Was Pa Ingalls trying to always find something better, or was he trying to provide for his family?

After re-reading the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder as an adult, I have a different view of Charles “Pa” Ingalls than I once did.

In my child’s mind, Pa was fun and spontaneous and always looking for adventure.

As an adult I still see Pa as those things, but also as a little bit irritating and maybe somewhat irresponsible at times. From what we read in the books, he was always looking for the next adventure or opportunity, instead of finding stability for his family. Then again, maybe traveling from place to place was how he was finding financial stability for his family – he had to go where the work and food was.

It had to have been hard for him to stay still, I realize that. He was a person who was always looking for a new experience. When more families pushed into the west to find new experiences, he wanted to join them.

Pa reminds me a lot of a family member of my husband’s who is always seeking a new opportunity that she is sure will bring her riches. Each scheme fails and she’s left right where she started. In some ways, this is Pa.

He moves the family to the prairie, but the government threatens to move them out so he leaves and moves on to Plum Creek. They are there several years but as soon as Pa is offered another opportunity to build a new life in a new land, he’s gone again, moving his family hundreds of miles across the country.

Living with him must have been hard for his wife and children, more so his wife Caroline. Even though the books are more fiction than non-fiction, it’s clear that Laura probably wrote some truth in the pages when it came to her parents and her father’s constant urge to move the family. There were many times Laura described her mother as worried or tired and who wouldn’t be when their spouse is constantly coming home with a new idea and when they live in unpredictable places where life can change on a whim?

“Laura knew that Ma had never wanted to leave Plum Creek and did not like to be here now; she did not like traveling in that lonely country with night coming on and such men riding the prairie.” – On the Shores of Silver Lake.

When Pa did come back from his trips, he always had some crazy story about why he was delayed or what happened during the trip. The stories were most likely true — except that far fetched one on Plum Creek when he fell in a snowbank/cave and had to stay there for three days until he was able to dig his way out and then found out he was right up the hill from their house. Come on, Pa, really? You were in town hanging out with the blacksmith or the general store owner. Don’t lie, dude. *wink*

He also left his family alone in some dangerous situations where angry Native Americans (I mean, the Ingalls were building homes on their land half the time, so of course tthey were angry), wolves, rowdy railroad workers, or other threats could have harmed them.

Charles and Caroline Ingalls

Despite Pa’s propensity to launch the family into an insecure situation, it was clear he loved them. I don’t believe he was always rushing off to something new simply for himself. Sometimes he might have been, but mainly he was taking new jobs, trying new things in farming, and moving to new places to help provide a better life for his family, not gain riches and fame for himself.

Even if he was doing it for his family, it couldn’t have been easy never knowing when he might come home and suggest they move again.

Luckily, Pa sacrifices his desire for adventure more than once for Caroline and his girls, something Laura touches on in The Shores of Silver Lake.

When Laura’s cousins leave to go further West, both she and Pa look after them wistfully, wishing they could follow them into adventure. Pa, however, says he won’t continue into the west because a town his being built where they are now and with a town will come a school. Caroline always wanted her children to attend school and Pa says he promised her he would calm down and settle down so the children could be educated.

In the end, it was the love of Caroline and his girls that kept him at least a little bit grounded.

Have you ever read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series? What is your impression of Charles Ingalls based on these books? Was his desire for adventure a detriment or a benefit to his family? Did he drag them all over the country too much, even if he did do it for the right reason?

Was Laura Ingalls Wilder racist?

As I have mentioned in my Sunday Bookends posts recently, Little Miss and I have been reading Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder before bed. I read the books as a child and I’m guessing I either didn’t understand how horrible the references to Native Americans in the book sounded back then. It is also possible my Mom explained to me what I have been explaining to my daughter this week, which is that the fear the Ingalls had of the Indians was really a fear of the unknown. They were drawing their views of the Native Americans from stories they had heard and not personal experience.

