Prologue Magazine

De Smet, Dakota Territory, Little Town in the National Archives, Part 2

Winter 2003, Vol. 35, No. 4

By Constance Potter


Eliza Jane Wilder

Eliza Jane Wilder, Almanzo's sister, filed a homestead claim and taught at De Smet's one-room school. Eliza Jane's file describes homesteading conditions in the Dakotas and the difficulties single women had in proving a homestead (Sec. 28, Township 111 N., Range 56 W, Kingsbury Co., D.T.).

A minor, and sometimes abrasive, character in the "Little House" books, Eliza Jane Wilder comes through as a determined woman, often overextended by the strains of proving up a homestead and teaching. Wilder was born in Malone, New York, in 1850, seven years before her brother Almanzo, and attended the Franklin Academy there. Trained as a teacher, she first taught school at nineteen. In the 1870s, the family moved to Minnesota.

In April 1879 she moved to Dakota Territory to teach and homestead. In August she filed for her homestead in Yankton, the territorial capitol. In an 1886 letter to the Department of Interior's Land Commissioner, Wilder describes her farm and living conditions over several years.

My home was growing in beauty and desirability. I spent $100.00 on improvements on my house. Twas a year of hard work and very few of the young men in our eastern states would or could have done the work I did that year or endured the hardships & exposure to intense heat in summer & cold in winter. I worked out of doors 5 hours the 3rd day of Jan 1884 when mercury was frozen and spirit therm indicated 45° below zero. A strong winder blowing and sleet falling that cut like a knife. I remembered the days for it was my birthday and will I think I was blue and discouraged.

Weather Records and the Long Winter, 1880 - 1881

The winter of 1880 - 1881 was one of the worst on record in the Dakotas. The first blizzard, which raged for three days, came in early October; by Christmas the trains had stopped running. By spring,

the blizzard winds had blown earth from the fields where the sod was broken, and had mixed it with snow packed so tightly in the railroad cuts that snowplows could not move it. The icy snow could not melt because of the earth mixed with it, and men with picks were digging it out inch by inch. It was slow work because in many big cuts they must dig down twenty feet to the steel rails.

April went slowly by. There was no food in the town except for the little wheat left from the sixty bushels that young Mr. Wilder and Cap had brought in the last week of February. Every day Ma made a smaller loaf and still the train did not come. (The Long Winter, p. 316)

Eliza Jane's letter to the land commissioner supports Laura's description of the "Long Winter."

In Oct. a blizzard came and for three days we could not see an object ten ft from us. The R.R. were blocked for ten days. Snow in the cuts being packed like ice. After the storm ceased I went to town for flour and coal.

Our merchants had none. A carload of flour would have been there in a few hours when blockaded.

My mother took me home with her for the winter. But I left everything except my wardrobe in Dakota not expecting to be gone more than two or three months. But storm followed storm. After the middle of December I think no trains reached De Smet until May.

Many families were reported frozen to death and others lived wholly on turnips, some on wheat ground in a coffee mill.

The small coffee mill used to grind wheat became large in the life of the Ingalls family.

[Ma] sat down, placed the square box between her knees to hold it firmly, and began turning the handle around and around. The mill gave out its grinding noise.

"Can you make bread of that?" asked Pa.

"Of course I can," Ma replied. "But we must keep the mill grinding if I'm to have enough to make a loaf for dinner." (The Long Winter, p. 194)

The family continued to grind wheat throughout the rest of that long, long winter.

Weather records are not frequently used in genealogical research, but they can help explain why families may have been forced to move because of drought or floods. The Climatological Records of the Weather Bureau, 1819 - 1892 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T907, roll 475) include monthly reports that are organized by weather station and then by month and day. The reports indicate barometric readings; the monthly range of the mean, low, and high temperatures; the total rainfall or snow melted; the depth of unmelted snow lying on the ground at the end of the month; and the total number of days on which snow or rain fell.

The records for De Smet do not begin until February 1889. To get an idea of the conditions during the "Long Winter," the Yankton reports are the most useful. These records show the following range of temperatures for the winter of 1880 to 1881:

  High Low
October 1880 84 15
November 1880 67 -5
December 1880 64 -19
January 1881 36 -32
February 1881 52 -23
March 1881 44 -8
April 1881 79 -3
May 1881 88 38*
*It was 38 on the second and 88 on the sixth.

Tornadoes often sweep through the plains in late summer and early fall. Eliza Jane wrote about a tornado in August 1882:

In August I was caught in a storm of wind, rain, and hail so severe the Catholic church was crushed[.] the town hall and other buildings moved from their foundation. Gardens were destroyed[,] small grain badly injured. My hand and arm were blackened where the hail struck them.

