Walnut Grove attorney and one-term teacher; he lived 1850-1920. — Webster, 1882
D.M. Thorp, while endeavoring to catch a runaway team a few days ago, was knocked down and came near being trampled under foot by the horses, but he fortunately escaped with a few slight bruises. The team was caught without doing further damage. – Redwood County Gazette, March 6, 1879
Not a character in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura’s Mr. Thorpe [sic] in Pioneer Girl was said to be a dark-haired, part-Mexican, temperamental lawyer who was hired as teacher of the Walnut Grove school after the Ingalls family returned to Minnesota from Iowa. Laura witnessed his aggressive personality as he tried cases in the front room of the Ingallses’ house in town as well as when he physically punished one of the larger boys for misbehaving in school.
David M. Thorp was born in Ohio in June 1850 to Elvira and Charles “Asa” Thorp, who were both born in New York. There is no indication that there was any Mexican heritage in the family. David was raised in Ingham County, Michigan. Around 1875, David married Emma Barnes, the daughter of Ruth and Ebenezer Byram Barnes (1830-1914). They lived in Kansas after their marriage and the first of the couple’s five children was born there. David’s father died in Kansas in March 1878, and David, his family and and his mother and at least two of his siblings (Charlotte and Charles) soon settled in Walnut Grove.
In 1875, Charles Ingalls had filed on a tree claim several miles northeast of his Plum Creek preemption claim. After returning to the area from Burr Oak, he relinquished the tree claim on March 1, 1878. On May 9, Ingalls filed on the west half of his claim as a homestead, and that same day, David Thorp filed on the east half of the SE 4-109-38 as his own homestead. The claim was cancelled December 1, 1880.
It’s not known where Thorp trained to be an attorney, but he practiced law in Walnut Grove, and another Little House character – John Anderson – studied with him. Thorp’s law office was on Lot 21, Block 7, but one important piece of local business was carried out at his home south of the Masters Hotel. In March 1879, a meeting was held at his home to select officers of the incorporated village of Walnut Grove. These included Elias Bedal, President; C. Clemettson, Thomas Quarton, John Leo, Trustees; F. Hill, Recorder; W.H. Owens, Treasurer; Charles P. Ingalls, Justice of the Peace; and C.P. Russell, Constable. By June, Charles Ingalls was working on the railroad and resigned, with the rest of the family leaving Walnut Grove in September.
During the Hard Winter of 1880-1881, David Thorpe wrote to the Winona Daily Republican about conditions in Redwood County, which one can compare to Laura’s account in The Long Winter:
D.M. Thorp, Esq., of Walnut Station, Redwood County, writes to THE REPUBLICAN to say that a recent statement by a correspondent at Sleepy Eye in these columns denying the vague rumors of death and suffering on the frontier is untrue. On referring to our files, we find that the statement in question consisted of a denial of the sensational rumor telegraphed all over the country to the effect that a whole family of persons had been discovered by some railroad men frozen to death in their cabin. As Mr. Thorp furnishes no proof that such a tragical occurrence ever took place in that locality, we are forced to believe that the denial of which he complains was fully justified by the fact. This belief is strengthened by the personal assault which Mr. Thorp makes in his letter to us upon a gentleman who, in connection with the Winona and St. Peter railroad management, is doing, and for weeks has been doing, all within his power to alleviate the destitution and suffering of the people residing beyond the line of blockade, and who, we feel confident, is incapable of any act of inhumanity such as our correspondent rashly and ignorantly ascribes to him. Nevertheless, we are quite prepared to give credence to Mr. Thorp’s allegation that there is, in his vicinity, such a scarcity of fuel as to justify great alarm. “The supply,” he says, writing under date of March 1, “is scarcely large enough to last three days. Men of good judgment and firm minds,” he adds, “are in this place each and every day that they can get out from home, wondering, with tears in their eyes, if their families will be left to freeze to death. Corn is used for fuel, and men have to pay a profit to Van Dusen & Co. of about 40 per cent more than they paid to get that to burn, and nineteen-twentieths of the people are now suffering more than it would be to die twice over, could it be done.” This is indeed a picture of suffering and distress calling for the heart-felt commiseration of communities who have no experimental knowledge of what deprivation of the actual necessaries of life is. The infliction, however, is one which can neither be mitigated nor avenged by indiscriminate and thoughtless denunciation of those who are powerless to prevent it.
The Thorps left Walnut Grove and were living in Kansas in the 1890s, and Emma and David divorced. He married Sarah Andrews and they settled in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Mrs. Thorp was president of the Oklahoma State Spiritualist Society and pastor of the Spiritualist Progressive Society of Oklahoma City. David and Sarah divorced in 1910.
While living in Oklahoma City, David was a partner in the law firm of Thorp & Thorp, the other partner being his son Charles. He later moved to Mitchell County, Kansas, where he died on May 25, 1920, the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Mr. Thorpe / David M. Thorp (PG)