This past week, I made reading the book an educational experience in addition to being an entertaining one. I also explored the reason behind the racist-leaning language in Wilder’s books by doing what so many of us do these days — I Googled it.

As an adult re-reading Little House on the Prairie, I was taken aback by what Wilder wrote about the Native Americans. I didn’t remember the negative descriptions from when I read it all those years ago. Part of me had considered abandoning the book, so I didn’t have to discuss such a difficult topic with a 6-year-old, or at least skipping those sections. It was hard to skip the sections, however, since so much of the book is about the Native Americans and the Ingalls encounters with them. I’m glad I didn’t abandon the book, because then I would have missed those moments where the fictional version of Wilder challenges the views her mother and others living on the prairie have of the Native Americans.

One reason the real Laura couldn’t have questioned the negative views of the Native Americans when her family lived on the prairie is because she was actually only 2 when they moved to Kansas and around 4 or 5 when they left. In the fictional children’s book, she portrays herself as around 8 or 9. She also writes that baby Carrie was alive, but in reality, Carrie had not even been born yet.

 Laura Mclemore points out on The Little House on the Prairie website that it is important to understand the history behind Wilder’s story when considering how she writes about the Osage. For one, Wilder’s mother held a fear of the Osage people because of a massacre which occurred in Minnesota, near where the Ingalls had lived before moving to Kansas, around 1862. That massacre occurred when the Sioux and Dakota tribes rose up against the settlers after many of the men left to fight in the Civil War.  Laura’s mother and their neighbors, the Scotts, remember that massacre when they express anger and fear toward the Osage people, even though they are a different tribe.

It’s also important to remember that Wilder wasn’t actually writing an autobiography when she wrote her children’s books. While there were some authentic life experiences, as well as actual people, in the books, Wilder was actually writing historical fiction using her real family as the basis for the stories.

In 2018, Wilder’s name was stripped of a literary award named after her by American Library Association in 1954 because many believed her depictions of both Native Americans and African Americans were racist. The decision to remove her name bothered some people, including Amy S. Fatzinger from the magazine The Atlantic.

“The books indeed include several pejorative passages about Native people that reflect ‘dated cultural attitudes.’” Fatzinger wrote. “At times, they also work to dispel myths about American westward expansion; some scenes illustrate the complexity of race relations on the frontier and remind readers that countless families like the Ingallses were illegally occupying Native lands. As a result, Wilder’s approach can leave readers with conflicting messages about Native characters, requiring a more nuanced consideration of the texts themselves.”

While reading the book this week to Little Miss, I could see what Fatzinger means about scenes showing the complexity of race on the frontier. The various descriptions of Native Americans are definitely shocking by today’s standards and show how misguided the Ingalls family and other settlers were about the tribes living around them. While Wilder relayed some of the more prejudice comments she heard about Native Americans while growing up, she also did something other writers of the time didn’t do, Fatzinger wrote, and that was to point out that white settlers had illegally moved onto land occupied by the Osages. Charles Ingalls tells his family they are moving to “Indian Country” because politicians in Washington had sent word that the land would soon be free of Native Americans. Yes, just like today, politicians were adept at stirring up trouble and leaving people hurt in the wake of their ineptitude.

“Even readers who find such scenes troubling might assume that Wilder was simply repeating the attitudes of her time,” Fatzinger wrote in her article. “A closer look, though, reveals that she usually presents misconceptions about frontier life only to later challenge them; similarly, negative views of Native people are often juxtaposed with more favorable ones. In Little House on the Prairie, young Laura listens to various perspectives about Native people uttered by the adults around her and questions them. Laura asks her Ma, for example, why they’re traveling to Indian Territory if she doesn’t like Indians. It’s a question that highlights the absurdity of the events that follow, like when the Ingallses huddle in their house petrified of the Osage neighbors whose land they are attempting to appropriate.”