The same tornado is described in These Happy Golden Years.

One family had nothing but the clothes they wore, and one quilt that his wife had snatched to wrap around the baby. . . .

The homesteader and his family had been gathering boards and bits of lumber that the storm had dropped, and he was figuring how much more he would have to get to build them some kind of shelter . . . . while they stood considering this, one of the children noticed a small dark object high in the clear sky overhead. It did not look like a bird, but it appeared to be growing larger. They all watched it. For some time it fell slowly towards them, and they saw that it was a door. . . .It was the front door of this man's vanished claim shanty. It was in perfect condition, not injured at all, not even scratched.

"I never saw a man more chirked up than he was," said Pa. "Now he doesn't have to buy a door for his new shanty. It even came back with the hinges on it." (These Happy Golden Years, pp. 257 - 258.)

Post Office Records

Just as the "Long Winter" becomes a major character in the books, so too does the little town of De Smet. Ingalls describes the budding little town:

Suddenly, there on the brown prairie where nothing had been before, was the town. In two weeks, all along Main Street the unpainted new buildings pushed up their thin false fronts, two stories high and square on top. Behind the false fronts the buildings squatted under their partly shingled, sloping roofs. Strangers were already living there; smoke blew gray from the stovepipes, and glass windows glinted in the sunshine. (By the Shores of Silver Lake, p. 242.)

After the railroads came, many people moved into the area to homestead. Among the necessary services were post offices. A town applied to the Post Office Department, submitting forms and letters describing why they wanted a post office and where it would be located. These records are found in Post Office Department Reports of Site Locations (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1126, roll 543) Using these records, one can trace the growth in the early 1880s of this small railroad town surrounded by public lands.

size of town Feb 24

size of town Mar 15
Between February 24 and March 15, 1880, the reported size of the town grew from fifty to three hundred. (Detail, Records of the Post Office Department, RG 28)

On February 24, 1880, George H. Bryan requested that a post office be established in De Smet, which was described in the application as a railroad town on a plateau. Although Bryan noted that there were only fifty people in the town, he wrote that the post office would serve five hundred. The 1880 census describes Mr. Bryan as a builder, and in 1880 he took the census for De Smet. Less than a month later, on March 15, 1880, he submitted another request for a post office. By now, he noted, three hundred people were living in the town.

By the summer of 1884, Laura

had quite forgotten that she had ever disliked the town. It was bright and brisk this morning. . . . In the two blocks there were only two vacant lots on the west side of the street now, and some of the stores were painted, white or gray. . . . Everywhere was the stir and bustle of morning. . . . Doors slammed; hens cackled, and horses whinnied in the stables. (These Happy Golden Years, p. 27)

This article describes only some of the federal records that tell about the Ingalls and Wilder families. Federal population and nonpopulation censuses as well as military records also provide information about the family and De Smet, South Dakota. Federal records such as these may exist for your family and the town or city where they lived.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)/General Land Office (GLO) land patent searches at Search include records held by NARA as well as the BLM at the Eastern States Office. NARA holds records of lands west of the Mississippi. When you request copies of the records, you will need the name of the land office at the time of the transaction. When Charles Ingalls and the Wilders applied for their land, the land office was South Dakota, not Montana as it is now.

De Smet, Dakota Territory, Little Town in the National Archives, Part 1

Constance Potter is a reference archivist specializing in federal records of genealogical interest held at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Note on Sources

The homestead files are from the Records of the Bureau of Land Management (Record Group 49). The legal descriptions of the files discussed in the article are in parenthesis within the text. The historical land office for these homesteads was Watertown, S.D. The current land office is Montana.

To request copies of land entry files such as credit, cash, homestead, and mineral files, use NATF Form 84, National Archives Order for Copies of Land Entry Files. To request a copy of the form, call 1-866-272-6272 or send an e-mail to

The success of a land entry search depends on the completeness and accuracy of the information you provide on the form. Depending on the date and state for the land entry file you request, we may need additional information to find it. This is explained in detail on the form.

The Post Office Department Reports of Site Locations (M1126) are from the Records of the Post Office Department (Record Group 28), which are available on microfilm in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., and in NARA's regional records services facilities.

The Climatological Records of the Weather Bureau, 1819 - 1892 (T907) are from the Records of the Weather Bureau (Record Group 27). They are available on microfilm the National Archives at College Park.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, By the Shore of Silver Lake (1939), The Long Winter (1940), Little Town on the Prairie (1941), These Happy Golden Years (1943, paperback 1971).

The author would like to thank George Briscoe, Katherine Coram, Dennis Edelin, Meg Hacker, MaryBeth Linne, Virginia E. Potter, Reginald Washington, and Thomas E. Weir, Jr., for their help.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.

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