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Mr. Anderson / Niels Kopperud

Settler south of De Smet who sold seed wheat to Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland during the Hard Winter.

The timber claim wheat has stood between us and starvation the past winter. The Timber Culture law provides that five acres of each timber claim (one claim in every square mile) must be broken the first year and cultivated the next, and many of the settlers who came in a year ago — and nearly all of us did — were glad to put in a little wheat on these five-acre patches. They sowed better than they knew. The price of wheat has been almost uniformly $1 a bushel. – Brookings County Press, June 6, 1881.

While visiting De Smet in the 1930s, Laura Ingalls Wilder supposedly went looking for Mr. Anderson, the soddy-dwelling Hard Winter settler who not only managed to grow 30-40 bushels of wheat per acre on virgin sod during the 1880 growing season, but also dared to want to hang onto that seed wheat instead of selling it to save the town of De Smet from starvation. Laura’s own husband, Almanzo, had grown wheat for seed on land owned by his mother in Marshall, Minnesota, in 1880, and he had hauled it to De Smet, where it was carefully hidden away behind a false wall in his brother’s store building on Calumet Avenue in De Smet. He shared a peck of it with Pa Ingalls once the town’s wheat supply had dwindled to nothing (according to The Long Winter), but there was no way he was going to let the town eat up his seed wheat.

Almanzo Wilder was considered a figure of heroic proportions for talking Mr. Anderson out of his seed wheat instead of parting with his own. Who was Mr. Anderson? In her hand-written Hard Winter manuscript, Wilder didn’t even use the Anderson name from the start. She left a space with a line under it for the settler’s name, scribbling “Anderson” above it at some point.

The granddaughter (Lela Lane, 1900-1980) of a Mr. Anderson who (supposedly) spend the Hard Winter on his claim in Kingsbury County wrote in an undated statement: While visiting my brother several years ago, he told me about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and three other ladies from De Smet, South Dakota, driving out to my grandfather’s farm in North Preston, a rural community North and East of Lake Preston, to verify the fact about the men coming to his sod shanty for the purchase of the wheat, before writing the book. They arrived in an open two-seated buggy, similar to a surrey with the fringe on top. I have heard from many of the old timers and neighbors that my grandfather could and did drive a hard bargain upon occasion and the chapter in the book confirms this fact. This chapter is Chapter 27, For Daily Bread… [letter on file at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society in De Smet]

It turns out that Peder Anderson, Lela’s grandfather, wasn’t even in Kingsbury County during the Hard Winter, nor was her other grandfather, Peter Seipp, also an early homesteader. But it’s interesting to note that Laura went looking for Mr. Anderson in a totally different direction than he was said to have lived in Pioneer Girl, the Hard Winter manuscripts, and in published The Long Winter. Laura went looking north of Lake Preston, not south of De Smet. Why?

There were more than 75 claim-holders named Anderson in the early years in Kingsbury County, but Laura probably knew what she was doing. She went to Lake Preston in search of information about Niels Kopperud, a homesteader formerly known as Mr. Anderson. Kopperud had moved from his original Hard Winter claim south of De Smet and west of Lake Henry to a farm north of Lake Preston years after the Wilders moved to Missouri, buying the farm of another character from The Long Winter: George Foster, the man who butchered his oxen for meat to make up for spooking Almanzo’s horse, Lady (and the antelope they were hunting). In Pioneer Girl, however, it’s Jesse French who butchered his oxen. Niels Kopperud had died in 1917, but Laura was no doubt hoping to talk one of his relatives. If she talked to any of the Kopperuds, they didn’t leave a letter-story behind that I’ve discovered.

It’s easy to question if the Hard Winter wheat trip actually happened at all, as there are no newspaper accounts of the tale either before or after The Long Winter was published, nor when the Wilders visited De Smet and Laura was doing research, nor after Cap’s death, or even Mr. Anderson’s death. The trip is mentioned in a few newspaper articles about the death of the main character of Farmer Boy, but always in reference to his story in The Long Winter, not any other source.

