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Daughter of washerwoman for the Forbeses at Big Sioux railroad camp; the daughter married at age 13.

“My girl was pretty young to get married. She’s only thirteen. But I saw it’s better to get married young. Then a couple can settle down together.” – manuscript, By the Shores of Silver Lake

In the handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript and all versions of By the Shores of Silver Lake, a story is included about a child bride (see Chapter 6, “The Black Ponies”). Laura accompanies her cousin Lena to fetch the washing hired out to a homesteader’s wife living several miles from the railroad camp. When they arrive, the woman is unkempt because – as she explains to Laura and Lena – she has lots of work to do and her daughter is no longer there to help, having been married the previous day at age thirteen. On the way back to camp, the girls discuss Lizzie, who they describe as being a year younger than Lena and only a little older than Laura. Although they like babies and don’t mind housework, they decide that they aren’t ready to grow up quite yet.

For the story to be true, the homesteader and wife would have most likely been living in Brookings Township east of the Big Sioux River (the story doesn’t mention crossing the river, and history records that the camp was on the east side of it) and north of the railroad grade (the story doesn’t mention crossing the grade, which was just south of the camp). This suggests the homesteader lived in the north half of Township 110 North, Range 50 West. Timing of the story places it around the second week of September, 1879. The story describes a three-mile drive across open prairie, and if the girls saw any other claims during the trip, they may have been explained away by the statement that “everything went rushing by too fast to be seen.”

Laura and Lena should have seen many shanties and claims, as almost fifty claims had been made on quarter sections in Sections 1-18 prior to late summer, many of them first filed a year earlier. Although around forty of these claims were patented by the person who had filed prior to this time and family histories could be traced for many of them, no perfect match for the child bride, Lizzie, could be found. Many have shrugged the story off after a census search (looking for a married female teenager in the Brookings area in 1880), with others suggesting that it must be fictional and was added simply as part of Laura’s coming-of-age story.

Could the story be based on Laura’s second cousin? Laura Ingalls and Lena Waldvogel had a second cousin, Addie Ingalls, who married in Iowa in June 1879, at age 14. Addie’s father, Ira Ingalls, was Charles and Docia Ingalls first cousin. Docia and Hiram Forbes had lived in Iowa a couple of counties away from the Ira Ingalls family prior to traveling west. Docia’s visit to the Ingallses in Walnut Grove on her way to the railroad camp could have taken her near Ira Ingalls’s farm at about the time of the wedding, an event Lena surely would have known about and which would have been news to share once reaching Walnut Grove. Laura Ingalls Wilder simplified and fictionalized much about Aunt Docia’s family and visit in the Little House books. For example, she wrote that Lena and Gene were Docia’s step-children, and she completely omitted any mention of Docia’s three daughters born prior to the summer of 1879 (and where they were at the time), or that Docia would have been pregnant during her visit to Walnut Grove.

Age-wise, Lena was exactly three months older than Laura. At the time of the Silver Lake story, Laura had celebrated her 12th birthday in February, and Lena would celebrate her 13th birthday in November. Addie had turned 14 in January. She married William Ackerson within days of the birth of their son who only lived a few days. There is no record of the Ira Ingalls or William Ackerson families attempting to homestead in Dakota Territory, and family members believe they remained in Iowa, where they had at least nine children. William died in 1920 and Addie (shown above) in 1925.


Lizzie (SSL 6; unnamed in PG)