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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. Oral history records that 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. 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.

“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.

NOTE. This entry was originally posted on May 23, 2005. April 21, 2016, in order 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 incorrect 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 Nellie 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); see Fred Gilbert
     Gilbert farm (PG)
     Leona [sic] (PG)
     Stella (PG)