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Samuel O. Masters / William J. Masters families

Family known by the Ingalls family in Walnut Grove, Burr Oak, and De Smet who were not mentioned in the Little House books.

Genevieve sneered at the other girls in school because they were westerners. She thought herself much above us because she came from New York. She was much nicer dressed than we were and lisped a little when she talked. -Pioneer Girl

Members of the Masters family – like the Ingallses – lived in Walnut Grove, Burr Oak, and De Smet. Although they are mentioned in Pioneer Girl, the Masterses are not included in the published Little House books, although Genevieve Masters inspired the composite Nellie Oleson character, along with Nellie Owens and Stella Gilbert.

Samuel Oldfield Masters (pictured here) was the second of seven children of Nehemiah and Harriet Masters; he was born in New Jersey circa 1822, but spent most of his early years in Hornby (Steuben County) New York. A brilliant mathematician, Samuel Masters studied civil engineering in Ithaca, New York, and became a surveyor and teacher, serving for a time as Superintendent of Schools in Steuben County. In 1852, he married Margaret Farrington, daughter of Isaac and Phebe Farrington; the couple had four children: George E. (born 1853), Augusta Elgetha (born 1859), Jesse (born 1864), and Genevieve E. (born 1867). A few years after Genevieve’s birth, the family moved to Corning, New York, where they lived for eight years.

In 1878, the Masters family moved to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where Mr. Masters both taught school, farmed, and worked as county surveyor. Daughter Gussie Elgetha taught school in North Hero Township; her father taught both in and south of Walnut Grove, and Gennie and Jesse attended the village school. In Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that “Uncle Sam Masters” was her teacher in Walnut Grove after the family returned from Burr Oak. She described him as being “tall and thin, with bad teeth and a bad breath and small brown eyes and a bald head.” He also had the habit of fondling the hands of any girl who was close by, and Laura poked him with a pin when he grabbed her hand.

In the fall of 1881, Samuel Masters followed his son George to Kingsbury County, Dakota Territory, and he filed on a homestead claim in October 1883, the NW 5-110-56. Although never a teacher in Dakota Territory, Mr. Masters ran for the office of School Superintendent in Kingsbury County against George Williams, and was defeated by him in the election. He served as County Surveyor for a time.

Samuel O. Masters died in De Smet in 1893. After his death, the farm was taken over by his son, Jesse. The Harvey Dunn painting titled “Masters Homestead” is of the house of Sam Masters, after his son Jesse had taken over the farm (Jesse is the man in a hat and light-colored suspenders standing to the right of the horse). A photo of the farm that appeared in a Kingsbury County newspaper is shown below; you can purchase a print of Dunn’s painting at Ingalls Homestead in De Smet. Margaret Masters made her home in De Smet or with various of her children after her husband’s death. She died in De Smet in 1915 at age eighty-seven. Both are buried in the De Smet Cemetery.

George Emmett Masters was the oldest child of Samuel and Margaret Masters. He was born in Hornby (Steuben County) New York in February 1853 and educated at the local schools and at Corning Academy in Corning, New York. At age 21, he began work as clerk in a drug store, soon moving to Chicago. In 1878, George moved to Walnut Grove to farm. He married Margaret Gilmore there in July 1879. He went to work in the company store for railroad contractors Wells, Harrison & Shute, working on the line between Tracy, Minnesota and Pierre, Dakota Territory.

In 1880, he boarded his wife with Charles and Caroline Ingalls while working near De Smet; the Masterses’ son Arthur (the first of nine children) was born at the Ingalls home in May 1880. The Masterses continued to live with the Ingalls family after George went to work as a railroad brakeman, and the family spent the Hard Winter of 1880-1881 with the Ingallses. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t include the Masters family in The Long Winter, feeling that their presence would complicate the fictional story.

George Masters filed on a homestead near De Smet, and he and his family lived there until 1886. He worked for Empire Lumber Company in De Smet for almost a dozen years, then moved to Spencer (McCook County) to manage the lumber yard for the John W. Tuttle Lumber Company. Maggie Masters died in Spencer in 1904. Following a brief illness, George Masters died there in 1913. Both are buried in Lakeside Protestant Cemetery in Spencer.

