Quiner and Charles Ingalls, Laura’s Ma and Pa.

According to Martha, Charlotte’s first two sons, Joseph and Henry, were born during the family’s time in Ohio. Later census records confirm this. According to the Quiner family tree that I had on hand during my research, “Joseph Carpenter Quiner” was born in 1834 and his younger brother, “Henry Odin Quiner,” in 1835. A year after Henry’s birth, in 1836, the oldest Quiner child, Martha Morse Quiner, passed away around the age of 4.

peony

The peony is the state flower of Indiana, the birthplace of Charlotte’s second daughter, Martha.

The family’s next move was to Richmond, Indiana. Here, in the Hoosier State, the second Quiner daughter was born. Her name was also Martha. According to this Martha’s 88-year-old self, “Martha Jane Quiner” was born on November 6, 1837.

The fifth Quiner child was also a daughter. She was born in 1839 after the young family made their next move westward to Wisconsin. According to William Anderson’s biographical account of the Ingalls and Quiner families, this child was said by some to be the first non-Indian baby born in the Milwaukee area. Her name was Caroline Lake Quiner, and she would grow up to be the mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

After Caroline’s birth, two other children were born to Charlotte and Henry in Wisconsin. Eliza Ann Quiner was born in 1842, followed by Thomas Lewis Quiner about two years later.

Around the same time as Thomas’ birth, tragedy entered Charlotte’s life. During a trading expedition to the Straits of Mackinac in 1844, Charlotte’s husband Henry and the entire rest of his ship drowned in a violent storm on Lake Michigan. This left Charlotte alone in the Wisconsin wilderness with six young children in her care.

For more facts about the rest of Charlotte’s life as a Wisconsin pioneer, be sure to keep an eye out for our next post in this series.

Charlotte Tucker’s Early Years

Back in August, we explored the life of Martha Morse, the great-grandmother of Laura Ingalls Wilder, trying to pin down a few actual “facts” about her life that we know as opposed to the fictional accounts that we find in The Martha Years series by Melissa Wiley. Wiley based her stories on an account of Martha Morse given by one of the Martha’s great-granddaughters, Grace Ingalls Dow, who said that Martha was the daughter of a Scottish laird. Although Grace’s account does not line up with the few details we actually have about Martha’s life (as you’ll remember from a previous post), Wiley’s stories likely expound on the life that the Ingalls girls thought their great-grandmother lived. Because of a lack of records and first-hand accounts, specific stories surrounding the events of Martha’s life have, sadly, been lost to time.

When it comes to the early life of Martha’s daughter and Laura’s grandmother, Charlotte Tucker, history is similarly silent. Since I was unable to find a record of Charlotte’s birth, I also have little to no knowledge of where she grew up or when she was born. According to her gravestone, her birth year was 1809. The exact date is not listed, but I did find a picture of a sign erected near her gravestone by the Town of Sullivan Historical Society in Wisconsin that says she was born on May 25th, 1809, in Roxbury, Suffolk Co., Massachusetts. I was surprised about the specificity of this historical marker since no actual birth records for Charlotte showed up when I searched the Roxbury vital records, so I contacted the Sullivan Historical Society to see what the source of their information was. They said that the sign had been erected a few decades earlier and that they weren’t sure what source the Historical Society had used when making the sign.

Other than the unconfirmed facts from that sign, the little knowledge I do have about Charlotte’s pre-married life comes from William Anderson’s biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. According to this biography, Charlotte (like her daughter and granddaughter after her) once taught school before she married. She also attended a “female seminary” in Boston, where she received her education.

I also found a picture of a business card during my research. This card, pictured in William Anderson’s Laura’s Album on page eight, was Charlotte’s. She would have handed out copies of it to help advertise for her dressmaking business. The name on the card is listed as “Miss C. W. Tucker, dressmaker” and her location is “corner of Union and Warren Streets, Roxbury.” Thanks to this card, we know that Charlotte did, at one point prior to her marriage, live in the Roxbury section of Boston, Massachusetts. We cannot be certain that she was born there, though.

laurel

The mountain laurel is the state flower of Connecticut, the location of the church in which Charlotte Tucker married Henry Quiner.

During my search, I also found a record from the First Baptist Church in Roxbury that confirms Charlotte’s residence in Roxbury. According to the record, “Charlotte Tucker (Quiner)” was dismissed from the Roxbury Church in July 1831 in order to move “to the Church in New Haven.” It seems to be no coincidence that this very year is the year Charlotte is said to have married her husband, Henry Quiner, in New Haven, Connecticut. According to a letter that Charlotte’s daughter Martha wrote to Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1925, Charlotte and Henry were married in New Haven on April 2, 1831, by the Reverend Cushman. An actual marriage record I found said they married on the 9th, so I guess the exact date is a little uncertain. In her letter, Martha also mentions that her father was a silversmith by trade.

