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Martha Perry / Mrs. White

Mother-in-law of early De Smet drygoods merchant; she made and sold shirts for bachelor settlers.

The old time residents of De Smet will remember her as Mrs. White, who was connected with the family of a man by the name of Clayson who ran a store of general merchandise in De Smet in the early days of that city. – Kingsbury County Independent, early 1900s

In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls spends nine weeks working in De Smet, sewing for Mrs. White, the mother-in-law of Mr. Clancy, who runs a drygoods store in town. Pa told Ma that Mr. Clancy figured he’d get more business from local men who were in the area homesteading and either bachelors or men whose wife hadn’t come west yet, if he had someone available who would sew his material into shirts. In reality, the drygoods merchant was named Clayson, and Laura sewed two weeks for his mother-in-law, Martha White.

When working on her Prairie Girl manuscript, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote to daughter Rose in March 1937, including a copy of her “account” with Mrs. White, and explaining the circumstances surrounding her going to work in town. The letter was microfilmed and can be found on the Pioneer Girl microfilmed copy archived by The University of Missouri at Columbia. Laura wrote that she first went to work in town, boarding with the Clayson family and earning seventy-five cents that week. Laura was such a good worker that Mrs. White wanted her to keep working there, but Laura thought she wasn’t paid enough, so she was given $1.75 the next two week. She stopped work at the end of three weeks because Mrs. White and Mr. Clayson “quarreled all the time,” with Mr. Clayson getting “so angry that he would strike his wife” and “once he dragged her by her long hair from one room to the other. Pa didn’t want her working at such a place, so Laura didn’t continue.

The story of Laura earning nine dollars – enough for Ma to purchase the goods for Mary’s best dress – is a good one in Little Town on the Prairie, but according to Laura’s account for her two weeks’ work (which was added incorrectly, by the way), she cleared only about a dollar in profit, spending the rest of her $3.75 salary on calico, a thimble, a pair of cloth shoes, some silk, a plume, and a charm. She also paid Mrs. White a quarter to sew the plume on a hat!

Mrs. Martha White was born Martha R. Segar in January 1832, the daughter of Joel Segar (1807-1882) and Hannah Muzzy (1806-1883). Born in St. Lawrence County, New York, Martha and at least two of her brothers moved to Iowa in the early 1850s, settling in Delaware County. On October 15, 1854, Martha married Horace White, a farmer living in Dubuque. The couple settled in Earlville, where daughter Ellen (Ella) was born in 1856 and son Leroy in 1859. In 1872, Horace White opened a hotel in Greeley, Iowa, known as the “White House.” The Whites’ daughter married Chauncey Clayson about 1875.

In 1880, Martha and Horace White came to Kingsbury County, Dakota Territory, with the Claysons. Horace filed on a homestead, the NW 30-111-56 in June. Chauncey Clayson filed on the quarter section to the east. Close neighbors included Eliza Jane Wilder, John Carroll, and Thomas Power. On the 1880 census, Horace White is listed as a retired hotel keeper, age 67. Martha White was 48. When not on the homestead, the Whites lived with the Claysons in his building on Lot 13, Block 2 in De Smet.

Horace White died October 9, 1885, in De Smet, and was buried in Iroquois. Mrs. White married Oliver Perry at his home near Lake Henry on August 28, 1887. (Mr. Perry’s first wife was also named Martha; she died in 1883 and is buried in De Smet.) Oliver Perry was the grandfather of Clyde Perry (his father was Oliver’s son, Delos), one of Laura Ingalls’ students in the Perry School. Oliver was also the father of Ernest Perry, an Ingalls neighbor who accompanied Laura to parties on occasion.

Martha and Oliver Perry remained in Kingsbury County until after 1903, when they moved to Idaho. Martha Perry died there in 1907; her burial location is unknown. Oliver Perry died in Washington State in 1912, at age 90. He was living with his son Ernest at the time of his death.


Mrs. White (LTP 5-6, 9; PG), see also Chauncey Clayson