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Walter Ogden

Homesteader who lived with the Ingalls family in the surveyors’ house during the winter of 1879-1880.

A.W. Ogden and family started for Perry, Iowa, this morning. They are good citizens and the Times hopes that prosperity will attend them whether they return to Lake Preston or not. — Lake Preston Times, November 22, 1895.

Walter Ogden is not a character in the published Little House books, but he appears in Wilder’s Pioneer Girl memoir, introduced as a young man who spends the winter of 1879-1880 in the Surveyors’ House with the Ingalls family. In his “The Settlement of De Smet” essay (published in 1882 as part of Treasures from C.P. Ingalls and Laura Wilder), Charles Ingalls recalled that “Walter Ogdon [sic], a young man that was working for Henry Peck stayed with us taking care of teams belonging to Peck that were left here for the winter.” Laura wrote that Walter decided at the last minute that he would rather live with the family instead of wintering alone on a claim miles away, so he moved into the surveyors’ house, while the livestock he was watching and the hay to feed them were moved into the railroad company’s shanty stable nearby.

Both Henry Peck and Walter Ogden had already filed on homesteads in Kingsbury County: Ogden’s was the S-SE & N-SE 24-110N-55W (first filed on October 14, 1879, converted to a preemption and purchased on June 20, 1881), while Peck filed on the NW 22-110N-54W (first filed on June 8, 1878, with final proof made in 1884 by his wife, Esther, after Henry Peck’s death in October 1880). The two claims were on opposite sides of Lake Whitewood, several miles south of Lake Preston.

Austin Walter Ogden was born in Sumner Township, Buchanan County, Iowa, on February 11, 1854, to parents Breeze William Ogden (1821-1887) and Esther Salter Ogden (1826-1899). He had siblings William James (born 1861), Mary Helen (1850-1861), Emma (1848-1861), Anna Belle (1862-1956), Virginia Lucy (1864-1870), and Victoria Esther (1864-1896). Walter attended grammar school for five years, then left school to work as a farm laborer. In 1878, Walter Ogden filed on a tree claim in Minnehaha County – which he abandoned – suggesting that he may have worked on the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad prior to going to work on the Dakota Central, as did Robert Boast. Ogden attended the first church service in De Smet, conducted by Reverend Alden at the Surveyors’ House in February 1880. According to the 1880 federal census, Ogden was working for and boarding with Henry J. Stebbins in Beadle County, as was Almanzo Wilder. Esther and Henry Peck ran another boarding house for railroad workers, as did Peck’s brother, Charles.

February 11, 1882, Walter Ogden (age 28) married Ida May Ruth (age 16) at Adel, Dallas County, Iowa. Ida was the daughter of William Ruth (1821-1893) and Jerusia Fish Ruth (1825-1889). No connection to Banker Thomas H. Ruth in De Smet has been found. Walter and Ida’s first child, Henry Wesley Ogden, was born at Old Zena, in Dallas County, Iowa, on October 1, 1882. The Ogdens returned to the claim in Kingsbury County, where they had four more children: Grace (1886-1892; she died from diphtheria and is buried in the Lake Preston Cemetery), Edith Victoria (1889-1952), Roy Nathaniel (1891-1963), and William Nile (1893-1949).

The Ogdens were friends with the Boasts, Mr. Foster, the Rosses and Perrys, and Mrs. Peck (whose husband, Henry, had been a first cousin of Ella Boast’s). Early newspapers record a number of visits between the Boast and Ogden families.

The Kingsbury County Independent dated November 22, 1895, reported that “A.W. Ogden, of Lake Preston, has sold his property there and will move to Iowa this week. He is a first class citizen and one of the kind that we hate to lose. We wish him success in his new location.” After spending the winter in Madrid, Iowa, the Ogdens settled in Perry, located in Dallas County. Daughter Ruth Thelma (1898-1994) was born in Dallas County.

In addition to farming, Walter Ogden worked at earth grading, and later in life he was the night agent at the depot in Perry. Walter Ogden died September 4, 1920. Ida died January 17, 1922. Both are buried in Violet Hill Cemetery in Dallas.

walter ogden — from my old blog, entry dated August 15, 2005

Just as the Masters family messes up the real-life hard winter story, Walter Ogden messes up the real-life surveyors’ house story. If, as Charles Ingalls wrote, Walter Ogden lived with the Ingalls family in the surveyors’ house during the winter of 1879-1880, you have to wonder how his presence affected the lives of the Ingallses that winter.

For example, if Mr. and Mrs. Boast stayed with Ma and the girls while Pa went to file on his claim (February 1880), was Walter Ogden there, too? Was it not okay for only Ogden to stay with them, hence Mr. and Mrs. Boast moving in? Did the fact that there was a Mrs. Boast present make it okay for Mr. Boast to be there at night? It doesn’t seem as if Ogden would have accompanied Pa to the land office because he had filed on his own claim in October 1879.

And what about those cozy evenings of music and song by the stove? In reality, there was another person there, unless Ogden bowed out and spent his evenings in the room with the surveyors’ tools. Is this where he usually slept, or did he sleep in the main room on the floor in front of the stove? At any rate, he was obviously there for almost everything: meals, songs, the first church service, Christmas.

Laura Ingalls Wilder included Walter Ogden in Pioneer Girl, so all is not guesswork:

We moved at once into the surveyors’ house and made everything snug for the winter. Pa had laid in a supply of provisions and simple medicines to last the winter and at the last minute a man named Walter Ogden wanted to stay with us. He was taking care of several yoke of oxen for a man whose homestead was several miles to the east and had intended to stay there by himself, but didn’t like the loneliness and if Pa would give him permission to keep the oxen in the old company shanty-stable and would board him, he would come and stay with us.

It seemed that it might be wise to have another man around, so Pa told him to come and he moved the cattle and hay to feed them and just got them nicely settled before the first snow.

You can read on to find that now only does Ogden board with the family, he plays checkers with Pa, he goes with Mr. Boast to get the sled out of the snow (not Pa), and he receives a tablet of shaving papers as a Christmas gift (made by Laura and Carrie). Interesting that while Mr. Boast is always referred to as Mr., Laura always refers to Walter Ogden by his first name.

Was Walter Ogden musical? Did he sing bass like Pa, or join in as tenor? Did Laura and Carrie dance in front of him? With him? He was 25 and unmarried that winter. He married in 1882. Guess what his first daughter was named? Grace.


Walter Ogden (PG)