When I was a girl, my mother gave me The Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the first of the “Little House” books, which were favorites of hers when she was a girl. I loved that book, and the rest of the series, dearly and read each book several times. It is my family’s story: all four of my grandparents were children of pioneers who arrived on the prairies of Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa in covered ox wagons after long treks across Indiana, Illinois, or Wisconsin or in wooded southern Indiana after long treks through Tennessee and Kentucky. I use the term “pioneer” here to mean “people settling and farming on land which had not previously been settled by Europeans.” The parents of my grandparents came from families who were in the Appalachian Mountains at the time of Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark, frontiersmen who fought in the boarder wars before, during, and after the Revolution, early settlers of Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and North Carolina. The family of my grandmother, Hazel Lewis Parsons, carried the story of their descent from the same Lewis family as Meriwether Lewis down through the generations and across the plains. I have not yet “proved” that fact, but old family stories often have elements of truth.
A couple of years ago, I purchased the entire set of Little House books and re-read them. I was astonished at what I understood from an adult perspective: a layer of sadness and failure grips the stories. When I was reading the books as a child, I was enthralled with the adventures and the sense of exploration as the family moved to new homes. As an adult, I saw the little family struggling to survive, to find success, to find a place to thrive. Pa moves the family from here to there, looking for land and work. A good carpenter, he is not a successful farmer. Ma grows more careworn as the years pass, losing a child [not in the books, but in real life] and coping with their daughter Mary’s blindness.The hardships they endure in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Kansas are so typical of pioneer families, including my own. Some thrive in the new settlements on the prairie, but others wither, crushed by hardships and deaths.
Like Laura’s family, all of my pioneer lines were farmers, farming land they received from the government in land patents for military service or bought after working/renting first. Very few had the cash to plunk down to buy a farm. They lived close to the land; it was their livelihood, their insurance, their inheritance. From the old pictures, the family farms are modest and neat, not hard-scrabble. However, the families who settled in Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and North Carolina at first lived in Abe Lincoln type log cabins, building more prosperous frame homes later.
In the Colonial days, some Old Virginia families practiced primogeniture, the land going to the oldest son; at first, German families followed similar practices. Quakers generally divided their inheritances equally. The old farm families followed the traditions of their native lands, but as the young democracy took hold and grew, dividing the land equally among the children became the common practice, or at least finding a way to make the inheritance equal became the practice, such as affluent fathers buying more land to help their children get started. With such large families, often 10-15 pregnancies in a woman’s lifetime, the older children had to strike out on their own, with one of the younger children staying on the “home” farm or perhaps a grandchild remaining to care for the family land and aging parents. Often, though, in my family, aging or widowed parents were taken along as the family migrated. The 1850 U.S. Census is the first to record everyone’s name, age, and birthplace, making it possible to see the migration patterns. It is interesting to see these practices in my family lines across many generations. Several of my mother’s family lines meet in Ohio–Patton, Marsh, Lewis–including one marriage in Hamilton, Ohio [now Butler County] in 1792–and other lines settled in Southern Ohio around 1800-1820. By 1810, the Indiana Territory is opened for settlement, and my mother’s Lewis, Starry, Patton, and Riner lines are settlers in the mid-to-late 1820’s. By 1850, the younger generation is moving on to Illinois and by 1870, many are moving on to Kansas. In 1848, my father’s grandfather, Davis Rogers Doud, D.R.’s mother Martha Rogers Doud, and several brothers, sisters, cousins, and spouses, migrate from Trumbell County in eastern Ohio to Illinois and settle in Grundy County. D. R. Doud and his two younger brothers were farmers and Methodist circuit rider ministers. After the Civil War, the younger generation in most of these families moved on to Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska. Interestingly, a Doud line lived right down the road from the Lewis-Riner families in Jewell County, Kansas, although no one knew the connection until I began researching. That Kansas Doud was a first cousin of my grandmother Harriet Doud Shafer, son of her father’s older brother Israel Doud, who settled in Iowa.
In re-reading the “Little House” books, I was also struck by her family’s isolation from their extended family. Reading the later biographies of Laura and her daughter Rose, I learned that was not completely true; the connections were just not included in the stories. Both of Laura’s parents came from large families and occasionally they visit with relatives or relatives stop to visit with them. Still, they did not travel in family groups the way earlier generations of my family traveled. When I studied the 1880 plat map of Burr Oak Township in Jewell County, Kansas, I was startled. Down two roads are farm after farm of Lewis and Riner cousins or siblings—Pangborns, Drakes, Skeels, Millers, Grubbs, Lewis. They came in small groups over a period of 10-12 years from Onarga, Illinois, settled, raised their families, and died; their bones rest in the beautiful old Burr Oak Cemetery. Earlier generations of these same families had traveled together in groups from Ohio and Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois. Some in the next generation, like my grandparents, my mother and her sister, moved back east, while others of their cousins moved on to Colorado and California. Inferring the isolation of the Ingalls family made me sad, just as I have been heartened to trace the intertwined relationships of my Riner-Lewis families and their cross-country, multi-generation, migration with family and friends. Quite a few of us are still out here in the heartland.