Elevated flat land; a plateau. — Webster, 1882
Many sources say that the tableland mentioned in On the Banks of Plum Creek is the “high bank” northeast of the dugout site marker. A sign points visitors to look at the higher land in that direction, and it’s easily photographed from the dugout site without having to walk across private – and often planted – fields. This high contour is not the tableland. In the manuscript for On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder writes:
Going back from the swimming hole they first climbed up a low bank, then crossed a wide place of almost level land before they came to the higher bank and the prairie. At the center of the flat, low land was what Pa called a table-land of high ground. He said there was a good half acre of ground on the flat top of it.
The tableland was almost perfectly round and looked like an island rising out of the sea of tall grass and rushes. “Must have been made by water washing around it,” Pa said. He helped Laura and Mary climb to the top where they ran a little way in the green grass that grew all over it.
While working on her manuscript, Wilder made at least two drawings of the layout of the land as she remembered it; one is shown at left. She recalled that the tableland was a half acre in size and located slightly southeast of the swimming hole, which was north and west of the dugout site. For water to have “flowed around it,” the tableland had to have been located so that there lower areas on all sides of it, which would fill with water when the creek overflowed its banks. In Chapter 14, “Spring Freshet,” Wilder writes:
The tableland was a round island. All around it water flowed smoothly, coming out of a wide, humping river and running back into it. Where the swimming-pool had been, the tall willows were short willows standing in a lake.
Based on Wilder’s drawings and aerial photographs of the preemption claim site, the tableland is located west of the high contour bank and in an area covered with trees and brush today; it is not the high contoured bank as usually suggested.
Harold Gordon, father of the current owner of the Plum Creek site, moved his family to Charles Ingalls’ former land in the spring of 1947. In November, Garth Williams traveled to Walnut Grove to research the Little House sites prior to illustrating the books for a new edition, copyrighted in 1953. One of those photographs can be seen in William Anderson’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Country, published in 1990. Williams’ photo of a footbridge over Plum Creek is shown at right.
According to an article in Laura’s Plum Creek Newsletter (Volume 2, Number 2, Fall / Winter 1998), published by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, Williams stopped at the Walnut Grove Tribune office and asked for help in locating the Ingalls dugout site. The publisher didn’t know where the farm was, but local resident Walter Swoffer (born in 1887), remembered playing in a dugout on the Gordon farm as a child; the Gordon farm was indeed the former Ingalls land. It is not known if Garth Williams photographed the tableland, or if he even sought out its location.
There are existing aerial photographs of the farm taken a decade earlier than Williams’ visit – photographs that when compared to current aerial photos show just how much the land has changed over the years. Beginning in 1938, aerial photographs were taken when collecting Geological Survey data, and these were referred to when survey maps were drawn. These photos are held by the Aerial Photography Field Office (APFO) in Salt Lake City, Utah, and are used by the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) to track changes in the land over the years. Aerial photographs were taken in 1938, 1955, 1968, 1974, 1984, 1992, 1996, and annually beginning in 2002.
In the area of the 1938 photo of the former Ingalls preemption claim (shown at left) – the NW Section 18, Township 109, Range 38 in Redwood County, Minnesota – the first thing one notices is how fewer trees there are along Plum Creek, as compared to the creek today. Note the paths to the creek and what must be bridges or fording places in the creek. It’s possible that the path near the location of the current dugout marker shows the way cattle were brought down from the barn Wilder wrote was located on the higher prairie ground east of the dugout. Of course, this area may have changed greatly in the sixty years prior to this photograph being taken, or when the Ingalls family lived there.
The aerial photograph of the preemption claim site at right is from recent years. It shows Plum Creek (blue), current road through the farm to the parking area at the dugout site marker (red), and the swimming hole area and tableland (green dots). The higher ground east of the triangular meadow (lighter green line) is the boundary of the land identified as the tableland in all Little House reference literature that pre-dates this one. Please note that the actual tableland is not on a portion of the farm that visitors are encouraged to explore.
tableland (BPC 4-5, 14; PG)