Through questions she asks her parents, Wilder also showed that her younger self had doubts about whether the Native Americans were “evil”, even though she had a very obvious fear of them and referred to them as “wild”, “smelly,” and “savage.” She writes that Ma was always leery and upset by the Native Americans, especially when they entered the home uninvited, but Pa was much more laid back, saying more than once, “As long as we are peaceful toward them, they will be peaceful toward us.” Of course, he also had a prejudice view of them because at one point he almost calls them devils, but Ma cuts him off so he doesn’t make the children afraid.

I believe Wilder wrote her books from the perspective of a child who had a fear of the unknown which included Native Americans, but also from the perspective of a woman born in 1867.

Credit: Little House on the Prairie blog/site

Her writing mainly focuses on what others thought of Native Americans and she relays their views through the eyes of a child trying to make sense of it all. She doesn’t leave those racist ideas to sit there alone, without explanation. She addresses them again as you progress through the book. When the neighbors say, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Laura’s father disagrees, especially when Soldat Du Chene, a member of the Osage tribe talks the rest of the Osage people out of declaring war on the white settlers.

“No matter what Mr. Scott said,” Laura writes. “Pa did not believe the only good Indian was a dead Indian.”  

Keeping in mind the need to offer context to Laura’s story and instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, I took Mclemore’s suggestion to use the books as a teachable moment. One night before bed,  told Little Miss who the Native Americans were and how they lived in our country before the white Europeans.

I wasn’t sure how she would respond to my story of how the white Europeans chased many Native Americans off their land. I hoped she wouldn’t demonize either side.

Little Miss,6, is sharp, though, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised when she said, “I’m guessing the white people started the war.”


I hadn’t even mentioned war. I would imagine she heard about that in a cartoon or in lessons I’ve taught to her brother about similar subjects.

I told her that sometimes the white settlers started the war because they wanted the land and sometimes Native Americans started the wars because they were upset that the white settlers had taken their land and hurt their people.

I also explained that what the white Europeans did was wrong, that some of them may have been our ancestors (especially on my dad’s side where we have traced our family back to very early settlers in Connecticut), but that doesn’t mean we are to blame for what happened. We do, however, need to remember that dark part of our history so we don’t repeat it. We also need to recognize that the land we now live on was land was once occupied by people who settled this land long before our ancestors did. Although, we actually may have some Native American ancestors on my mother’s side, but we have not been able to officially connect us to the Cherokees my aunt and mom believe we may be related to.

After I told her, that the land we lived on now was probably where members of the Iroquois nation lived and that we would study them soon in our history, her curiosity was piqued.

“You have hooked me,” she announced. “Now I want to know more.”

Five minutes later she was asleep with my promise that we would soon learn more about Native Americans. The next day we watched a video by a Native American woman on YouTube about the Native Americans of the northeast and those of the Midwest. Little Miss enjoyed it but looked up after the woman talked about the women of tribe cooking and cleaning and scraping the buffalo hides and said, “I’m guessing this is when the men thought women couldn’t do the same thing that men could do, right?”

She’s a little too smart for her own good at times.

I agree with Mclemore’s suggestion for parents who would like to teach their young children about life in the 1800s and that is to not ignore Wilder’s books.

“I suggest that rather than banning books or refusing to read them, we use them as a platform for examining the history of the United States,” she writes. “What better way to learn our history than by reading a classic like Little House on the Prairie and using it as a platform for discussion?”

Incidentally, I am taking this same approach with To Kill A Mockingbird which I am reading with my 14-year-old son for his English class.

I also agree with Fatzinger to not remove Wilder’s references to Native Americans from her writing, or in fact remove any references to races that we disagree with. By doing this we are effectively removing any mention of the race at all, which closes the door to discussions about why stereotypical views of a race are wrong.

You can learn more about Laura Ingalls Wilder at http://www.littlehouseontheprairie.com and more about Fatzinger’s view of Wilder’s work on The Atlantic site.