In the years following her marriage, Charlotte’s life starts to get more clear thanks to that letter written by her daughter. Unlike the letter from Grace about Martha Morse, the information in this letter is much more reliable because most of what Charlotte’s daughter recalls about her mother came from first-hand experiences. As she mentions at the end, however, Martha was in her late eighties when she wrote all of this, so the specific dates could very likely be inaccurate.

Check back next time to learn about some more of the information that Martha shared in her letter to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The Myths of Mary Ingalls

Last time, I rocked some of your worlds by debunking the Little House TV show myths about the Ingalls family’s adoption of Albert and the Cooper siblings.

This time, I’m going to take care of some myths that the TV show spread about the young adult life of Mary Ingalls.

mary

A photo of Mary Ingalls as a young adult.

#3 Adam Kendall

According to the TV show, Mary goes blind at the age of fifteen and attends a school for the blind in Iowa. Although this much is true about the historical Mary, the accuracy ends there. In the show, Mary eventually falls in love with her teacher at the blind school, Adam Kendall, and they marry when she is sixteen. In real life, however, Mary never fell in love with her teacher (as far as we know) and she never married. It goes without saying, but she also never moved to New York with her lawyer husband. She actually attended the school for the blind in Vinton, Iowa, for seven years between 1881 and 1889. After graduation, she returned to her parents’ home in De Smet, South Dakota, where she lived almost the entire rest of her life.

#4 The Walnut Grove School for the Blind

With all that being said, it’s important to emphasize that the historical Mary never actually helped found or teach in a school for the blind in Winoka or Walnut Grove. Thanks to her seven years of schooling in Vinton, however, Mary did become a very accomplished and educated young woman. The school for the blind allowed Mary to graduate with skills in needlework and beadwork and in playing the organ, to name a few. She could also read braille and raised type with her fingers.

#5 Baby Kendall

In the TV show, Mary becomes pregnant at least twice. The first time, she miscarries her baby boy. The second child is also a baby boy that they name “Adam Charles Holbrook Kendall.” Sadly, this baby dies in a fire that burns down the blind school in Walnut Grove. Because she never married and never helped found a school for the blind in Walnut Grove, Mary never experienced these tragedies. However, she also never experienced the joys of motherhood, even though she would have been able to spend time with Laura and Almanzo’s daughter when Rose was only a young child in De Smet.

“Little House” Myths

Here at the Memorial Society, we have visitors of all ages come from all over the country and even from across the globe. But the thing that really distinguishes one visitor from another is that visitor’s Little House “educational background.” Some of our visitors got all their facts from Laura’s original books, others researched the actual history of the Ingalls family, and still others are just familiar with the TV show. If you’re like me, you’ve dabbled in some combination of the three, and you have a strong appreciation for each of them.

We love all of our visitors, no matter what background they have, but I often feel bad for our visitors who only know the TV show. The Ingalls family history that all of us tour guides talk about here in De Smet is shockingly different from the history that people remember from the show. I always feel bad whenever I have to tell people that something from the TV show is not factual.

But that’s exactly what I’m going to do on this blog over the next few months: debunk the TV show myths so that all of you TV show fans are prepared to hear about the actual history when you make it out here to  visit our place.

Myth #1: Albert Ingalls

ingalls

A photo of the entire Ingalls family, taken circa 1894. (From left to right: Ma, Carrie, Laura, Pa, Grace, and Mary.)

I thought I should start with one of the most painful ones. Sadly, everyone’s favorite mischievous street urchin named Albert, who supposedly joined the Ingalls family while they were living in Winoka and later adopted when they moved back to Walnut Grove, is completely fictional. Charles and Caroline Ingalls did have a son at one point, however. He was born to Charles and Caroline in Walnut Grove, but he died when he was only nine months old. Charles Frederick or “Freddie,” as the family liked to call him, does appear in an early episode of Little House on the Prairie and does die as an infant. However, the historical Ingalls family never lived in a town called Winoka, and they never adopted a cute brown-eyed boy named Albert.

Myth #2: James and Cassandra

With all that being said about Albert, I guess I should just come right out and say it: the historical Ingalls family never adopted any children. And that includes the cute Cooper siblings, James* and Cassandra, whose parents die tragically in the TV show and whom the fictional Ingalls family adopts. The Ingalls parents only ever had five children: Mary, Laura, Caroline (Carrie), Charles Frederick (Freddie), and Grace. Only the four girls survived to adulthood.

Check back in the following months to learn about the other myths from the beloved Little House TV show.

*Fun fact! The actor who played the role of James Cooper Ingalls is Jason Bateman. Mr. Bateman continues to be a prolific actor today, appearing in television shows and movies such as Arrested Development, The Switch, Horrible Bosses, and Identity Thief. He even played the voice of the fox, Nick Wilde, in the recently released movie Zootopia.