Augusta Elgetha Masters (shown at left circa 1885) was born in Steuben County, New York in 1859. Trained as a teacher, Elgetha (Laura Ingalls Wilder called her Gussie) taught near Walnut Grove and in De Smet. In April 1883, she moved to De Smet and was hired to teach the intermediate classes in District 2. In 1888, she married Carter Sherwood, editor of the De Smet Leader. The couple had three children: Vincent, Reginald, and Aubrey. Like his father, Aubrey Sherwood was a long-time editor of the De Smet newspaper; he was also founder of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society in De Smet. The Sherwoods lived a block west of Charles and Caroline Ingalls on Third Street. Elgetha Sherwood died in 1927, Carter Sherwood in 1929.

Jesse F.B. Masters was born in Steuben County, New York in 1864. He was educated in Corning, New York and in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. When his parents moved west to De Smet, Jesse remained in Walnut Grove for a while, joining them in 1885. In December 1885, Jesse filed a preemption on land formerly held by his brother George as a tree claim. Jesse and his wife, Anna, had no children.

Genevieve M. Masters (shown at right circa 1885) was born in Hornby (Steuben County) New York on February 12, 1867, the youngest child of Samuel and Margaret Masters. When she was a few years old, Gennie moved with her family to Corning, New York; in 1878, they moved to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. In her Pioneer Girl manuscript, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that Gennie Masters and Nellie Owens were rivals in school, yet somehow the children ended up looking to Laura for leadership. In On the Banks of Plum Creek, Wilder combined the traits of Gennie and Nellie into one fictional character: Nellie Oleson.

In 1881, Gennie and her family moved to De Smet, Dakota Territory. Gennie attended the De Smet town school; in Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that Gennie “was not changed in disposition since the Walnut Grove days but had grown tall and slim with a beautiful complexion and was always dressed in pretty clothes.” Nellie Owens didn’t ever live in De Smet; the “Nellie Oleson” character in school stories in the De Smet Little House books was based on Gennie Masters. Although Wilder wrote that Nellie Oleson lived near Almanzo and went on a buggy ride with them in These Happy Golden Years (see Chapter 20, “Nellie Oleson”) that character was based on a third girl, Stella Gilbert. Samuel Masters’ homestead was two miles west of Charles Ingalls’ homestead.

Gennie studied to be a teacher and earned a third grade teaching certificate in January 1885. She earned a second grade certificate in August 1885 and taught two terms in the Wilkin School at a salary of $25 per month, following Laura Ingalls’ term as teacher. Gennie attended college in Pierre and taught grammar and United States history there while herself a student. Upon returning to De Smet, she taught a school in Spirit Lake Township.

On September 11, 1888, Genevieve Masters married William Graham Van Renwick in De Smet; they met when he came to the area as an employee for Youmans Brothers & Hogins Lumber Company. In 1893, the Renwicks were living in Spokane, Washington, and two years later, Renwick was arrested on charges of embezzlement and forgery while working as an auditor in Tacoma. Upon examination of the auditor’s books, over thirty shortages were noticed, with accounts for road supervisor’s district accounts falsified. Around $5000 was missing. Renwick was convicted and sentenced to two years in the State Penitentiary in Walla Walla; he was committed in March 1895 after pleading guilty. Renwick testified that “strong drink” had led him to steal the money. To read some of the documents in his case, click HERE; the document will open in a new tab or window.

Renwick was pardoned in March 1896 after serving just over a year of his sentence. William and Genevieve moved to Chicago, where William worked for a zinc syndicate and lived an exemplary life. They had one daughter, Margaret Genevieve, born in April 1900. Following a 1909 trip to Seattle and Bellingham, Washington, Genevieve Renwick visited her family in De Smet; she became ill during the train journey home to Chicago. Suffering from pneumonia, she died on November 7, 1909, only several days after arriving in Chicago. Her body was brought to De Smet for burial in the De Smet Cemetery.

