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Pioneer Girl

Once upon a time, many years ago, Laura Ingalls Wilder recorded the memories of her early life, from age two when she and her family settled in Indian Territory, through her marriage at age eighteen to Almanzo Wilder, in 1885. She wrote in soft pencil on lined school tablets, and by the time she finished writing, Mrs. Wilder had filled almost four hundred pages with what would be edited and expanded over the next two decades into the award winning Little House series of books.

The original manuscript was probably intended to be read by only one other person, Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, an internationally acclaimed author. Rose encouraged and helped her mother re-work the stories about Laura Ingalls’ early years near Pepin, Wisconsin, into what became Little House in the Big Woods, published in 1932. The rest is history.

noteLaura Ingalls Wilder shared bits about her growing-up years in her Missouri Ruralist columns; her articles appeared there from 1911–1924. During that time, she apparently had also been thinking about a longer autobiographical work. Laura kept a file of ‘ideas for work,’ containing some decidedly Little House stories, plus she dabbled in story-telling with her ‘fairy poems’ and and an illustrated story-booklet about life on Rocky Ridge Farm, which she made copies of for friends, but has yet to be commercially published.

At some point after her mother’s death in 1924 and her sister Mary’s death in 1928, Laura wrote the story of her life, from a toddler in Indian Territory until her marriage at age 18 to Dakota homesteader Almanzo Wilder. She wrote in pencil, filling school tablet after school tablet with her story. On May 7, 1930, Laura gave the almost 74K-word manuscript to Rose; at the time, they were both living at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri. Laura and Almanzo were in the Rock House – a gift from Rose – and Rose lived in the original farmhouse over the ridge and through the woods. Written for an adult audience, Wilder hoped this Pioneer Girl manuscript could be sold as a magazine serial, followed by publication as a book, just as daughter Rose’s Diverging Roads had been.

Rose called it her mother’s “pioneer manuscript” or her “mother’s story” in her 5-year diary, where she jotted down her daily activities and work (Rose was then writing “State’s Evidence,” published in Country Gentleman in 1933). There must have been a verbal agreement between mother and daughter for Rose to market and promote Laura’s Pioneer Girl manuscript, because Rose immediately began typing a copy of it, and two days later, she sent Carl Brandt, her own literary agent in New York, a sample of the manuscript, mailing him the entire typed copy on May 17.

Brandt returned the copy, uninterested.

In late July, Rose again sat at her typewriter and began re-writing her mother’s story (Rose also was working on “A Methodist Lady,” never published). Her diary recorded that on August 17, 1930, she had finished what she now called her mother’s “juvenile,” and she mailed it… somewhere. There’s a frustrating lack of information in the 5-year-diary about exactly what Rose had written and who she was promoting it to, but what she was putting out there wasn’t Pioneer Girl. It was a shorter story culled from the Big Woods portion of the longer manuscript, titled “When Grandma was a Little Girl,” and the person she sent it to was Berta Hader. Most likely Laura hadn’t a clue about any of this, but there may have been discussion about getting Berta interested in Pioneer Girl as an illustrated children’s book, since that’s what Berta did (illustrate children’s books). Laura had met Berta in San Francisco years earlier.

Rose again turned her attentions to her mother’s “pioneer copy,” most likely the existing typed manuscript copy of Pioneer Girl, with the first half of its pages heavily crossed out and written (edited) all over in Rose’s handwriting. Writing in her diary that she worked on “her mother’s stuff… stupidly, for will it come to anything,” Rose makes it clear that this isn’t the “juvenile,” but the “pioneer copy.” This version is known as the “shorter revised Pioneer Girl” manuscript today. During this time, Rose was also writing the short stories “Dangerous Curve” (never published) and “Paid in Full” (published in Country Gentleman in 1933).

Rose then packed up and went to New York, where she almost immediately visited Carl Brandt, who advised Rose “not to try to sell [her] mother’s story.”

During the New York stay, Rose visited with Berta Hader, who in later years claimed responsibility for the Little House books ever coming to be, because Berta had sent the “When Grandma was a Little Girl” manuscript to Marion Fiery, a children’s book editor at Alfred A. Knopf. Fiery just happened to be looking for ‘exciting [children’s] stories about early days in America, by people who had lived it,” and she liked what she read, writing to Laura in early February 1931 that she had read Laura’s manuscript with “the greatest interest.” But Fiery wanted it to be longer, and there were certain changes that also needed to be made, which would be discussed with Hader and Lane. Longer? Laura’s handwritten Pioneer Girl was already almost 350 pages long.

