Prairie Fires: Chapter 3

[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 3

1874. Laura is 7 years old and they're driving to Minnesota. He buys a book of poems for Laura and Fraser pauses to note how Charles (being a younger son) was better educated than the older brothers who would've been needed in the fields as soon as possible. That's another interesting intersection of thought when talking about rugged individualism: Charles received a better education because his brothers were required for labor. By time he came along, the need wasn't as great and he could take a few years of schooling. So even within the same family we see a disparity of resources, rather than some kind of "blank slate" of equal opportunity.

Charles files preemption on Plum Creek. If I'm reading correctly, the land had been Dakota land until they'd been driven off 12 years before. Pa builds a dugout house for them which is essentially a hole in the ground--the roof is woven branches with sod encouraged to grow over them. "But they were also damp and dirty. Dugouts were prone to flooding in the spring, and despite fabric hung overhead, or whitewash or newspapers slapped up as makeshift wallpaper, soil and spiders drifted down upon the occupants."

"A frontier cook recalled frying pancakes under an umbrella. They were so cramped that families routinely carried bedding outside during the day, just to have space to turn around. One pioneer wife objected to living in a hole in the ground “like a prairie dog."" This is another one of those living conditions/situations which would be called "primitive and dirty" if people of color and/or indigenous people did it, but is "innovative and efficient" when white people did it.

The community raises a church for a first Christmas: "clothing, boots, dolls, sleds, and a barrel full of donated items sent from a wealthy eastern church. Laura had a fur collar bestowed on her, and was so awestruck by its soft magnificence she could barely speak."

The Plum Creek land is beautiful but, "Ominously, two other men had previously filed claims on the same land, then relinquished it." (We'll get to this later, but the land in a LOT of these places just was not suitable for the English farm-and-garden envisioned by the Homestead Act.) "In June 1873, a year before the Ingallses arrived, a mystifying cloud had darkened the clear sky of southwest Minnesota on “one of the finest days of the year." Settlers were terrified to realize that it was composed of locusts, swarming grasshoppers that settled a foot thick over farms, breaking trees and shrubs under their weight. According to eyewitnesses, a month after they arrived, having eaten everything green, the grasshoppers formed a column and marched off to the east."

That was a year BEFORE the Ingalls arrived. You're possibly thinking "but I remember that scene from the book" and well yeah, we're getting there.

"Charles Ingalls must have heard of the grasshoppers; newspaper columns were full of them." So even knowing about the grasshopper swarm that demolished all the crops, Charles moved out there anyway because he figured lightning wouldn't strike twice. A second swarm hits in 1874--the Ingalls' first year there--and somehow their little farm isn't completely wiped out. "devastation was spotty and localized, with locusts touching down like funnel clouds in one place only to leave a neighboring township untouched."

"Farmers lost a total of 4.5 million bushels of grain and potatoes, including 2.6 million bushels of wheat. Many of them suffered crop failures two years in a row, leaving them wholly without food." The Minnesota state government determined that the relief efforts should be private charity, not state funds. Private charity can't begin to meet the massive need. "The Rocky Mountain locust could go for years without swarming, until the perfect conditions set it off. Perfect conditions were created by drought." Fraser lays blame for the drought at the foot of the El Nino event that year, which is surely true, but it's worth noting that the heat and moisture conditions of the areas in question have *also* been radically altered by massive logging efforts.

Several of Charles' neighbors refuse to plant crops because why go to all that trouble and labor for the locusts to eat everything? But Charles is confident. "The Ingallses had no way of knowing it, but the locust swarm descending upon them was the largest in recorded human history. It would become known as “Albert’s swarm”: in Nebraska, a meteorologist named Albert Child measured its flight for ten days in June, telegraphing for further information from east and west, noting wind speed and calculating the extent of the cloud of insects. He startled himself with his conclusions: the swarm appeared to be 110 miles wide, 1,800 miles long, and a quarter to a half mile in depth. The wind was blowing at ten miles an hour, but the locusts were moving even faster, at fifteen. They covered 198,000 square miles, Child concluded, an area equal to the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont combined. The cloud consisted of some 3.5 trillion insects."

