Did you read the Little House on the Prairie books? TV show doesn’t count–the books. We did when our girls were maybe 6 and 8–perfect age for them. It was the right age for us too. Both Nat and I were unhappy at our jobs. Our oldest was in second grade and it wasn’t going well. Cuddling up with the girls, reading about Ma and Pa out on the Kansas prairie had us fantasizing about escaping our hectic, fragmented, anxious lives. I remember looking at jobs for psychologists in Montana. Man, that would have been a trainwreck for everyone.
Thankfully, inertia prevailed–we stayed in Rochester and worked through all that crap. But every Christmas Eve since then, every single one–before any presents are opened–we read Chapter 19 from Little House On the Prairie: Mr Edwards Meets Santa Claus. In case you haven’t read it, here’s the synopsis. The Ingalls are living a few miles outside of Independence Kansas. It’s Christmas Eve but the Verdigris River is so swollen from rain that Laura fears Santa won’t be able to make it to their house. Ma and Pa send Mary and Laura to bed with low expectations, but early in the morning their friend Mr. Edwards appears at the door, shivering and soaking wet. He tells the girls that he met Santa outside a saloon in Independence (!). Being quite fat, Santa could not cross the fast river, but since Mr. Edwards was young and fit, he asked him to bring their gifts. Ma and Pa are overcome with gratitude, “It’s too much Edwards, just too much.” The girls find stockings with a tin cup, a peppermint stick, a cake made of white sugar, and a penny!
It’s a sweet story and I still love it. I even loved squirming at the uncomfortable irony of Laura’s joy over such simple gifts when we were about to dive into our usual Christmas pool of abundance and gluttony.
Why bring this up? Because this week I learned that William and Emeline Purcell, and their three small children once lived about 9 miles from the Ingalls’ little house. I am not kidding. Let’s go back to Illinois to set the stage and I’ll show you what I found in Kansas.
The Civil War has just ended and the young Purcell couple are living in the thriving frontier town of Princeville. William is probably working as a blacksmith but has no land of his own. They have two small daughters, Jennie Isabelle (again after Isabella Dement Purcell–she goes by Bell) and Mary Ellen. The Morrows, Emeline’s brothers and uncles, are starting to leave Illinois for more open frontier in Washington and California. But the big talk in the town is Kansas opening up for settlement–AKA another governmental action to push the Indians off their land.
Here is a map that shows what had been happening to Native Americans in the 1830s. Most tribes from the southeastern states had been pushed into “Indian Territory” — what would become Kansas and Oklahoma. Despite these lands being “set aside” by the government, white settlers continued to push their way into Indian Territory and the government regularly played one tribe against the other.
The tribe most relevant to my Kansas ancestors are the Osage Nation. The Osage populated southern Kansas and Missouri at least as far back as the 1600s. For about 100 years after that they hunted buffalo, warred with neighboring tribes, and carried on business with French Creole traders. This is a painting from the 1830s of an Osage warrior by George Catlin–the first white man to paint the Plains Indians in their native territory (my dear friend Mark Catlin is a direct descendant of George.)
By the 1860s the Osage territory had been winnowed down to a strip of land along the southern border of Kansas–the Osage Diminished Reserve. Most historians say that by this time the Osage accepted that they would lose all their land to white settlement and they wanted to get on with it. They offered to sell the lands of the Diminished Reserve to the government in 1868, but arguments in Congress delayed the legislation (what? Congress dragging it’s feet while people suffer? Hard to imagine…) Though the Osage were resigned to losing their land, they were angry with the government stalling and angry with the squatters who kept encroaching on their land. Conflict became common and bloody.
Escalating tension through the 1860s did not deter new settlers. Charles Ingalls came with a big wave in 1869. Laura Ingalls Wilder asserts that he thought the land was officially opened for settlement; whether this is true or not (and scholars dispute it), by May 1871 the Ingalls understood differently and left for Wisconsin. There’s been a lot written about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s depiction of their two years on the Osage Diminished Reserve. I recommend “A Study of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie” by Penny Linsenmayer, or–for a particularly harsh analysis–“Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve” by Francis W. Kaye.
William and Emeline were right in the large wave, leaving Illinois probably sometime during the spring of 1868. It would be a three year, 575 mile journey to their eventual homestead in southern Kansas. Little Mary Ellen was around 8 months old and Bell was 2 1/2. They traveled by covered wagon in a group that at least included William’s aging father, Edward Purcell, his sister Jane and her family (with three children ages 4, 6, and 9). They stopped in Missouri long enough for Jane to have another child, Charles, who would not survive childhood. Accounts of Kansas emigrants during this period describe living out of their wagons for months on end. Families used to town life with schools, churches, and other civilized comforts lived in encampments under fairly crude conditions.
By 1870, they had settled in the small town of Girard, Kansas, on the eastern border between Kansas and Missouri. Here Emeline had her third child, Jim (Uncle Jim who my grandfather remembered well). William and Jane’s husband set up shop as blacksmiths and Edward, now 60, was working there as a horse farrier. This is the 1870 census and the third entry down is Edward Purcell, under him is William and his family–click on the image, squint your eyes, and you might be able to make out their names and occupations.
