Prairie Fires: Chapter 2

[Prairie Fires Content Note: Racism, Settler Violence, Child Abuse]

Friends, it has been a whole year and now it is time for me to re-read Prairie Fires.

Prairie Fires, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 starts off with a bang: "Laura lived within the log walls of the Pepin cabin barely more than a year before Charles Ingalls entered into a dizzying series of financial maneuvers."

"He sold the property in April of 1868 for the astonishing sum of $1,012.50, receiving $100 in cash and a promissory note for the rest. At the same time, Henry Quiner sold his eighty acres to the same farmer, a Swede named Gustaf Gustafson." Henry and Charles had gone in together on that 160 acres for $335, and apparently sold the place a year later for $2,000? That's an amazing profit in a very short time.

Whoops, sorry, factual error: they bought the land FIVE years prior. The "one year" is from Laura's birth. Still.

The increase in land value was not due to Charles' improvements (which had been minimal on his own) but rather because wheat prices skyrocketed at this time, which meant land prices went up too. This is a point we'll come to again, but farmers were utterly dependent on the rollercoaster of prices. Crops go up? Congrats, you're rich; cash in and sell everything. Crops go down? You're ruined forever, enjoy. Normally you'd want some kind of government controls to introduce stability and keep that sort of thing from happening, I'd think, which is why it's so interesting that Laura and especially Rose would slant so hard libertarian later.

This section also really foreshadows how much Charles can't "improve" the land (despite that being the white supremacy claim on why white people "deserve" the land): "Felling trees and pulling stumps in virgin forest was hazardous and difficult work. To clear an acre of forested land took 90 percent more labor than clearing an acre of prairie, demanding all the force that grown men and a team of oxen could bring to bear."

Charles is at this stage just one guy. He'll never have any adult sons and he doesn't have a team of oxen. The only way he'd ever be able to clear this land is with labor sharing (helping each other, basically). So he doesn't get much done. The land isn't used. So the decision to sell the land was probably two-fold: one, the prices were inflated and could only go down from there, and two, the land wasn't really useful for "one dude and his pregnant wife" to utilize.

"A month after the sale, [...] they bought land in the formerly slave-owning state of Missouri. It’s likely that they purchased the property sight unseen. From our vantage point, the real estate transactions resemble a game of musical chairs, rushed and transitory...Charles Ingalls and Henry Quiner bought eighty acres each for nine hundred dollars apiece, to be paid in five increasing installments. The lure: the land was a dollar down. The catch: a high interest rate of 10 percent."

*quiet screaming*

So they bought 80 acres each for ~$170 ($335/2), sold those 80 acres for ~1,000, and then promptly bought another 80 acres for ~900 at a high interest rate. Sight unseen, *knowing* that location and condition of the land mattered. There's so much to unpack here. The get-rich-quick determined belief that *any* land would yield crops easily and with little work, that prices would never come back down, that money would flow like milk and honey.

"Sometime in the spring or summer of 1869, Charles, Caroline, and their two girls made the four-hundred-mile journey down to Missouri by covered wagon...Commonly ten feet long, four feet wide, and a couple of feet deep, the “prairie schooner” could hold only essentials." Travelers were haunted by illness, gastric issues, and injury; small children had to be watched to make sure they weren't harmed by the wagon and team. You could pass the time by counting grave markers along the trail. Cooking was done over an open campfire, and pooping out in the grass.

"Children were commonly born on the trail without siblings being any the wiser as to their mother’s condition. A young girl recalled being awoken in the night by a crying baby. Asking whose it was, she was surprised to learn it was a new member of her own family." The Ingalls arrive in Missouri to find that the land they bought isn't good. "The Ingallses’ plot lay near a tributary of Yellow Creek, an area of prairie and bottomland forest, and the creek was known for flooding."

A new section opens and we're going to talk about Kansas, which had been set aside as land for indigenous nations--until white people decided they wanted that land too. Post-Civil War: "In order for the government to clear the way for farmers and the railroad lines to support them, the Indians who remained on their assigned lands would have to be permanently removed. For that, squatters were again the weapon of choice." There were rumors that Kansas was about to be opened up for purchase to white settlers, so Charles and others began squatting in anticipation of wanting to buy.

That's too euphemistic so let's try that again: There were rumors that the government would soon force indigenous folks off the lands they owned and would then sell that land to whites, so Charles began squatting on land owned by indigenous people.

Charles knew what he was doing. He knew he did not own this land. He squatted on Osage land and bet (correctly, as it would turn out) that the Osage people would be moved by the US government. There's no sugar-coating for this. Charles moved onto the Osage land during hunting season when they were away. He felled their (valuable) trees to make a little single-window log cabin that he and Caro and the girls lived in. It shouldn't really matter whether his actions "improved" the land or not--the land *was not his*--but for the record, his actions definitely did not improve the land. He essentially wasted valuable timber building a shack he had no right to build.

Laura is 3 years old. Her parents cancel the Missouri purchase: "they had either decided not to make payments or could not do so. It was the third piece of property Charles Ingalls had owned and the second relinquished for nonpayment." Worth noting that, again, the conservatives and libertarians who love the Ingalls would not be best impressed by non-white people defaulting on property they'd decided not to pay for after all--but it's okay when Charles does it.

The Ingalls all get malaria and their lives are saved by George Tann, a Black doctor who lived in the area.

