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Silliman Gilbert family

Stella Gilbert was one of the three girls who inspired Laura Ingalls Wilder’s composite “Nellie Oleson” character, along with Nellie Owens and Genevieve Masters.

Some people named Gilbert lived on a farm north and east of town. There were Pa and Ma Gilbert, Al and Fred and Stella and Leona Gilbert. – Pioneer Girl

Silliman Nathaniel Gilbert Family. Silliman Gilbert was born in 1833 in New Haven, Connecticut. Silliman and his wife Emily had eight children: Lafayette (1859), David (1862), Estella (1864), Fred (1867), Charles (1871), Elizabeth (1874), Ada (1876), and Luella (1881). The Gilbert family lived in Wabasha County, Minnesota, before settling near De Smet, Dakota Territory. They were wealthy and quite prominent in Lake City, owning thousands of dollars in real estate. The area where they lived was known as “Gilbert Valley” long after the family left Minnesota. Photo is of Emily and S.N. Gilbert and daughter Luella. Laura Ingalls Wilder mistakenly calls her “Leona” in her Pioneer Girl memoir.

On October 20, 1879, Silliman Gilbert filed on a homestead northeast of the townsite of De Smet, the NW 23-111-56. That same day, he filed on a tree claim six miles southwest of De Smet in Manchester Township, the SE 15-110-57. On May 10, 1880, son Lafayette filed on a homestead just south of Lake Preston, the SE 6-110-54.

In her handwritten Pioneer Girl memoir, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that the Gilberts lived north and east of town and had arrived during the spring after the Hard Winter. Laura became acquainted with Stella at Sunday School and visited the family at their homestead. When a dancing club was started in town, Fred Gilbert asked Laura to go with him, but she refused, thinking that she didn’t want to spend quite so much time with Fred. Later, though, Laura confessed that she had been quite smitten with Fred, who was exactly her age. Fred Gilbert died young; he and his wife are buried in the De Smet Cemetery near the Ingallses.

Silliman Gilbert became a prosperous fruit farmer in Washington, with all of his children except Al settling nearby. Silliman Gilbert died in 1921 at age 88; Emily Gilbert died in 1929.

Gilbert, the mail carrier, is leaving here for Preston in the morning. He’s making a sled now. – The Long Winter, Chapter 16, “Fair Weather”

David Allison Gilbert. David Allison (called “Al”) Gilbert was the mail boy of the Hard Winter of 1880-1881, walking to Lake Preston and back with the mail. Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioned “Gilbert” as the mail boy in The Long Winter (see Chapter 18, “Merry Christmas”).

May 22, 1883, David Gilbert filed on a preemption claim in Manchester Township, southwest of De Smet, near where his father held a tree claim. In September and October of the same year, he filed on an adjoining homestead and tree claim in the Bouchie school district. He built a shanty close to the home of Joseph Bouchie. In his final homestead papers, Gilbert wrote that the only time he was away from his claim was during the winter of 1883-1884, which was when Laura Ingalls taught in the Bouchie District. David Gilbert’s claim shanty was used for the schoolhouse that term.

David Gilbert married Sarah Lyngbye, whose family came from Denmark in the 1870s and homesteaded near David’s preemption claim. They had three children: Hazel (born 1897), Ana (born 1890), and Guy (born 1892). Many items belonging to the Gilbert family are on display in the Surveyors’ House in De Smet, South Dakota, part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society. David Gilbert is buried in the De Smet Cemetery.

His “mail boy” job during the Hard Winter is something most Little House readers are familiar with because it has been shared so often, but David A. Gilbert was remembered in De Smet for another “Hard Winter” experience not included in The Long Winter, that of surviving the October Blizzard in an unfinished sod shanty on his father’s tree claim southwest of De Smet. Although he didn’t spend the winter of 1880-1881 in Kingsbury County, Silliman Gilbert was agent for the Jewell Plant Nursery Company of Lake City, Minnesota.

Gilbert’s adventure was often written about in Kingsbury County newspapers, including this story from 1921, twenty years after it happened. The story took place on the SE 15-110N-57W. After spending the Hard Winter in De Smet, Will Warner settled at Lake Preston and worked as a blacksmith. George Giles was the younger brother of early De Smet settler, Nathan Giles. The photo below is of Dave Gilbert (L) and Will Warner (R), who reunited for a photo op in De Smet forty years after the October 1880 blizzard. The unoccupied shanty the men went to after the October blizzard was on Andrew Patchen’s homestead, two miles due west of the De Smet Cemetery on the south side of 208th Street.

D.A. Gilbert and W.E. Warner Kept Prisoners Three Days in Knee High Sod Shanty in 1880.

     The thoughts of certain residents of this vicinity have gone back to the early days during the past week, and, while the pleasant Indian summer has been with us, their thoughts have been of blizzards, and days not pleasant.

     For last Friday, October 14, was the anniversary of a big storm that raged for three days, at the opening of what turned out to be the winter of winters — the Hard Winter of 1880 and 18881.

     A great deal has been written of the hard winter, when the settlers were forced to eat wheat ground in coffee mills, when they moved into the neighbor’s shack to make fuel of their own for the common good, and when twisted hay kept many families warm thruout the cold months.

     Not so much is heard of the snowstorm that broke upon them from as pleasant weather as last Friday, tho. But there are a few old timers who have cause to remember this storm, and among them, particularly, D. A. Gilbert and W. E. Warner, whose experience during the storm was unique — and not at all pleasant.

