Children who were left at home alone near Walnut Grove and were severely frozen after tried to get to a neighbor’s house through a winter storm.
It does not seem likely that just that story would come into his head after a summer working in harvest fields. -Rose Wilder Lane, June 1936
The story of the Robbins family/children (i.e. the “frozen stark stiff” children from On the Banks of Plum Creek) is a cautionary tale that Laura Ingalls Wilder first used in handwritten Pioneer Girl, and it went through many changes before ending up in much simpler form in published On the Banks of Plum Creek.
From Pioneer Girl to publication: The Robbins family story:
(1) In the handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript (the one used in the annotated publication), the story is that the Robbins children are lost in the last blizzard in the season. By its placement in the manuscript, this is said to be after the death of Dr. Hoyt’s wife, which occurred on March 5, 1879, although no date is given in the manuscript. The Robbins family supposedly lived three miles from Walnut Grove with a neighbor living a half mile away. Mr. and Mrs. Robbins had gone to town but were unable to get home that night because a blizzard struck. When they got home during the night, they found the house empty, with no fire and the stovepipe fallen. The children were found in a snow drift by men searching in a (probably) circular pattern radiating farther and farther from the house. There were said to be five children: the oldest girl (Nora) was 12 and had kept the baby alive in her coat close to her own body heat. Two boys and a girl were frozen to death. Pa was home by noon to relate the story, saying that Nora’s screams were horrible as her frozen arms and legs thawed out, and that later, the doctor had to cut off one leg.
(2) In the Brandt, Bye, and shorter revised versions of Pioneer Girl, the story is the same, except that the nearest neighbor was a mile away and had a son who came to town for help. The oldest girl was Nora, age 11. These versions imply that the doctor removed Nora’s leg right after she was found, after getting her drunk with whisky.
(3) In Wilder’s handwritten Plum Creek manuscript, Pa tells the story the day he returns from working in the fields back east, having left home in September and returned before the first blizzard. Too tired to play the fiddle after walking fifty miles in one day, he instead tells the girls a true story that happened “not far from here.” The story covers five pages in the manuscript: Two little girls and a boy lived on the prairie. They were the same ages as the Ingalls girls. Edith was Mary’s age, Tommy was Laura’s age, and Lizzie was Carrie’s age. Their parents left them by themselves while they went to town one day, but a storm came. They kept the fire going, but it got low and there was no wood inside. Tommy held Edith’s hand and reached as far from the doorstep as he could to try and get some (they were not to go outside in a storm), kicking in the snow, but there was no wood on the woodpile. They went to bed, shivering, and Edith began to think they would freeze to death, so they got out of bed and broke up the wood-box with the hatchet. Tommy whittled some shavings with the butcher knife he wasn’t supposed to handle, and Edith – who was not allowed to handle matches – lit one and got the shavings going. They broke up the chairs and table and burned them. When their Ma and Pa came home late the next day, the children were breaking up the bedstead to burn. Their Ma and Pa didn’t care about the furniture or disobeying of rules, because the children weren’t frozen.
Laura interrupts Pa’s story several times, once to point out that if it had happened to them, Mr. Nelson would have come, and that the children’s Pa should have left a woodpile. And Laura and Mary feel safe and happy because Pa is there to get a big woodpile ready for coming storms.
In the very next chapter, Laura and Mary are tested, because Ma and Pa walk to town exactly as the parents in the story. Laura and Mary worry that a storm is coming and they’ll have to bust up all the furniture, so they bring in the entire woodpile (they weren’t supposed to go outside in a storm), finishing just as Ma and Pa come bursting through the falling snow, which indeed turns into a terrible storm. And Pa pulls Laura’s ear and says he’s glad all the wood is in the house.
(4) In a typed manuscript for BPC with Rose’s handwritten changes and corrections, when Pa comes home from working in the east, he says he needs to get up a lot of wood before they go to town for supplies. There’s no indication that he’s telling Mary and Laura a story; it’s just a statement of fact. Pa just says that he heard of some folks (unnamed) who were in town when a blizzard came up, and their children (unnamed) at home hadn’t brought in any wood. The children burned up all the furniture, but they froze stark stiff before the blizzard cleared up and the parents could get home.
