Racism in the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder

This conversation is one that comes up regularly. As a historian, educator, interpreter, and lifelong scholar of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have commented on this topic hundreds of times, and will continue to encourage intelligent, fact-based discussion rooted in the real events of United States history. In fact, a few years ago I developed an hour-long presentation entitled “Why Does Ma Hate the Indians?: Responding to Loaded Questions in First-Person Interpretation.” In it, I open discussion on the topic with a focus on how interpreters and other educators can navigate the most difficult aspects of our collective history while remaining true to the facts–not only the facts of the individual being interpreted, but also the context within which that person functioned–while facilitating essential discussion about historic issues which continue to plague our modern society.
I am of the conviction that banning work such as the Little House series of books is counterproductive. I am also of the conviction that changing Wilder’s text would be dishonest to readers and to history. Laura’s not here to make that decision whether or how to change the character as written. Remember, too, that these are novels–works of fiction–and the portrayal of the character Caroline isn’t necessarily a true representation of the real person. However, it is quite likely that many of Laura’s relatives and other people Laura knew held racist beliefs and may have acted in oppressive ways. The mere existence of the Homestead Act is proof that white supremacy was policy, and often rule of law, in the US. Millions of people were complicit, and most of them probably didn’t give it much thought in terms of the disastrous impact it had on Indigenous Americans. 
Furthermore, I am of the conviction that any reader who finds Wilder’s work too upsetting to continue reading (or sharing with others) has every right to put the book down and never look at it again. I’m never going to admonish someone for drawing the line and saying they simply cannot bear to read something that is painful to them. 
But: we who are educators, fans, and interpreters of work such as Wilder’s have an obligation to those we engage with about that work. If we are educators, we particularly owe it to those we serve to have honest, intelligent, and meaningful discourse. We simply MUST acknowledge the racist content, the events and socio-political motivations that underpin the content, and recognize the pervasive damage that resulted from those beliefs and actions in real life. Downplaying or brushing racism under the rug only serves to continue the oppression. 
Ultimately, it’s not our work to alter, and we shouldn’t change what Wilder said no matter how ugly it is. Rather, we should–MUST–be willing to hash it out. 
Believe me, I’m not afraid to say that there is a lot of ugly stuff in certain portions of the books. I discuss it regularly in my public presentations. But I still don’t think the work of any author or artist should be altered by other people. We don’t have to like the character or the narrative. But it isn’t ours to change. 
What IS ours is a duty to learn from the past and work to improve our society with a goal of achieving total equality. So let’s be honest about it, have the dialogue, and work to improve things for the current and future generations.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/realize-classic-books-childhood-racist/

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130 Years Ago Today: Almanzo Wilder’s Homestead Proof, 12 September 1884.

Here’s a little something pleasant for your perusal this fine, but chilly, September morning:

Almanzo James Wilder’s Homestead Proof, testimony dated exactly 130 years ago, 12 September 1884.

A.J. Sheldon, a nearby neighbor, sets his hand to testify on “our” A.J. Wilder’s behalf that, indeed, he is qualified, being a citizen of the U.S., over the age of 21, who has never made a previous homestead entry (at least, not to conclusion) and kept continuous residence on this section of land (NE 21-111-56), with a dwelling:

“about 12 ft. square, 2 doors, 3 windows. Stable. frame. Well of water. cellar. acres broken & cultivated. some trees. Value at least $300.00.”

You see, early this morning, I received a Google alert from New Zealand, which looked like this: http://foreignaffairs.co.nz/2014/09/12/homestead-testimony-of-almanzo-wilder/

Unfortunately, the link didn’t want to load all the images, so while the description was intact, the actual document was not in view.

But, with a little hunting and pecking, the National Archives record (National Archives Identifier: 595419) came up rather quickly, because I know you want to SEE it…with the original handwriting, syntax, capitalization, punctuation, and signatures intact…

http://research.archives.gov/description/595419

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Let’s note a few details, shall we?

Since the Homestead Act of 1862 required that the claimant remain in continuous residence for six months out of each year for five years, Sheldon’s purpose as witness to Wilder’s claim was to testify that Wilder had indeed fulfilled the various stipulations of the Act, prior to receiving his patent (deed) to the land. It was also required that the land be “improved,” i.e. cultivated, and that no evidence of precious minerals, oil, or the like, was present. The witness had to be someone living nearby to the claimant, so as to be a reliable authority on the claimant’s, er, claims. That witness also needed to swear his own statements were true, and that he did not hold a personal stake in the claimant’s success. Like Wilder, Sheldon also was a farmer, and one whose statements appear to be articulate as well as thoughtful. A reliable fellow for the task at hand, Sheldon supported all of the necessary requirements for Wilder. To wit:

Sheldon lists his own address as SW 10-111-56 (that is, SW quarter of Section 10, Township 111, Range 56), putting him within an easy distance of Wilder’s homestead. He states he is “well acquainted with Almanzo J Wilder, the claimant…“for about 5 yrs. he had taken his land at Yankton about 3 weeks before I met him.” 

He further attests Wilder “was temporarily absent at times working on the R.R. and visiting in Minn. not more than about 2 months at a time.”  

and:

“crops on (in?) past 4 years. breaking 5 yrs. acre(s) cultivated. about 20 acres of wheat this year. 1884.”

The best part?  Sheldon’s answer to the following:

“Question 10. Are you interested in this claim, and do you think the settler has acted in entire good faith in perfecting this entry?”  

“no. nor am I in any way related to claimant. think he has acted in good faith. AJ Sheldon”

A good neighbor. I’m sure Almanzo was relieved to get that little detail squared away. Because our man had some serious courting to get to! And, while we know that Miss Laura E. Ingalls would soon become Mrs. A.J. Wilder (“Bessie” as our man of the hour called her), I bet fellow researcher Nancy Cleaveland* could tell us all about helpful Mr. A. J. Sheldon’s own property, his place and family of origin, his own homestead, and what he did with the rest of his life. Probably, she has a photo of him somewhere, I reckon. Except, “I wouldn’t bet on a woman.” Wouldn’t be proper.

Finally, while that little house and its builder are both long gone, Kingsbury County still holds a great deal of charm for the visitor who revels in a hot Dakota summer. Here’s what the property looked like just a couple of years ago on a stunning Sunday afternoon:

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Nice warm thought on a not-so-warm morning. You’re welcome.

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*She’s reliably the most likely person to have researched him, simply because no one, and I mean no one, has spent more time squirreling out the nitty-gritty details of every soul who once settled in Kingsbury County. I say that with the utmost respect. NC is my research hero. And a generous friend, to boot.