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writ of attachment

An instrument in writing, under seal, in an epistolary form, issued from the proper authority, commanding the performance or non-performance of some act by the person to whom it is directed. — Webster, 1882

“Serve this writ of attachment on Sullivan and bring back the team or the money he owes Boast, with costs of this suit at law!” – manuscript, By the Shores of Silver Lake

Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t expect young readers to understand exactly what the “fake legal document” was that Pa wrote up for Mr. Boast, nor the joke the pretend sheriff played on the horse buyer, but with the Ingallses’ move to Dakota Territory, Wilder was ready to introduce more adult themes, since she had experienced them first-hand and knew that fictional Laura had to grow up as well.

Writ of attachment. A document written in the name of a court or legal office commanding behavior or conditions to be met. There is no way to know exactly what Pa wrote, but he most likely wrote as if he was the representative of the court system in the county, demanding that the horse buyer turn over to the sheriff the amount of money owed to Mr. Boast, plus the sheriff’s fee for delivering the document plus travel expenses. If the horse buyer refused to pay, the sheriff was to seize the team as evidence, and arrest the man and take him to appear in court.

The story told in published By the Shores of Silver Lake evolved from its introduction. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that an unnamed man had purchased a team from Mr. Boast, but left town without paying. Pa and Mr. Boast devised a plan whereby Pa wrote a document summoning the man to court and taking the team (as evidence). An unidentified man acted as sheriff to serve the papers for Mr. Boast. It makes sense that Pa would have access to legal foolscap (paper), as he had been a Justice of the Peace in Walnut Grove (even though it wasn’t mentioned in On the Banks of Plum Creek), but having a pretend sheriff’s star on hand for the pretend sheriff to wear seems a little far-fetched. The scheme, however, is successful. It is similarly told in other versions of Pioneer Girl. The image above shows Charles Ingalls’ name on a legal document in Kingsbury County from a later date. Notice the red-lined legal cap.

When working on the manuscript for By the Shores of Silver Lake, the story was at first expanded to multiple pages. The horse buyer is called “that mick, Sullivan” (mick is a derogatory word for an Irishman), and Pa recognizes the pretend sheriff as one of the surveyors. The legal document is more than one page in length. The scheme works, and Sullivan pays for the horses and for the legal costs (payment to the sheriff for distance traveled to serve the papers).

Another manuscript version removes the derogatory word and calls the horse-buyer Mick Sullivan, also saying that he had previously partially paid for the horses. When Mr. Boast went to Sullivan’s nearby homestead to collect the rest of the money he was due, Sullivan had left town with the team.

Rose questioned the adult theme, because with the years skipped between the Plum Creek and Silver Lake books, fictional Laura was younger than her mother had been in real life. (Wilder was 14 in February 1880, but character Laura was a year younger in the story.) Rose wrote to her in December 1937 and asked if “at the actual time, did [Laura] pay much attention to Pa’s faking the papers for Mr. Boast to get his money from Sullivan?” Laura replied: ‘At the actual time’ I was very much interested in Pa’s faking the papers for Mr. Boast to get his money from Sullivan. I looked over his shoulder as he made them out. I was familiar with proceedings in justice court and with legal papers and I thought it a huge joke to fool Sullivan with them. In those days I was, at times, completely grown up and again just a child. Perhaps that is why some of it seems to you too adult.

In published By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 13, “Breaking Camp”), the horse buyer is named Pete, and his son is with him. Pa writes the document and recognizes the pretend sheriff as the head surveyor.

Did this story really happen? There is no reason to doubt the validity of Wilder’s story; her letter says that she was a witness to the letter-writing. As told in the story, Wilder was correct that Kingsbury County had yet to be organized, but for legal purposes, the area was attached to Brookings County at the time, with territorial law having been established almost two decades prior. Dakota Territory wasn’t lawless, and the process of collection or attachment was clearly defined. One stipulation Wilder didn’t mention was that Mr. Boast should have given Pa security in the amount of double the value of the property to be recovered.

When the story may have taken place is unclear. In all versions, Mr. Boast is one of the last men to leave the area, except for the man who acts as sheriff, and the surveyors. In the Bye version of Pioneer Girl, after Mr. Boast’s successful return, he stays a week so that Pa can go to the Land Office to file on his claim, and the surveyors also leave after Pa’s return. According to Charles Ingalls’ homestead file, this first filing was made on February 19, 1880. In an account of the settlement of De Smet, Pa wrote that he worked until December 1st, 1879, and then moved into the company house (Surveyors’ House), and that Mr. and Mrs. Boast returned to the area about the last of December. [Treasures of C.P. Ingalls and Laura Wilder]

Robert Boast’s homestead file states that he lived on his claim for six weeks beginning September 9, 1879, then he was absent from his claim until April 1880. He may still have been in the area much later, just not living on his homestead.

What about the surveyors? The head railroad surveyor’s notes record that they left the De Smet area in late July and were in the vicinity of Pierre at the time of Pa’s homestead filing; they had not been in the area between-times. So there doesn’t seem to be a way that any railroad surveyor could have helped with the ruse unless the incident occurred prior to the end of July, but the Ingalls family didn’t move to Dakota Territory until September. There seems to be no way to determine the identity of the pretend sheriff at this time.

The same goes for the identity of Mr. Boast’s horse-buyer. Was he an Irishman named Mr. Sullivan? A man named Mick Sullivan? Pete Sullivan? Pete Something? Mick Something? Or was Sullivan his first name? The 1880 census for Beadle County (page 34) includes a 21-year-old railroad worker by the name of “M. Sullivan,” born in Minnesota to Irish parents. No one named Sullivan proved up on a claim in Kingsbury County, but a Michael Sullivan had a claim in Miner County south of Kingsbury. Mr. Boast stated in his homestead file that he had been working (for the railroad) near Lake Herman prior to settling on his claim, and newspaper accounts show that he had been working not on the Dakota Central branch through De Smet, but on the Milwaukee Road through Madison. Whether either of these men are the man in question is still anybody’s guess.


writ of attachment (SSL 13) – see also legal cap

Pete (SSL 13), Mick Sullivan in PG