Several days later, Rose scrambled to explain to her mother exactly what it was that Knopf was interested in publishing, because it wasn’t Laura’s manuscript, but Charles Ingalls’ stories “taken out of the long Pioneer Girl manuscript and strung together” by Rose. Rose peddled the 20-page “When Grandma was a Little Girl” as Laura’s work, and brushed aside her role to everyone concerned, as being “so slight that it probably couldn’t even be called editing.” Rose went on to tell Laura where to find this unfamiliar manuscript among her [Rose’s] papers upstairs in her [Rose’s] study at Rocky Ridge, and to advise Laura on how expand the story using leftover bits from Pioneer Girl.

I won’t go into the publication history of the Little House books here, or how “When Grandma was a Little Girl” evolved into Little House in the Big Woods, published by Harper & Brothers in 1932. During this evolutionary process, Pioneer Girl was still a separate entity, and Rose was still trying to get it published. She mentioned it to Marion Fiery as a possible book. She also sent a copy to her new literary agent, George T. Bye, as he was now also representing Laura.

The rest – as they say – is history. The popularity of Little House in the Big Woods leads to Farmer Boy, which leads to Little House on the Prairie, which returns Laura to the Pioneer Girl manuscript as the foundation on which the rest of the Little House series is based.

Fast-forward to 1981, a time when popularity of the Little House on the Prairie television show was renewing interest in the Little House books and all things Laura Ingalls Wilder. Roger MacBride asked William Anderson to annotate Pioneer Girl for publication. By late 1983, the work was finished, and annotated Pioneer Girl was being readied by Harper and Row for publication, with a release date to be announced soon.

Then it wasn’t published. Harpers was undergoing a change in leadership and the new regime wasn’t interested in the memoir, and out of respect for Harpers, Roger MacBride didn’t try to interest another publisher. The manuscript was hidden away and supposedly didn’t see the light of day until Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography was published in late 2014 by South Dakota State Historical Society Press. Biographers and researchers pretty much always knew the manuscript existed and how to access it; it had been perused for decades by biographers and researchers and its text used as the definitive word as to “what really happened” in Laura’s life, especially if Pioneer Girl told a different story than the published Little House books.

Even Wilder fans had been reading Pioneer Girl for almost forty years at the time of the publication of annotated PG, whether they realized it or not. Although there are no footnotes telling us as such, Donald Zochert relied heavily on the manuscript in his Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Henry Regenery, 1976). He referred to it as “Laura’s autobiographical memoir of her life, still in manuscript,” without using its recognizable “Pioneer Girl” label. Every time Zochert gave us “Laura’s voice,” he quoted directly from Pioneer Girl. Zochert had been given access to Laura’s handwritten manuscript by Irene Lichty, curator at the LIW Museum in Mansfield, and instead of taking notes when left alone with the handwritten tablets, he read the manuscript into a recording device and went home with the whole nine yards.

It wasn’t until John Miller’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: Where History and Literature Meet (University Press of Kansas, 1994) that someone finally wrote not only about Pioneer Girl, but where to find it. Laura’s handwritten manuscript was on microfilm at The University of Missouri at Columbia, and Dr. Miller also reported that two other versions were in the Rose Wilder Lane papers at Hoover Presidential Library.

Two weeks after Miller’s book came out, I was feeding quarters into a microfilm reader / printer and printing out the handwritten version, and I was mailing checks to Hoover Library for the copies typed by Rose. This was a period of active LIW discussion groups on the internet, and word traveled fast. There was a lot of interest in Pioneer Girl, and William Holtz’s Ghost in the Little House (University of Missouri Press, 1993) had stirred up controversy over the Wilder-Lane collaboration with his assertion that Rosa Ann Moore (in her 1975 and 1980 articles in Children’s Literature in Education) and William Anderson (in his master’s thesis published in South Dakota History in 1983 and 1986) minimized Rose’s part in the writing of the Little House books. Fans were eager to get copies of Pioneer Girl and to discuss these scholarly publications and the collaboration online.

