An animal of several different species. The name was originally given by French settlers to many burrowing animals, from their honeycombing the earth. In Canada and Illinois, the name was given to a gray burrowing squirrel (Spermaphilus Franklin); west of the Mississippi to S. Richardsonii; and in Wisconsin to a striped squirrel. In Missouri, a common species is a pouched rat of a reddish or chestnut-brown color, with broad, mole-like fore feet, the Geomys bursarius. In Georgia, a snake (Colber coupen) is called by the name; and in Florida, a turtle (the Testudo polyphemus). — Webster, 1882
“One for a gopher, Two for a gopher, Three for a gopher, Four don’t go fur.” – Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 3, “The Necessary Cat”
In Little House on the Prairie (Chapter 4, “Prairie Day”), Laura Ingalls Wilder describes the brown striped gophers as looking “exactly like bits of dead wood sticking out of the ground.” In the existing manuscripts for both Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek, these are said to be picket-pin gophers, not simply the striped gophers or gophers of the published books. These animals are two different species of ground squirrel, and both are found on the Kansas and Minnesota prairies. Wilder must have realized that the striped gophers and picket-pin gophers weren’t the same, so she simply called them gophers.
The Striped Prairie Squirrel (Spermophilus tridecim lineatus) is one kind of pocket gopher. It has brownish-red stripes on a yellowish ground. It burrows, and carries seeds in cheek pouches. This is the animal famous for robbing a planted cornfield of seed! Even though this animal is typically not called a picket-pin gopher, notice how it does stand on its hind legs and resemble a piece of wood in the old drawing at left.
The picket-pin gopher is Richardson’s Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus richardsonii), a small, burrowing mammal of the prairies. This is also what Wilder called the pocket gopher in her Pioneer Girl manuscript. It eats insects (including grasshoppers) as well as seeds, leaves, and stems of certain plants. It stuffs its cheeks with seeds and bugs, which it stores in underground burrows. The ground squirrel hibernates from September until some time in January-March. It makes a characteristic shrill whistle, as well as chirps, squeals, and tooth chatters. It is preyed upon by badgers, certain snakes, and hawks (see Little House on the Prairie, Chapter 4, “Prairie Day”). There were a number of “gophers” mentioned in the Little House books, which must have included Richardson’s Ground Squirrel, the Striped Prairie Squirrel, and the Prairie Dog. It is impossible to know which species of animal Wilder is writing about in most cases.
“Gopher my way to the stable…” During the Hard Winter of 1880-1881, the snow fall was so deep at one point that Charles Ingalls was able to dig a tunnel from the back door to the stable; he called it gophering because digging through the snow reminded him of gophers digging tunnels in the earth.
One for a gopher,
Two for a gopher,
Three for a gopher,
Four don’t go fur.
Here, the joke is Charles Ingalls’ play on words: using go fur (meaning to go far, or to last a long time, which the corn doesn’t!) as a rhyme for gopher. The poem is a play on his planting rhyme of planting four kernels of corn in each hill. Two would be eaten by animals, leaving two to mature.
gopher (LHP 4, 22; TLW 1; LTP 3, 23; THGY 15, 18; PG)
corn eaten by gophers (PG)
“gopher my way to the stable” (TLW 22)
“one for a gopher, two for a gopher…” (LTP 3)
pocket gopher (PG)