Town life must have satisfied Jane and her husband as they stayed in Girard for many years. But William wanted land to farm. Probably in the spring of 1872 he headed south toward Independence, which by then had grown into the good sized town that Laura Ingalls describes in the book. The US government had finally agreed to buy the Diminished Reserve from the Osage so land surrounding Independence was now for sale. Sadly, the government delayed paying the Osage for several years, resulting in a period of extreme poverty and starvation for the tribe.
I don’t know how William and Emeline felt about how cruelly the Osage were treated, but it’s likely that their view of white settlement was typical for their time. Both had grown up in frontier settlements and probably interacted with members of various tribes on many occasions. We have no old family stories of hostilities or individual acts of aggression (or kindnesses) towards Indians. My grandfather knew many Native American kids and adults growing up in Oklahoma and spoke of them the same way he spoke about anyone else–without romanticizing or demeaning them. Yet, even if William and Emeline always treated Indians kindly, it’s certain that they–like Charles Ingalls–felt that taking over Indian lands was right, a God-given right in fact.
On November 11, 1872 William Purcell purchased one hundred and sixty nine acres of former Osage Diminished Reserve land from the United States Government for $1.25 an acre. This is the land patent.
This piece of land was on the border between Caney Township and Fawn Creek Township, about 20 miles south of Independence, and about 9 miles as the crow flies from the little house that the Ingalls abandoned in May the year before. Looking at the old map of the county–the southern part of Rutland Township is where the Ingalls were–you’ll see Caney and Fawn Creek adjacent to the south.
William and Emeline probably squatted on the land near Fawn Creek the summer before this deed was drawn up. Perhaps they built a log cabin and laid in supplies for the winter. Maybe William got work as a blacksmith before they had a harvest to support themselves. In the spring they began the hard labor of breaking prairie ground with horse and plow, planting, maybe adding couple pigs, a cow and some chickens to their farm. Harvest then came in the fall, they laid in supplies as the days grew short, survived the winter, and started again in the spring of 1873. William and Emeline were making a life on their farm.
By 1874 their family grew again when Frank was born–my great grandfather. Now they had five children under the age of 10. The photo below was taken in Caney around this time and shows members of the Osage tribe with settlers and freighters loaded with grain bound for Kansas City.That June of 1874, when my great grandfather was born, worry likely began showing in William’s face as he walked the rows of his field. Early spring rains were followed by long dry days through the summer. As if drought wasn’t bad enough, in late July the grasshoppers came by the millions.
“The insects arrived in swarms so large they blocked out the sun and sounded like a rainstorm. Crops were eaten out of the ground, as well as the wool from live sheep and clothing off people’s backs. Paper, tree bark and even wooden tool handles were devoured. Hoppers were reported to have been several inches deep on the ground and locomotives could not get traction because the insects made the rails too slippery.” (Kansas Historical Society, quote and photo)
William and Emeline probably lost their entire harvest that year. They and their neighbors survived the winter, perhaps with relief aid provided by the government. The 1875 census shows them on the same land, which by now had doubled in value. But it appears that they could not recover from this loss–many new settlers didn’t. By 1880 William had sold the land and moved to the outskirts of Caney. On the map above, look for the Havana post office–this is near where they were. William’s financial predicament is clear on the 1880 Agricultural Census: he’s farming rented land in return for a share of the profit–sharecropping.
Life as a sharecropper was extraordinarily difficult and precarious. In Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915, Thomas Schlereth says:
“As renters of practically everything, their material world was sparse—usually one-room log or frame homestead, in which the family cooked, ate, and slept…Tenant life also spawned “feast-and-famine” cycles: times of abundance (albeit limited to when the crop came in) and periods of belt-tightening and habitual mobility. Since by tradition, tenant contracts ran for one year only (and tenants had no assurance that their leases would be renewed), tenants’ lives took on an episodic quality, prone to constant uncertainty.”
By 1885 the Purcells were a family of eight. In 1887 the last child born to Emeline, Emerson, died as an infant. When my great grandfather was 19, the Great Panic of 1893 sent the country into the worst economic depression in its history. Frank and his brothers began talking about leaving Kansas. Their father’s dream of farming his own land had failed. Maybe in Oklahoma they could make a go.
On a bright blue sky day, I drove several miles on a dirt road searching for the piece of land described in William’s deed. The dirt roads in Kansas are white, from sandstone I guess, and great clouds of white dust rose up behind my car. I knew that William and Emeline had driven their wagon along these roads over one hundred years ago, with great white clouds billowing behind them. And horses carrying Osage families kicked up that same dust before them. William and Emeline were part of the epic, romantic Western migration–as brave and determined as any heroes depicted in those stories. But they also became a cog in a terrible machine that was responsible for the suffering and deaths of so many Native Americans. Of course this fact isn’t news to me in an abstract sense. Any of us who descend from European immigrants of this era have ancestors who were also part of this machine. But this project has made my ancestors more concrete, more real, and so too the Osage families who once lived on William’s land.
I stood by my car looking out over the gold, green, and burnt orange grasses, thinking about the two narratives: the brave, determined homesteaders and the displacement and decline of an Indian Nation. It was easy to imagine an Osage encampment in the distance and the Purcell’s little house on the prairie. I tried to hold both in my mind at once.