Days later, Ma and Pa go to town and leave the girls home, and a storm comes. The wood-box is empty and Mary and Laura think about the children who froze stark stiff, so they bring in the whole woodpile.
Later in the winter, Pa goes to town and a blizzard comes up. Ma goes to the barn by herself during a storm, and she is gone so long that Laura again thinks about the children whose parents didn’t ever come home, and the children burned all the furniture but still froze stark stiff. Realizing they need to stay warm, she pulls the rocking chair close to the stove and puts Carrie in it. Ma then comes back from the barn and they spend the afternoon playing games, everything else forgotten.
(5) In published On the Banks of Plum Creek, the story is condensed to several sentences in two chapters. At the end of Chapter 34, “Marks on the Slate,” when Pa comes home from working in the east, he and Ma make plans to go to town the next day, but Pa says he must “get the wood up” before they leave, because he heard a story about Minnesota blizzards, in which “some folks” went to town and couldn’t get back because a storm came up so fast. “Their children at home burned all the furniture, but they froze stark stiff before the blizzard cleared up enough so the folks could get home.”
The next day, with Ma and Pa gone, a storm comes up, and Mary and Laura “think about those children who froze stark stiff.” (Chapter 35, “Keeping House”) They bring in the whole woodpile, and after Ma and Pa come bursting in through the storm, Laura says they “…didn’t want to burn up the furniture, Pa, and freeze stark stiff.” Pa’s laugh rings out, and Ma smiles gently, with Mary and Laura forgiven because they had been wise to bring in the firewood.
Note how the story goes from a very specific and perfectly-believable incident as far as time / place / events, to a little tougher event for all involved (the neighbor is twice as far away, for example), to a very detailed moral tale that happened nearby at some point, and just happened to involve named children exactly the same ages as the Ingalls girls. The outcome is happy and no one is the worse for wear, much less “frozen stark stiff.” It’s definitely a teaching moment, with questions and answers. It’s also not the first time that the Little House stories have taught a lesson.
The next version goes in the opposite direction, with almost no detail and a tragic outcome. I wonder how many readers even recognize the published version’s roots in Pioneer Girl?
Fact or Fiction? In a letter dated June 13, 1936, Rose Wilder Lane wrote to her mother from the Tiger Hotel in Columbia, Missouri, with lots of questions about the Plum Creek manuscript, which she was clearly editing at the time. In that letter, Rose wrote:
I can not somehow make it seem reasonable, after Pa has walked 50 miles and just got home from being a long time away, that he would sit down and tell Laura about the children at home in the blizzard who chopped up all the furniture. It does not seem likely that just that story would come into his head after a summer working in harvest fields. How about having one of the children, Laura’s school-chum, tell the story? She might say she lived in the country once, ask if Pa and Ma ever went to town and left them alone, then tell about a father and mother who did, and what happened. Not to herself, but to neighbors; which keeps the suspense of the story. Laura’s idea of bringing in the wood would then be natural enough, and also utterly astonishing to Pa and Ma. Don’t you think this would point up both stories?
Laura replied by writing on the back of Rose’s letter, an explanation which included the following:
Pa’s idea in telling the story of bringing in the wood was that he must go early to bed to make a good start in the morning on his woodpile. That would bring the story to his mind. What really happened was that Ma read us the story out of something, I have no idea what. But I thought it would emphasize the need for haste in getting up the winter wood to have Pa tell it as I did.
Although Laura seems to believe the Pioneer Girl story of the Robbins children is fictional and is not an incident from Walnut Grove history, it was most likely based on the true story of the George Thompson children, who lived with their parents on a claim two miles south of Walnut Grove. The Thompsons homesteaded the quarter section just west of the William Steadman family.
On November 20, 1875 (the winter before the Ingallses moved to work with the Steadmans in Burr Oak), George and Sarah Thompson went to Walnut Grove, leaving daughter Charlotte (age 6) in charge of her younger brothers William (3) and George (19 months). The stove-pipe fell and scared the children, who ran out onto the frozen prairie barely clothed. When the parents returned some six hours later, a search for the missing children found them far from home and badly frozen. Read the children’s fate as told in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (December 1, 1875). Although not mentioned in the newspaper account, son William did not survive.
Robbins family (PG)
five children lost in a storm (PG)
unnamed children who froze stark stiff (BPC 34-35)