Tag Archives: little house on the prairie

Pioneer Days

22 Apr

Growing up, I could never figure out the geography of my hometown. I could get everywhere I needed to go, but I had no idea how the parts of the city fit together to the point that, if you showed me a map, I’m not sure I could have found my house. When I moved to New York, I made an effort to navigate the city and build map in my head, so I could tell you how the parts of the city related to each other–where SoHo was in relation to the Upper East Side, for example, or where Midtown turned into Hell’s Kitchen. I did the same in LA. As I got to know the city, it started to feel like a coherent whole rather than a bunch of discrete neighborhoods.

All that is a long-winded introduction to the surprising thing I read the other night in By the Shores of Silver Lake, the book I was reading to Abby before Chris started White Noise. I’ve read the Little House books so many times that when I read them to myself I don’t so much read as glance at a page in order to remind myself what happens. So, it’s been a real pleasure to read them aloud and force myself to get through every single word on the page. And I was struck the other night to read Pa say something about the folks in Yankton.


In my slight obsession with all things pioneer, I’ve also watched HBO’s Deadwood about three times, and Yankton, as the county seat (I think?) comes up a lot. According to Wikipedia, Deadwood is set in 1876-1977 in Deadwood (naturally), SD. In 1879, the Ingalls family moved from Minnesota to De Smet, SD. So what that means is that this:

Was going on at almost the identical time and location as this:

I know a lot can change in two years, and Deadwood is partly about how different the town was at the end of 1877 than at the beginning of 1876: law and order come, and their good friend corruption. And the show is set just before the Dakotas become a territory, while the Little House Dakota years are set right after that. But still! Moments like this–realizing how near Laura Ingalls might have lived to Al Swearingen–make history seem like a coherent whole. Can you imagine if history were taught as a set of narratives rather than a list of discrete dates and names? To me, that makes history real–and MEMORABLE–in a way that no AP textbook can.

[On looking at this now, I realize that the Garth Williams illustration is from Little House on the Prairie, which I believe is set in the late 1860s. But the point is the same.]