Following her mother’s death, Margaret Renwick made her home with her aunt and uncle, Elgetha and Carter Sherwood, but she visited her father often in Chicago, and he visited her in De Smet. William Renwick died in March 1924 and was buried in the De Smet Cemetery beside his wife.



William James Masters was the sixth of seven children of Nehemiah and Harriet Masters; he was born in Orange County, New York in June 1829. Samuel O. Masters and William Masters were brothers. In 1850, William Masters married Emeline Hurley; she was born 1831 in New York. The couple had three children born in Steuben County: Eugene (born c.1853; he died young), William Arthur (born August 1855), and Mary E. (born c.1857). Shortly after Mary’s birth, the Masters family moved to Burr Oak (Winneshiek County) Iowa. He and his brother, Silas, had large farms near Burr Oak. For a while, William Masters ran the Masters Hotel (also known as the Burr Oak House) in Burr Oak. In 1876, Masters sold the hotel to Walnut Grove resident William Steadman. The Charles Ingalls family moved to Burr Oak in 1876 to help run the hotel, returning to Walnut Grove when Grace was a baby.

William Masters moved his family to Walnut Grove, Minnesota in 1875. From 1877 until 1882, he and his son William A. (Willie) were engaged in the general merchandise business under the name of W. J. Masters and Son. They also bought and sold farmland, and they worked many of the farms. At one time, they owned over 1,600 acres in Redwood and Murray counties. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that her father purchased land from William J. Masters after their return from Burr Oak, there is no record of Charles Ingalls owning any property in or adjoining the village of Walnut Grove at any time, suggesting that the Ingalls more likely rented from Mr. Masters. The Masters Hotel and store building in Walnut Grove is shown below; a residence for many years, the two-story building is now owned by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove.

In 1883, Emeline Masters died. William married Jane Sharp in July 1887. William J. Masters died September 24, 1914 in Walnut Grove.

William Arthur Masters (Willie) was born August 23, 1855 in Hornby, New York, the second child of William and Emeline Masters. He was married in February 1876 to Nancy Holt of Iowa; she was born in England in 1855, but moved to Iowa with her parents at a young age. Willie and Nancy (Nannie) Masters had two children: May Eugenia (born 1877) and Orabelle (born 1881). Both children married Walnut Grove residents and settled there when grown.

In Walnut Grove, W.J. Masters built a hotel on the west side of town, and Willie and Nannie Masters helped run it. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that she worked in the hotel for a while, looking after Nannie Masters’ baby (Laura called the baby “Little Nan”).

Willie Masters ran a coal and wood business in Walnut Grove; he later opened a bowling alley and a skating rink. He served as recorder for the village of Walnut Grove and also served at various times on the city council, as assessor, and as justice of the peace. He died March 1937 in Walnut Grove.

Mary E. Masters was born circa 1857 in Hornby, New York. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder called her “Matie” (Mattie), and wrote that she acted like a fine lady, sleeping late and doing none of the work while her mother and sister-in-law waited on her and prepared dainty dishes for her meals. Dr. Robert Hoyt was a regular boarder at the hotel in Walnut Grove, and Mary Masters stole his affections away from Fanny Starr, the daughter of the doctor in Burr Oak with whom Dr. Hoyt had trained. Mary married Dr. Hoyt in October 1878, but she died the following year. Dr. Hoyt lived with his in-laws for a while, then moved to Wisconsin.


Masters families (PG), see also Dr. Robert Hoyt
     Genevieve / Genieve Masters, composite Nellie Oleson character (PG)
     George (PG)
     Gussie (PG)
     Jessie (PG)
     William / Will Masters, motel owner (PG)
     Mrs. William Masters (PG)
     Maggie (PG)
     Maggie and George’s baby (PG)
     Matie (Mattie) Masters, Will’s sister (PG)
     Nan / Nannie / Little Nan (PG)
     Sam Masters, Mr. Masters’ brother (PG)
     Masters store (PG)
     Cousin of Matie Masters named Lotie / Lottie (PG)