Osage men come back from hunting and see the shack and the squatters; Pa starts carrying his gun everywhere and leaving the fierce dog Jack out at night. Again: He *knows* he's on their land. This is not a misunderstanding. Carrie is born small (probably because of Caro's malaria) and 10 days later a census taker comes through. "Charles Ingalls called himself a carpenter and gave the value of his personal property as two hundred dollars. The census taker left blank the column for property values, explaining the “lands belonged to the Osage Indians and settlers had no title to said Lands.”"

An agent of the federal government came to his shack and told Charles Ingalls that he was squatting on Osage land and had no right to it. Just to be really clear.

Another act of charity: "[Christmas] was saved when a neighbor bravely swam across to deliver their gifts: a “bright shining new tin cup” for each of the older girls and a beautiful stick of striped peppermint candy." It really is shocking how Laura grew up to despise charities and the giving of gifts to the less fortunate given how many of her Christmases would have had *nothing at all* were it not for the charity of others toward her family.

The Osage are driven off the land, but instead of staying "her father started putting the cover back on their wagon and hitching up the horses. They, too, were leaving. “Soldiers were taking all the white people off the Indian’s land,” she wrote." If I recall correctly, that's how one of the books end--with the soldiers removing the squatters--and it's meant to evoke the (white) reader's sympathy towards the squatters. It's also factually wrong. The squatters were permitted to stay. Fraser generously notes that Charles "may" have been confused about that, but he had another reason to return to Wisconsin: "Gustaf Gustafson, the buyer of the farm in Pepin, was unable to make further payments." Another reason Charles didn't stay: even if he'd wanted to press his claim under the Preemption Act, he would have needed fifty dollars for forty acres. He probably didn't have the money.

So to recap,

1. The government took land from the Dakota people in Wisconsin and sold it cheaply to Charles, who turned it over for a profit on credit when it became clear he couldn't clear and use the land.

2. Charles then bought, sight unseen, land in Missouri which was unsuitable for farming. He defaulted on the land and moved to Kansas instead in order to squat on Osage land and wait for the government to drive the rightful owners away.

3. When the government drove the Osage away, Charles didn't have the money to pay for the land he'd planned to buy so he went back up to the unsuitable land in Wisconsin that his buyer had defaulted on.

4. His daughter and granddaughter would immortalize this as the Bad Federal Government driving good settlers off of Osage land that the white people just sorta ~accidentally~ drove onto and settled in total good faith by accident.

I accidentally skipped the quote earlier about white people being like locusts, but that absolutely applies to the Ingalls if you map their movements and actions with any kind of objectivity. They're *destructive*.

On the trip out of Kansas, the swollen rivers nearly drown the entire family. Charles waits out the weather in Missouri after that and they room in a log cabin which catches on fire and nearly kills them. "Charles traded his horses, Pet and Patty, for a sturdier team. The troublesome bulldog Jack, who wanted to stay with the ponies “as he always did,” was traded as well."

At 1871, post-Kansas, Charles is 35. He has no male son and has just wasted the last year laboring on land he'd been ruinously squatting upon. He's a draft-dodger who put his family in harm's way and relied on the government to force rightful owners off the land. He's... not the shiny nice moralistic squeaky clean guy who Laura paints in her books and urges the child reader to love, in essence. He may well have been affable, but his actions towards the Osage were indefensible.

May of 1871, the Ingalls are back in the cabin where Laura was born--the "Big Woods" as the first book in the series would be called. "Massive clear-cutting alters climate abruptly." After decades of heavy logging in the area, the climate conditions built towards massive firestorms which plagued the summer and fall of 1871. This will NOT be the first man-made climate disaster we see. An entire nearby town burned to the ground with almost everyone in it. "Somewhere between 1,200 and 2,400 people died. One and a half million acres burned that night...To the south, in a separate event, Chicago burned, killing several hundred. ...The Peshtigo fire remains one of the largest forest fires in North American history, and the most deadly."

"As with so many of the disasters that the Ingallses lived through, there was nothing natural about it. The Midwest fires were human-caused, and their consequences would spread across the globe." This is sad and terrifying for the obvious reasons, but additionally really undercuts the whole "rugged individualism" message of the books. What good is your rugged talents when your neighbor's over-logging will cause a fiery inferno to consume you overnight? Libertarian individualism doesn't *work* when we're talking about things like climate change.

"Big Woods" implies that the girls are alone at home most days with Caro, but they have school at this time and (apparently?) walk to attend school with other young children. Another point where the books make things seem more "alone" than they really were.

The wheat market is in trouble, both from upcoming technological booms and a surplus of labor: "After serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861, millions of peasants shifted from subsistence to a market economy, raising and exporting wheat to Britain and Europe." The railroads are carrying loads of debt on the assumption that wheat (and other products) will very definitely continue to be profitable at the levels they have been.

Charles sells the cabin for $1,000 again. "Perhaps they were struggling to pay back their debt; perhaps they simply received an offer too good to refuse. Perhaps Charles wanted to live near a railroad, where grain could be shipped to market." Fraser writes: "Charles Ingalls never seemed to realize that his ambition for a profitable farm was irreconcilable with a love of untrammeled and unpopulated wilderness...Whatever motivated them to sell a comfortable, established home with plowed fields and a productive garden, the decision appears to have been yet another miscalculation, a leap into the unknown that would be repaid with disaster, heartbreak, and homelessness."

My only uncertainty is the degree to which the mistake was one. Charles was borrowing $250 that year against seeds and equipment, which he hoped to pay back when the seeds went to crop but which also indicates no savings--so no profits from previous years? If the farm wasn't making a profit, then no matter how productive the garden was the Ingalls were doomed. Probably better to get out while the price was high rather than wait until the land value fell.

Chapter 2 ends with us going into the Great Depression and I'll stop there for the night.


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