There are, however, multiple newspaper accounts dating from decades before the publication of The Long Winter of Amos Whiting bringing in a carload of wheat before the Hard Winter and how settlers would go to his farm four miles northeast of De Smet to haul some of it back to town on handsleds, grinding it into flour in coffee mills. Almanzo’s own cousin, Charles Lamson, set up a commercial coffee grinder at the hotel and supplied many with hand-ground flour that winter. There are jokes in the newspaper about residents hoarding sugar in their pocket, being short of butter, or twisting hay and grinding seed wheat into flour, but the Wilder brothers were still eating fried ham and pancakes when the Ingallses were said to be completely out of food (pay no attention to that cow and calf in the barn). There are newspaper stories about Delos Perry delivering hams to the hotel in De Smet near the end of the winter, so the Wilder brothers weren’t the only ones who had a bit more to eat than sourdough biscuits.

Readers have to wonder how it was that Royal and Almanzo Wilder could argue that both of the brothers couldn’t make the trip to look for wheat in case they both died (it wouldn’t be fair to their parents), yet they saw no problem with Cap Garland – the only son of a widowed mother who was also supporting two daughters – risking his own life. Perhaps the trip was made more to save Almanzo’s seed wheat for planting than to save the town from certain starvation? Still, Laura mentioned the trip in letters to daughter Rose, so there must have been some truth to it.

If Laura went looking for Mr. Anderson when working on her Hard Winter manuscript, he must have existed, but how was he located? Assuming that Laura got the name right, the first step was to identify all Anderson/Andersen claims using tract book and patent records, realizing that if the settler filed on a claim but relinquished, there would be no claim file recording crops or other details about their time on the claim. One had to assume that Laura was correct in the location of the claim, too, since Almanzo made the trip and Laura could discuss its location with him. Was there a reason she had Pa say he heard that the settler lived southeast of town, when she has Almanzo turn westward after seeing the Lone Cottonwood? (That’s always bothered me.) Since Almanzo and Cap were said to be successful in their mission, that suggests the claim was south of town and west of the Lone Tree. Of the more than 75 claim-holders with the correct name, the majority of claims were in the wrong quadrant of the county, leaving 13 claims filed on by fewer than a dozen different people to investigate. Narrowing the claims down by first filing date left only one name. So I ordered that claim file and then the files for his other claims because his first claim was sort of a wash. Bingo. Niels Anderson.

Click HERE to see the Anderson homestead and preemption claim files and some other compiled research notes on the subject. The file will open in a new window or tab.



Claims of Niels Anderson Kopperud (Mr. Anderson) west of Lake Henry. P = Preemption Claim, settled January 23, 1880, where Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland went to purchase wheat seed in 1881 during the Hard Winter. H = Homestead first filed on July 20, 1881. The Kopperuds moved here after the Hard Winter. T = Tree Claim first filed on by William Pell in February 1880, relinquished by him and taken over by Mr. Anderson September 2, 1885. Note that Kopperud lived southeast of town (as Pa said), and that Kopperud was west of the Lone Cottonwood (the direction Almanzo turned after spotting the tree).

Niels Anderson Kopperud. Niels Anderson was born in the Kopperud district near Oslo, Norway, on November 24, 1853. He came to America in 1873 and settled in Milwaukee with his brother and an uncle, a captain on the Great Lakes. Anderson worked as a ship’s carpenter until 1879, then he headed west. On December 19, 1879, he married Maren Hansen in Canby, Minnesota, a town on the railroad between Marshall and Watertown, Dakota Territory. Leaving his wife in Minnesota, Niels came to Kingsbury County to locate a claim, and he built a house on the quarter section before filing his intent to preempt at the land office in Mitchell on February 2, 1880. Anderson may have been one of the early land-seekers who stopped at the surveyors’ house while the Ingallses were living there.