     On the 13th of October, 1880, these two men, quite young men at that time, in company with George Giles of about their own age, drove with two teams of oxen to the claim belonging to Mr. Gilbert’s father, which was ten miles southwest of De Smet, taking lumber with them to roof over a sod house they were to build. That afternoon they began the breaking and, collecting some sods, made a wall for their house, to be about twelve or fifteen feet each way. It commenced to rain and so they covered the sod shanty, which had obtained a height of not over three feet. Making things as snug as possible, and expecting to complete the job of house building the following morning, they lay down to sleep.

     The storm turned to snow and they awoke to a world of white. They were able to dig away at the south and get a view of things. They made snowballs and patched the sod walls to prevent drifting snow from coming in. They had food enough so they did not suffer greatly. And there they stayed for three days. While the storm continued, the roof sagged with the weight of snow and the warmth of the well-enclosed “house” melted the snow and gave them pool of water in which to lie.

     The third day the storm cleared away somewhat and the boys decided to make for home. They mounted the oxen (Giles balked at riding a steer until he became winded chasing one that broke away) and headed for the nearest shanty, located on one of E.E. Belzer’s quarters, northeast of where they were. Snow squalls made their trip a difficult one but they reached the shanty at last, made themselves at home in the absence of the owner, built a fire and dried out. On their way toward home they met a rescue party a mile from De Smet going in search of them.

     The snow from this early storm all passed away before winter set in and farmers dug their potatoes, etc., a short time after it, altho banks of snow lasted until the big winter of storms began.



“There will be Mary Power and Ida Brown, perhaps Stella Gilbert, though I think I’ll combine Gennie Masters and Stella in Nellie Oleson.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder, letter to Rose Wilder Lane, August 17, 1938

Estella M. Gilbert.* Estella Gilbert was born in May 1864 in Lake City (Wabasha County) Minnesota. She was sixteen when she came to Kingsbury County with her parents and siblings.

Laura Ingalls Wilder used memories of Stella Gilbert as part of the fictional composite “Nellie Oleson” character in the published Little House books. Because Nellie Owen never lived in De Smet, and because Wilder didn’t want to introduce multiple characters with similar traits, Genevieve Masters and Stella Gilbert provided the inspiration for the Nellie Oleson character in the De Smet Little House books. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder included both the Masters and Gilbert families. Although in These Happy Golden Years, Wilder wrote that Nellie’s family had lost everything and was quite poor while living near De Smet, this was not the case with the Gilbert family.

Wilder wrote that Stella was trying to “edge her out” of Almanzo’s attentions and she wanted no part of it. On one afternoon ride, Laura chose the path of the buggy, maneuvering it so that Almanzo dropped Stella off before taking Laura home. She then informed Almanzo that if he wanted Stella, to take her buggy riding. The next week, only Almanzo showed up, and Stella was never included again. A similar story appears in These Happy Golden Years (see Chapter 20, “Nellie Oleson”).

In 1888, Stella Gilbert married John Drury in De Smet and they had one son, Fred, born in 1894. John had an interest in the south side livery barn, and upon selling it, the couple lived in Volga for a while. Their marriage was all too brief; he died of typhoid fever in 1895 and is buried in the De Smet cemetery near Stella’s brother, Fred. To provide for her son, Stella took a job in Charles Tinkham’s furniture store. In 1903, Stella, her son Fred, and all of the Gilbert family except Al moved to Yakima County, Washington. Several years later, Stella married Alva Merrill; the couple had no children. Stella died in Washington in 1944.



There was a dancing club in town with dances every Friday night and I had been thinking I would like to go, but when Fred told me he had bought a membership and asked me to go with him, I couldn’t bear to think of being with Fred so much and refused. He was nice enough for anything I could explain, even to myself, but he was a green country boy and I didn’t like his style, nor the Gilbert family. – Laura Ingalls Wilder, handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript

William Fred Gilbert. Fred Gilbert was born June 16, 1867, in Lake City (Goodhue County) Minnesota. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that Fred was attentive to her, and wanted to take her to dances in De Smet, she wasn’t interested in him. Fred moved to Nebraska, where he married Arianna Herren in 1892. They had three children: Emily (1892), Harold (1894), and Elden (1897). A sufferer of Bright’s disease, Fred died of heart failure at age 32 in Merrick County, Nebraska. He died on September 26, 1899, and was buried in De Smet Cemetery just to the east of the Ingalls lot. Arianna moved to Illinois, where she died in 1901. Her grave in Illinois and Fred’s in De Smet have matching markers.



NOTE. This entry was originally posted on May 23, 2005. — On April 21, 2016, in an attempt to track others who may be harvesting from this website without providing proper citation, the name “Stella M. Gilbert” was changed to include the incorrect and made-up middle name: “Estella Morrison Gilbert.” MORRISON IS NOT STELLA’S MIDDLE NAME. Since that time, the made-up middle name has been posted on find-a-grave (a site on which anyone can post anything at any time without primary source citation); it also was used in a November 2016 book about the composite Nellie Oleson Little House book character. I repeat: Morrison is not Stella’s middle name!


Gilbert family
     Mr. and Mrs. (PG)
     David / Al, the mail carrier (TLW 16, 18; LTP 16)
     Fred (LTP 16; THGY 11; PG)
     Gilbert farm (PG)
     Leona [sic] (PG)
     Stella (PG)