I created a webpage in 1996 to tell others how to borrow or buy (no longer an option) Pioneer Girl on microfilm, and how to purchase paper copies. I registered pioneergirl as a domain name in 2000.

I learned to type by transcribing Laura’s handwritten Pioneer Girl in 1996, from pages I had printed from the microfilm, which was hard to read. I only shared my transcription with a few people, meaning that it was soon in the hands of hundreds of others, of course. Its inclusion in the appendix of a 2010 dissertation made it a hotly-shared commodity on the internet for years. If you could afford a Herbert Hoover copy, you felt it your duty to at least loan it to a few others to read, via snail mail. (A couple of enterprising individuals tried to sell copies on ebay and were quickly shut down.)

Even with the publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, there’s still interest in viewing microfilm copy – to see Laura’s words in her own handwriting, of course – and in print copies of the versions typed and edited by Rose. Here’s how to obtain all the versions of Pioneer Girl:

noteThe hand-written Pioneer Girl manuscript is archived by the Laura Ingalls Wilder / Rose Wilder Lane Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri. It is not available for viewing or study, except by special arrangement. This does not mean that you can’t read Laura’s original manuscripts fairly easily.

In 1981, the Museum allowed the manuscript to be microfilmed for the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection at The University of Missouri at Columbia. This microfilm reel of the handwritten pages could be purchased in the past, but that option is no longer available. The microfilm reel may be borrowed from the University of Missouri at Columbia. Contact your local library to arrange for inter-library loan (ILL) of the microfilm. There is a $15 fee for two weeks viewing of up to two reels from the holding library; your home library may charge an additional fee. You will need to have the film information below for ordering, plus the address and phone number for Ellis Library at the University of Missouri at Columbia. For additional information, visit the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection website.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder papers – item C3633 – are listed by “folder.” There are 34 folders of papers found on three reels of microfilm:

Film # 1 contains Folders 1-14, which include the Pioneer Girl manuscript (folders 1-6), school tablet manuscripts and/or revisions for both Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, plus part of the manuscripts and/or revisions for Little House on the Prairie.

Film #2 contains Folders 15-29, which include part of the school tablet manuscripts and/or revisions for Little House on the Prairie, a later draft of Little House on the Prairie, manuscripts and/or revisions for On the Banks of Plum Creek, notes and correspondence between Laura Ingalls Wilder and daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a later draft of On the Banks of Plum Creek, and part of the two existing but unpublished versions of manuscripts and/or revisions for By the Shores of Silver Lake.

Film # 3 contains Folders 30-34, which include part of the two existing but unpublished versions of manuscripts and/or revisions for By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of the trip from De Smet to Mansfield which became On the Way Home, and miscellaneous correspondence concerning her manuscripts and published books.

Also at the University of Missouri at Columbia is the Laura Ingalls Wilder papers – item 3702:

This microfilm reel contains a copy of a draft of Little Town on the Prairie, the original of which was donated to the children’s room of the Pomona Public Library. This microfilm version, which is different from the published book, appears to be a revision of parts of the Pioneer Girl manuscript found in Folders 4 and 5 above.

To inquire about the microfilm reels, contact Western Historical Manuscript Collection – Columbia / 23 Ellis Library / University of Missouri / Columbia, Missouri 65201-5149 USA. Phone: (573) 882-6028. Email:

Two typed versions of the handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript were unsuccessfully marketed for publication by agents of Rose Wilder Lane. Known as the “Carl and Zelma Brandt version” (160 pages) and the “George T. Bye version” (195 pages), these as well as a “shorter revised copy” (126 pages) are part of the Rose Wilder Lane Collection archived at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum in West Branch, Iowa.

Research copies of these may be purchased, or made in person. For information, contact the Senior Archivist / Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum / P.O. Box 488, / 210 Parkside Drive / West Branch, Iowa 52358 USA . Phone: (319) 643-5301.

South Dakota State Historical Society Press has published Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography (2014), edited by Pamela Smith Hill. The book, at 472 pages, with 125 photographs and 8 maps, annotates Wilder’s original handwritten manuscript. It can be ordered directly from the publisher via THIS LINK. It may also be purchased through any of the Laura Ingalls Wilder museums, or via local and online retailers.


Pioneer Girl