In addition to consuming the Ingalls' farm along with one-quarter of the country, the carcasses polluted wells and creeks, and gunked up rail lines. "The locust plague constituted the worst and most widespread natural disaster the country had ever seen, causing an estimated $200 million in damage to western agriculture (the equivalent of $116 billion today) and threatening millions of farmers in remote locations." So that's now 3 years in a row in which farmers haven't been able to gather a crop.

State and federal aid is a useless pittance, with farmers seen as "shirkers" for needing relief. “It is humiliating to have them so constantly before us, passing round the hat,” wrote one editorialist. It must be said that the myth of farming being something Anyone Can Do if they Just Try Hard is... well, a myth. But it's maddening to see how it has been kept alive in the face of all facts. Farmers lost THREE YEARS of crops to a natural disaster they *in no way* could've (individually) prevented or prepared for. You can't repel grasshoppers with gumption and smiles. Rose and Laura do their part to keep the myth alive and kicking, but it should've died long before either of them even held a pen.

"Newspapers advised their hungry readers to eat the bugs: “make it a ‘hopper’ feast.” In a cruel and counterproductive move, the state demanded that applicants sell any livestock they owned before receiving aid." Desperate, Charles is forced to sell the horses. He *walks* 200 miles east to Peter Ingalls farm to help with the harvest there. Meanwhile, a neighbor helps Caroline bring in the hay and plows a fire break around the house--a fortunate thing he did, since fires *do* strike the property and the break holds. I can't even count now how many times Laura would be dead without charity.

Caro has a baby boy. They name him Charles and call him Freddy. "On November 30, Charles Ingalls signed a sworn statement before county officials stating that he was “wholy without means,” the humiliating requirement of the relief act passed earlier that year." He gets a whole barrel of flour as meager aid. The barrel is worth about 5 dollars. The 1,000 they got from selling their Wisconsin property is long gone. They've basically lost everything to the locusts.

"Wilder’s fiercest disdain in all of her writing, though, was reserved for the children of storekeepers in Walnut Grove, Nellie Owens and her brother Willie." Fraser notes that this may have been the first time Laura really understood her status as the poor child of a failed farmer--that their poverty was relative and not "normal" for everyone. What is interesting to me is that we see how shopkeepers traditionally make money no matter how good or badly the farms do: people need food and supplies even if their crops are poor. (Charles, of course, will later find financial stability running the town store. Jumping ahead there.)

Caro falls ill and needs a doctor, which costs money. "The telegram was sent, the doctor came, and the patient recovered. But the heavy medical bills added to the family’s debt burden." Charles manages to get some relief seed and sows a very little. Grasshoppers hit for the fourth year in a row. Governor Pillsbury "warned farmers against “weakening the habit of self-reliance.” To comfort the starving, he prescribed a day of prayer. Throughout his term, he would trivialize “poverty and deprivation” as “incidents of frontier life at its best.” The St. Paul Pioneer Press praised Pillsbury’s censure of grasshopper paupers, reasoning that any relief would have a “very demoralizing effect” [...] The “better class of people,” it argued, would not demean themselves by accepting aid."

Man, for a country which supposedly loves farmers, we really HATE farmers. But I guess we see that contradiction often enough.

Charles completes preemption and pays $431 for the land (how, I have no idea) only to sell it for $400 three days later; the family can't afford to stay and must move again. 1876. Laura is 9. The family moves to Iowa to help run a hotel. "For the rest of her childhood, she would work on and off in service, as a dishwasher, cook, maid, babysitter, waitress, seamstress, companion, and general dogsbody, often while going to school."

They pause at Peter Ingalls farm so Charles can help with the harvest. [TW: Child Death] Freddy falls ill and dies unexpectedly. They reach Iowa and the hotel where Charles will work. The hotel is awful and scary, and Laura leaves this part of her life out of her books entirely--which is telling, because this wasn't a *small* part of her childhood by any means. But it couldn't be romanticized.

Caro, now 37, is pregnant again and utterly exhausted. The hotel owners cheat Charles out of whatever they promised him, so he has to go find work at a mill. They live above the saloon but move after a death, a fire, and a domestic violence incident. Deeply in debt, the wife of one of their debtors tries to adopt Laura who is now 10. (She wants Laura to do housework for her, so "adopt" is a strong word here.)

