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James McKee family

Early homesteader north of Manchester, Dakota Territory. Laura Ingalls stayed with the McKee family during the spring of 1883.

Laura liked him, for he was truly good and kind and never said a cross word. – These Happy Golden Years, Chapter 14, “Holding Down a Claim”

noteJames McKee was born in 1850 in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. He and his wife Martha (born 1850 in Ohio) had at one daughter, Mary E. McKee (born 1872 in Illinois).

In These Happy Golden Years (Chapter 14, “Holding Down a Claim”), Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the long months she spent with Mrs. McKee and daughter Mattie (her given name was Mary), on the family’s claim while Mr. McKee continued to work at the lumberyard in De Smet. Mrs. McKee felt uneasy at the thought of staying alone with just her daughter on the claim and consented to live there only if Laura Ingalls agreed to accompany her.

Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl that Laura, Mrs. McKee, and her daughter left early in March for the new homestead, which was not a homestead but a preemption claim. This was the second claim filed on by James McKee, and the second time he filed on it. The McKees were not the newcomers to the area that Wilder made them out to be. In 1879, James McKee first filed on a homestead north of De Smet. April 15, 1882, he proved up on this homestead (under the Act of June 15, 1880), selling it a few months later. In 1881, Mr. McKee purchased a lot on the east side of Calumet Avenue in De Smet; this is where Mrs. McKee worked as a seamstress and where the family lived while in town.

James McKee first filed on the quarter section north of Manchester as a tree claim in March 1880. As such, he was not required to establish residency. In April 1883, McKee relinquished this tree claim and immediately filed on the land again as a preemption. Exactly six months after first filing, James McKee preempted. The October 27, 1883 De Smet Leader reported that “J. W. McKee, of Manchester, came to the county seat on Thursday to prove up and came in to tell us that he expects soon to remove to Pierre and engage in the hardware business. Sorry to have him leave the region.” Like many homesteaders, the McKees most likely had no intention of staying in the De Smet area past final proof. Homesteading was merely a way to obtain land which could be sold at a profit. This claim – because it was a preemption – didn’t even require the lengthy residency which Mrs. McKee supposedly complained so vehemently about in These Happy Golden Years.

Although the McKees may have temporarily gone west, they ended up back in Illinois, and sadly, Mary McKee died as a teenager. January 6, 1882, Mary McKee had written in Laura Ingalls’ autograph album: “Remember your friend. Mary McKee, De Smet.”

Photo of the former McKee preemption claim today, looking north from the south quarter-section line. Although there are farmhouses to the east, this view is probably similar to what Laura saw in 1883. The McKee shanty – 20×18 feet – was said to have been moved or torn down shortly after the McKees sold this claim.


McKee family
     James (THGY 12, 14, 16; PG)
     Martha (THGY 12-16; PG)
     Mary “Mattie” (THGY 12, 14-16; PG)