Although Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that Mr. Anderson lived in a sod shanty, his preemption file indicates that he built two houses of unspecified construction, sized 12×14 and 12×24 feet. One house may have been for use by his father-in-law, Hans Oleson, who was in Kingsbury County at the time of the 1880 census but didn’t file on his own claim directly south of Maren and Niels until 1882. Anderson also built a 26 x 30 foot stable, dug a well, and broke ten acres. A number of Milwaukee residents had gone west to homestead in 1880, and the Milwaukee Daily News reported on their success at farming that first season. July 26th, the newspaper reported that “Crop reports from central and northern Minnesota and portions of Dakota continue favorable. The weather is fine, and if no decided change shall occur during the next week wheat will be safe. In many portions of Dakota and Minnesota it is claimed that wheat will yield 25 to 40 bushels to the acre.” Anderson’s wheat crop isn’t mentioned in his preemption proof, but when he made final proof on his homestead in 1887, he wrote that he had grown crops there for six seasons beginning in the summer of 1881, when he sowed 5 acres of oats yielding 75 bushels of grain. This agrees with what Wilder wrote in The Long Winter (see Chapter 27, “For Daily Bread”) where Mr. Anderson agrees to sell 60 bushels of wheat (30 bushels in the manuscript) at $1.25 per bushel, saying, “I might sow some oats” (the next season), since he was selling the wheat he intended to plant.

Although Niels Anderson used some variation of his given name on his naturalization papers and all claim files (among them Niels, Nels, Nelson, Nils, or N. Anderson, something he had to clarify prior to final proof), he appears as Niels Kopperud on the 1880 census, his 1879 marriage record, and birth records for his children. His wife and children were Kopperuds, not Andersons or Nielsons/Nelsons. He used the surname Anderson in early real property tax records in Kingsbury County (and when introducing himself to Almanzo Wilder, it can be assumed), but Kopperud when paying personal property taxes, a practice that didn’t seem to bother the tax assessor. While it was common for Scandinavians to Americanize their surname if it contained vowels not found in the English alphabet, Anderson’s name change to Kopperud was habitational, to honor his homeland; the Kopperud name was also adopted by his brother.

A portion of an 1899 map is shown above, with Kopperud’s claims outlined. Although Wilder wrote that Anderson was located 12 miles from De Smet, it was actually about half that distance. She may have been referring to the round trip mileage or simply remembered distances in terms of the number of claims, not miles. In the story, Almanzo and Cap look for the Lone Cottonwood to keep them away from the twin lakes, and they spot it from a “low swell.” This was most likely the Indian mount/mound shown on the map. It was from the top of this mound that early settlers could see the sun reflecting on Silver Lake to the north, and the Indian mound was a common landmark until it was leveled to make way for Highway 25, its location shown on the map.

The Kopperuds’ son Andrew was born only days before the 1880 October blizzard. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioned only Mr. Anderson was wintering on his claim, both Niels and Maren Kopperud and their son Andrew were recognized at many Old Settler’s Day events as having spent the Hard Winter in Kingsbury County.

The Kopperuds had 8 children (3 died young), and in 1883, they donated an acre of their preemption land on which to build a schoolhouse, which was also used by the Lake Thompson Evangelical Lutheran Church. The cemetery shown on the map is near the schoolhouse site. Services were in English, but once a month they were conducted in the Norske language. The original schoolhouse burned in 1889, but its replacement (pictured here) became known as the Johnson School. It now stands on the southwest corner of Ingalls Homestead. Here, children and adults can enjoy the one-room schoolhouse experience as part of their visit to the Homestead. To see the site of the Kopperuds’ preemption claim today, take Highway 25 south of De Smet and turn east on 212th Street (the road between Lake Henry and Lake Thompson). At one mile from the turn, you’ll be at the northwest corner of the preemption claim. Another half mile and you’re at the northwest corner of the Kopperud homestead, and a half mile more and you’ll be at the northwest corner of the Kopperud tree claim. The tree claim is now under water! If, when on 212th Street at the northwest corner of the preemption claim, you turn south on 434th Avenue and drive about a half mile, you’ll see the Anderson cemetery to your east.

According to the 50th Anniversary edition of the De Smet News, the Niels Kopperud home was the center of activity around Lake Thompson and he was a leader of the community for the twenty years the family lived there. Mr. Kopperud was a member of the school and township boards and invested in banking. In 1900, the Kopperuds moved north of Lake Preston. Niels Anderson Kopperud died on Old Settler’s Day in 1917; Maren Hansen Kopperud died in April 1920. They are buried in the Lake Preston Evangelical Lutheran Church Cemetery.


Mr. Anderson (TLW 27, 29)