 

 

Wilder’s “Little House” Books: Literary Genius

(A continuation of the previous blog post, “Wilder’s ‘Little House’ Books: Capturing Imaginations.”)

When Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books were first published, something about the stories she told made her books attractive to her contemporary readers. This “something” has continued to capture the imaginations of readers from all generations since then. As discussed in the last post in this series, this “something” that has made the books so attractive is likely the elements of truth and goodness in Wilder’s tales. At the same time, however, this sense of truth and goodness avoids the danger of becoming preachy thanks to the elements of beauty in Wilder’s storytelling. She tells her stories with sincerity, bringing them alive with her naturally engaging voice.

laura pic

Laura Ingalls Wilder as a young adult.

In a recent interview, Dr. Dedra Birzer of Hillsdale College noted Wilder’s intentions behind writing her series. Birzer acknowledged that, although Wilder did not realize the significance of what she was doing right away, she eventually came to recognize the extent of her mission as she continued to write more and more of her books. Birzer referred to a letter of Wilder’s that appears in the recently released Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder. In this letter, Wilder explains,

I began to think what a wonderful childhood I had had. How I had seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of railroads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession. I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American History. (Selected Letters, page 60)

Her intention, therefore, became to preserve this period of history for future generations through the memories she shared in her children’s books. Pamela Smith Hill, editor of Wilder’s autobiography, also noted the historical influence of Wilder’s books, saying, “Wilder’s Little House books are built on a foundation of historical authenticity. They spring from the American experience—or at least, one aspect of the American experience. This makes her books especially compelling.”

Through her books, therefore, Wilder offers a sincere depiction of the era of American history from her childhood. Wilder does not simply relay history, however. Her skill as a writer and a storyteller keeps her tales from becoming trivial and makes them truly enduring. Birzer noted that “Wilder’s subject matter, childhood on the American frontier, had widespread appeal. But her skill as a writer made her books into classics of American literature.”

According to Birzer, Wilder largely inherited her storytelling skills from her father, whose stories “first inspired her move into Juvenile Literature, which barely existed in 1932 when Little House in the Big Woods was published.” Wilder’s influence as a storyteller points to her engaging style and unique voice as well as the other powerful literary elements of her books that make them stand out among other classics.

In her interview with the Memorial Society, Hill pointed out the elements that make Wilder’s voice especially unique. “Her style is deceptively simple yet lyrical,” Hill said. “It has power, grace, and emotional depth.  Wilder knew how to balance simplicity against beauty; her language brings a scene, a character, or a setting to life. But beyond that, Wilder’s narrative voice matures as Laura—and young readers themselves—grow and change.”

It is not just Wilder’s engaging voice that makes her stories so powerful, however. The characters she depicts are powerful as well. As Birzer asserted, “Wilder’s storytelling abilities are amplified by the compelling characters she creates, and by her talent for descriptive writing.” Through this “descriptive writing,” as Birzer went on to say, Wilder is able to “[draw] Laura and Mary, Pa and Ma in such vivid strokes that readers of all ages become immediately attached to the characters and really care what happens to them.”

Hill zeroes in on the character of Laura Ingallls in particular, calling her an “unforgettable main character.” According to Hill,

[Laura] is courageous, loyal, smart, strong, hardworking, and athletic. But Laura Ingalls is also flawed…. Laura’s flaws make her believable, genuine, and ultimately timeless. Generations of readers relate to her on a uniquely personal level. We discover something of ourselves in Laura Ingalls—our virtues and our vices.

With the character of Laura Ingalls, the more personal aspects of Wilder’s own voice find an outlet. Through this literary character, Wilder depicts her historical self, allowing readers to follow her childhood likeness through the experiences of a young girl on the American frontier. Readers see this growth as Laura’s voice develops from book to book. Hill says that “the Little House narrative voice, from Wilder’s perspective, had to change and evolve, but in a consistent believable way.” The sense of Laura’s growth in these books is so powerful because Wilder was able to maintain that consistency and believability. So, as Hill asserted, “[U]ltimately, Laura is always Laura, which makes the growth and change readers experience with her all the more believable. This is a rare artistic achievement, and another reason why Wilder’s books are American literary classics.”

Through the character of Laura and through Wilder’s beautiful narrative voice, readers get to experience and enjoy the truth and goodness of her stories without being turned off by preachiness or insincerity. These stories remind our fast-paced world of the beauty to be found in the simple things in life. They are timeless because they speak of the true human experience and point to the things in life that have lasting value. This beautiful glimpse of truth and beauty in Wilder’s stories was the “something” that set Wilder’s books apart in her own time and that continues to make the books so attractive to readers today.

“As you read my stories of long ago I hope you will remember that things truly worthwhile and that will give you happiness are the same now as they were then. It is not the things you have that make you happy. It is love and kindness and helping each other and just plain being good” (Laura Ingalls Wilder).