"It was an era when the fear of “peonage”—debt slavery or servitude—still lingered in people’s minds. The practice had been outlawed in 1867, the year Laura was born, but it survived in the South and many pockets of the country. Mrs. Starr’s offer came at a time when the Ingallses must have felt particularly vulnerable, exposed to legal action for their debts. To Laura, the mere suggestion that she might be sold into servitude must have been profoundly unsettling."

Charles skips town on his debts in the middle of the night. Which... again... is at odds with the supposed moral set who teach these books as Good American Values. I'm going to pause here because this chapter is long.


When we last left, it was 1877 and Charles Ingalls skips town with the family and leaves their debts behind. I have a lot of feelings about that choice. Like, on the one hand I am all about skipping town on debts and I can certainly sympathize given the weird skeeviness of one of their debtors trying to subtly buy Laura as a live-in maid slash pretend adopted daughter.

On the other hand, these were debts to, like, normal regular people like the Ingalls. Not railroad barons. And of course the folks who hold the Ingalls as proof that anyone can achieve the American Dream if they Try Hard are usually anti-bankruptcy and social nets. It's worth pointing out, yet again, that Charles Ingalls could not live up to the morals that Laura and Rose will use his name to instill in their books.

The 1870s depression drives 2 million people from the cities to the Great Plains, where more than a few of them starve because the locusts are still scouring everything. (Reminder that the climate conditions that favored the locust plagues were in part man-made because of massive deforestation that changed the climate.) The Ingalls move back to the Plum Creek area but are homeless and have to live on the charity of others. Charles takes odd jobs, including carpenter and butcher. It's interesting that yet again this period (of 2 years!) doesn't make it into Laura's books.

[TW: Attempted Sexual Assault] During this 2 year period, Laura has to fend off a couple gross men intent on harming her, and she also learns a lot at the hotel where she works. It's frustrating to me, actually, that Laura would go on to romanticize settlers even knowing this ugly underside--the danger of working for someone intent on harming you and knowing there's very little you can do besides flee.

...This is amazing. "There were other scandals, too. In 1879, Charles Ingalls was elected Walnut Grove’s first justice of the peace, a position requiring literacy and negotiating skills but no legal education. He conducted business in the family’s front room, and Laura raptly drank in the salacious scenes that played out there. She overheard, for instance, the incredible story of two sisters, Mrs. Welch, a local, and Mrs. Ray. In long-planned revenge on her sister for marrying the man she wanted, Mrs. Welch secretly became the owner of the mortgage on the Rays’ property in New York. Then, encouraging her sister to visit, Mrs. Welch inveigled the Rays to stay for months, imperiling their claim, which depended on their being in residence on the land. Triumphantly foreclosing on the mortgage and declaring her scheme, Mrs. Welch tore the deed out of her sister’s hand in the Ingallses’ front room, continuing to curse Mrs. Ray until she was pulled out the door, screaming and clawing."

Whatever else family drama we may endure this holiday season, let us reflect that our sister never foreclosed on us in revenge for us marrying the man she wanted.

The Ingalls family continues to live on the brink of destitute. Laura misses school in order to work, then has to withdraw from winter school because they don't have warm clothes. They're house-bound for winter. Imagine having to miss school for months at the age of 12 because your family can't afford a coat. Laura *knew* this intimately and must have *hated* it and yet she railed against safety nets and even charity, I cannot.

[TW: Child Death] Some children Laura's age die that winter because of a blizzard. Then in April, Mary gets a headache that won't go away. Mary is 14 years old. "The illness was so dire that the local newspapers tracked its progression." Mary loses her sight and this is a blow to the family if only just in terms of earning potential alone, since an ableist society now expects her to stay at home forever.

"Charles Ingalls was out of town, having taken a job handling the payroll for a gang of railroad workers to the west, near Lake Benton. He arrived at the job through family connections. Forbes hired his brother-in-law [Charles] in June as bookkeeper and manager of the company store, selling goods to the graders. Likely making a higher wage than he ever had before—perhaps fifty dollars a month". Aunt Docia did good for herself, it seems.

Charles sends for his family to join them and they go westward once more. Thus ends Chapter 3. It's interesting to speculate what would have become of the Ingalls--who were *deeply* in debt prior to Charles' job--had not Aunt Docia married a rich contractor who would hire her brother as a family favor.


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