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claim shanty

A mean dwelling; a temporary building or erection; a hut. — Webster, 1882

…My father filed on a claim and built a shanty six by nine feet, with seven foot posts. This shanty became a lean-to on a house 12×14 feet and in that lean-to I was born. – Harvey Dunn, 1930.


A claim shanty such as the board shanty on the Ingallses’ homestead, was usually not meant to be a permanent home. It was meant to get the homesteaders on their land and out of the elements. It was a place to sleep. It was a place to cook, especially in bad weather. It was a place to store anything the settlers might own, in order to protect them from weather… and from thieves.

For the serious homesteader, one who intended to remain on the land he or she homesteaded, the “habitable dwelling” required to be constructed on the claim would be the best they could afford and build. While the Ingallses’ homestead shanty was small, it was clean and bright and was improved upon as time and money allowed.

There are many stories about the fraud of homesteaders or preemptors whose main intent was to obtain clear title so they could sell the land. Why go to the expense of building a decent shanty in that case? One man built a 12 x 14 inch model of a house, and swore that his home was “12 by 14.” Another man kept an old window frame inside his windowless shanty, thereby being able to truthfully claim that he had “a window in his house.” Another man tossed rocks at four corners of a small square, slept on a plank in the middle of it, stuck a piece of broken glass in a split stick beside him, and swore he slept in a house with a plank floor and a window.

But what of the shanty built by Charles Ingalls?

Someone on a Laura Ingalls Wilder group that I belong to wondered if the house in the photographs Garth Williams took in 1947 is the Ingallses’ house from their homestead claim, i.e. the one Laura lived in. You can see the photo-in-question and others in William T. Anderson’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Country; if you look up the title on amazon, you can peek inside the book. Do a search for Garth Williams; the house photo is on page 56. If you don’t own this book, you should.

I’ve been told by several people in De Smet that house on the homestead and photographed by Garth Williams wasn’t the one from Laura’s day, but that that one had been moved to another farm, and parts of it were possibly hidden in the existing house there. I don’t know if this is true or not. I do notice that Anderson only wrote that the house photographed by Williams was on the Ingalls homestead, not that it was indeed the house. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote after a visit to De Smet in the 1930s that there was a fine farmhouse on their former land, which suggests to me that it wasn’t the one Laura remembered, but a different house.

According to Charles Ingalls’ homestead file, he built a frame house 14 x 20 feet, and an addition measuring 12 x 16 feet in size. In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Wilder described the shanty on the claim as looking “like half a woodshed that has been split in two,” with the roof slanting all one way, no windows, and no door in the doorway. Pa said it was “a little house only half built, and that half unfinished.” (See Chapter 28, “Moving Day”) This half-house was either 7 x 20 feet or 10 x 14 feet in size. In the next chapter, Wilder describes the placement of furniture and windows. I must have studied this in depth at some point, because I found this drawing I did in 2003 of how I think the shanty was laid out. In my drawing, the door opens on the west wall. You can see another interpretation of the layout on page 101 of The World of Little House by Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Eriksson.

The original frame house of the homestead file would have probably meant the half-shanty after the bedrooms were added; see Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 2, “Springtime on the Claim.” The parlor addition was supposedly built to the east of the existing structure; see These Happy Golden Years, Chapter 19, “The Brown Poplin.” This addition had a door to the north (towards the town of De Smet), and windows on the east and south walls.

Looking at my drawing and others, and at the Garth Williams photos, I can’t really make anything fit unless I mirror the GW photographs and change my thinking about window and door placement. I’ve manipulated two rectangles of graph paper in the proper proportions until my head hurts. No doubt I’ve missed some Little House descriptions somewhere, and I always assumed that the half-house was long and skinny in configuration, while I drew it exactly the other way. It’s fairly easy to draw Wilder’s layout of the interior of the original shanty the way I drew it, and make everything fit.

I did just notice that in By the Shores of Silver Lake, Wilder mentions a back door. I always pictured the shanty as only having the one door, and I don’t often think of having a back door unless there is also a front one. By the way, in the top photo, if you assume that the door is a standard 3-feet in width, then that wall is 14 feet wide. Fourteen feet? Sound familiar? That’s a dimension from Pa’s homestead file. Add some fuel to the long and skinny shanty argument fire, please.


claim shanty (SSL 6, 15, 27-29, 31-32; TLW 1, 7, 13, 23, 33; LTP 2, 6, 11, 13; THGY 1-3, 14, 19-20, 24, 28-29; PG)
     shanty (SSL 3, 5-15, 19, 27, 29-30; TLW 1-5, 16, 31, 33; LTP 2; THGY 3-4, 7, 10, 14, 20; PG)