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Eliza Jane Wilder

Almanzo’s sister; she taught the De Smet school in the fall of 1882, with Laura Ingalls as one of her students.

Miss Eliza Wilder returned from Minnesota where she spent the winter. -De Smet Leader, May 20, 1885.

Eliza Jane Wilder was born January 3, 1850 near Burke (Franklin County) New York, the third child of James and Angeline Albina Day. Eliza Jane had an older sister Laura (born 1844) and an older brother Royal (born 1847). Following her were Alice (born 1853), Almanzo (born 1857), and Perley (born 1869).

Eliza Jane was educated at the local township school and at Franklin Academy in Malone. She was certified as a teacher at age 19 and taught school terms through the year 1882, both in New York and in Dakota Territory (and possibly in Minnesota as well). When Eliza Jane was 19, her parents moved from New York to a farm in Spring Valley (Fillmore County) Minnesota. Eliza Jane remained in New York with her brother Royal and she both taught school and helped run the family farm until she joined her family in Minnesota in 1875.

Homesteading In Dakota Territory. In April 1879, Eliza Jane went to Dakota Territory, where she had accepted a position to teach in Valley Springs (Minnehaha County), a small town east of Sioux Falls near the Dakota / Minnesota border. In August, Eliza Jane traveled to the land office in Yankton and filed sight unseen on a homestead adjoining the townsite of De Smet in Kingsbury County. In addition, she filed on a tree claim two and a half miles to the north. Her brothers Almanzo and Royal both filed homesteads and tree claims in the same vicinity.

Eliza Jane should have established residency on her homestead by February 1880, as a person had six months from date of filing to do so. However, she returned to her claim in April 1880, just in time for a spring blizzard which struck Kingsbury County by surprise (see By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 27, “Living in Town”).

Eliza Jane spent the next eleven years proving up on her homestead and tree claim. Eliza Jane Wilder filed lengthy handwritten testimony as part of her final homestead proof. Because her periods of non-residency were numerous and a listing would take more space than the two lines allotted, she attached a separate affidavit which detailed her whereabouts during each year she had homesteaded. Charles Ingalls witnessed this testimony and swore to its accuracy.

The land office apparently wasn’t satisfied that and again questioned Eliza Jane Wilder’s length of residency. Rather than apply to the charges briefly, she submitted ten handwritten pages detailing her dates of residency and circumstances to justify her periods of non-residency. Her patent was awarded. CLICK HERE to read the transcription of two letters from Wilder’s homestead claim file.

Teacher Of the De Smet School. Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered that Eliza Jane Wilder taught school during the fall after the Hard Winter (see Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 11, “Miss Wilder Teaches School”), an entire year prior to the term she actually was employed. Records show that Willard Seelye taught the fall 1881 term in De Smet. In addition, Eliza Jane Wilder was not even in Kingsbury County during the period in question. In 1885, she wrote:

In August [1881], I received a dispatch from Mr. Jackson, an old friend with whom I boarded while in Valley Springs, saying his wife was thrown from a carriage and seriously if not fatally injured. She wished me to come to her and I went taking with me only a satchel and expecting to be gone for a few weeks at most… I remained until Feb. 1882.

About her term in the De Smet school, Eliza Jane Wilder wrote:

In August [1882], Pres. of school board came to me and asked me to take the school. Said many of the families requested him to secure my services if possible. I knew my strength was failing and feared but finally accepted the position for one term contract – open for the year if I wished.

Government Girl – Married Woman. After obtaining the patent on her homestead, Eliza Jane left Dakota Territory and moved to Washington, D.C. where she worked for the Department of the Interior. She also became an ardent supporter of women’s rights.

In the early 1890s, Eliza Jane returned to Spring Valley and her parents’ home. In September 1893, she married Thomas J. Thayer, a successful merchant who was eighteen years her senior. He had come to Spring Valley from Thayer’s Corners, near Malone, and had most recently been living in Louisiana.

Thomas Thayer had been married twice prior to his marriage to Eliza Jane Wilder, and he had six children: Lucetta, Cutler, Lavinia, Franklin, Center, and Etta (his daughter by his second wife, Mary L. Baker, who had died in 1891). All children except Etta were adults at the time of their father’s third marriage.

Thomas and Eliza Jane Thayer settled in Crowley (Acadia Parish) Louisiana. In June 1894, their son Walcott Wilder Thayer was born; he was called Wilder. Tom Thayer and his wife Mary had lived in a small house on Block 17 in Crowley (the house is still standing at 510 E. 2nd Street in Crowley). Tom built a large home on additional lots he’d purchased in Block 17, and built a large home for his new bride there. The new house faced E. 1st Street to its south, and is no longer standing.

The Wilders Move To Louisiana. Eliza Jane Thayer convinced her parents, her brother Perley, and her sister Laura to move to Louisiana, which they did in 1898. The reunion proved to be a disastrous one. Her father died February 1, 1899, followed only eight days later by Eliza Jane’s husband, Thomas Thayer. Eliza Jane was 49; her son was 4. Her sister Laura Howard died later that same year.

When Thomas Thayer died, properties he owned in and around Crowley were sold, including the house where he and Eliza Jane had lived after their marriage. Eliza Jane purchased two lots, one of which had a house on it, and Eliza Jane and son Wilder moved in, renting furnished rooms as a source of income.

After a visit to Laura and Almanzo Wilder in Mansfield, Missouri, in 1903, Eliza Jane persuaded them to send Rose to Crowley to attend high school. Rose graduated in 1904 at the age of seventeen, living with Eliza Jane and Wilder.

Mrs. Maxwell Gordon. Eliza Jane Thayer married Maxwell Gordon in Crowley on July 1, 1904. The Gordons lived in the house south of town until they temporarily moved to Brownsville, Texas, but the marriage was not a happy one. An aspiring poet and writer, Gordon deserted his wife and stepson, and Eliza Jane divorced him. In March 1915, Maxwell Gordon married Mayme Niles in Los Angeles, California; they were also divorced. In November 1921, Max died at age 52 in Alameda, California.

In later years, Eliza Jane moved in with her brother Perley and supported herself through door-to-door sales of soaps and useful household gadgets.

Following the marriage of son Wilder Thayer to Frances Cockrell in 1918, Eliza Jane moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, to be near the young couple, eventually moving in with them.

Following a lengthy illness and several strokes, Eliza Jane died June 1, 1930, in Lafayette; she was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. Eliza Jane died prior to the 1933 publication of Farmer Boy, her sister-in-law’s fictional story of the Wilder family on their farm near Malone, New York.

Many sources give January 1, 1850, as the date of Eliza Jane’s birth, as the 1900 census listed her birth as “January 1900” (and people wanted a specific date so used the 1st). In her homestead case file, however, Eliza Jane wrote that she had “worked out of doors 5 hours on the 3rd day of January 1884…” (when the weather was quite severe) and she “remembered the day for it was [her] birthday.”


Eliza / Eliza Jane Wilder (FB 1-3, 7-8, 12, 15, 17-18, 21, 23, 26; LTP 8, 11, 13-16, 23; THGY 5, 31; PG)
     Lazy, lousy, Lizy Jane / Lazy, lousey, Liza Jane (LTP 15; PG)