LITTLE HOUSE ON THE OSAGE PRAIRIE
The tens of millions of adoring fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and of the television series based on them should be grateful that the Osages didn’t dismember her when they had the chance. One day, I was staring at a map of the Osages’ rectangle of reservation in Kansas and my eyes stuck on a red dot in the middle of it, signifying a “Point of Interest.” The words “Little House on the Prairie” came into focus.
Little Laura Ingalls, her sisters and their beloved Ma and Pa were illegal squatters on Osage land. She left that detail out of her 1935 children’s book, Little House on the Prairie, as well as any mention of ongoing outrages—including killings, burnings, beatings, horse thefts and grave robberies—committed by white settlers, such as Charles Ingalls, against Osages living in villages not more than a mile or two away from the Ingalls’ little house.
Mrs. Wilder’s unwitting association with the Osages would last a lifetime. She started writing the “Little House” children’s books—there were nine—in the 1930s, in her sixties, while living in a big house located on former Osage land in the Missouri Ozarks. The “Little House” books—especially the one that took place “on the Prairie” of the Osage reservation in Kansas—would be much read, broadcast and beloved. Shortly after World War II, the State Department ordered Mrs. Wilder’s books translated into German and Japanese, the languages of the United States’ most recently defeated enemies, who had just joined the list of America’s other Vanquished, including American Indians. The “Little House” books were “positive representations of America,” the U.S. government decreed, a good way to show other peoples of the world the American Way. Obviously someone in government forgot to consult the Osages.
After the Civil War, caravans of white settlers started overrunning the Osage reservation, and the Ingalls family joined them in 1869. They were drawn there by the U.S. government’s giveaway of 160-acre plots of free land to each adult settler under the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln early in the Civil War as a way to keep the hearts and minds of poor northern people planted firmly in the Union, and maybe win some from the South. The subliminal message of the law was “Stick with us, and we’ll reward you—if you win this war. Trade in your slums for the wide-open spaces of the West, where you can be your own boss, on your own land. All you have to do is kill a couple of Confederates.” Railroads passed the good news to Europe—or at least to northern Europeans, such as the hard-working Swedes, Norwegians and Germans. The railroads’ flyers, however, never made it to the Italians or Slavs. A song was even written to give settlers something to sing while traveling west, either to America or to their new homesteads west of the Mississippi:
Oh, come to this country
And don’t you feel alarm
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give us all a farm!
Osage writer John Joseph Mathews could have been staring at a family portrait of the Ingallses when he described the covered wagons filling up Osage land as being full of “dirty-faced children peering out from the curtains, and weary, hard-faced women lolling in the seat beside evil-eyed, bearded men.” The actor Michael Landon was horribly miscast as Pa in the television series “Little House on the Prairie.” Landon was too sweet-faced, clean-shaven—and focused. The real Charles Ingalls wore a two-foot long vinery of beard. His dark, narrow, hard, glassy, chilly, creepy eyes would, a century later, stare out of photos of Charles Manson, the Hollywood murderer. Pa’s résumé reads like that of a surfer bum in search of the perfect amber wave of grain. He couldn’t stay in one place or hold down a homestead. He moved from Wisconsin, professing overcrowdedness, to the Osage reservation, back to Wisconsin a year later, then to Minnesota, where he was eaten out by grasshoppers, then to Iowa, where he worked in a hotel, then to South Dakota, where he finally settled in De Smet.
In Little House on the Prairie, Mrs. Wilder described one encounter with an Indian she identified as Osage by his scalp lock and leather leggings. A tall Indian, she said, suddenly materialized in the doorway, without anyone hearing him, then walked in the house and squatted by the fireplace, without saying a word. Pa joined him, and Ma served them dinner. They ate in silence. They smoked pipes in silence, using Pa’s tobacco. That done, the Osage spoke.
Pa shook his head to signal that he did not understand the Indian’s language.
The Osage got up and walked out—in silence.
Pa may not have understood what the Osage was saying, but he did recognize the language—French.
Sitting on the beach and reading Little House on the Prairie for the first time—I did not do so as a boy because it was a girl’s book—I find myself growing dismayed at its popularity. It took several trips to my local library to find a copy (about a half-dozen were listed in the card catalog—all checked out—and I could not bring myself, at age forty-one, to tell the librarian I wanted to reserve one).
Why are children still reading a book so unsuitable for children? I keep asking myself.
If Pa Ingalls had built his little house on the periphery of an antebellum southern mansion and Mrs. Wilder had described its Black slaves in the same terms she depicted the Osage Indians, her book long ago would have been barred from children’s eyes, or at least sanitized like some editions of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mrs. Wilder’s book even contains the popular variation of General Sheridan’s racist remark about what constitutes a good Indian. I find to my amazement that I take personally her denigration of the Osages, and it bothers me that no one has ever noticed her portrayal of Indians, or objected to it. What commentary does it make on the status of Native Americans in our society that in 1991 you can’t find a library copy of a fifty-six-year-old book replete with anti-Indian ethnic slurs, not because it is out of print or circulation, as it should be, but because it is in such demand by impressionable children?
I would not want my child to read Little House on the Prairie. I would shield him from the slights she slings upon his ancestors. They appear in her book only as beggars and thieves, and she adds injury to insult by comparing the Osages—who turned Thomas Jefferson’s head with their dignity and grace—to reptiles, to garbage or scum (depending on the definition of the word she actually uses). Mrs. Wilder assigns them descriptive adjectives that connote barbarism, brutality, and bloodthirstiness, and makes much ado about their odor. But she makes light of their obvious plight: In one passage, she describes almost mockingly the skeletal figures of two Osages who are fed cornbread by Ma, the eating noises they make and the pitiful sight of them stooping to eat specks of food they spot on the floor.
The Osages were hungry because white men such as her father were burning their fields, forcing them at gunpoint from their homes and threatening them with death if they returned, stealing their food and horses, even robbing their graves—all to force them to abandon their land. There is no proof, of course, that Charles Ingalls took part in these crimes, but I assume that he did, since he was sleazy enough to willfully steal their land, their most valuable possession. He did disappear for four days—according to the book, it took that long to get to Independence and back, all of ten miles away—and returned with food and other supplies. He unabashedly told little Laura, trying to explain why he had moved the family to the Osage reservation, that because they and other whites were there, the Army would drive the Indians away.
In the words of the Osages’ U.S. agent in 1870, even being “kind and generous to the Indians….[does] not relieve these men from the reproach of being trespassers, intruders, and violators of the nation’s law.”
The annual reports of the Osages’ U.S. agent to his superiors in Washington, the commissioners of Indian affairs, provide the chapter of Little House on the Prairie that Laura Ingalls Wilder failed to write:
The Ingallses moved onto Osage land in 1869, about ten miles southwest of Independence, and only about five miles from the Kansas border with Indian Territory. The Ingallses were not alone. That year, more than 500 families trespassed on the reservation and “built their cabins near the [main] Indian camps”—in the Ingallses’ case, only a mile or so away. The 1870 U.S. census listed the Little House—and the Ingallses as its occupants—as the “89th residence of Rutland Township,” although “a claim was not filed because the land was part of the Osage…Reserve.”
Squatters had “taken possession of [the Osages’] cornfields, and forbidden them cutting firewood on ‘their claims,’” wrote agent G. C. Snow. The Osages “have had, to my certain knowledge, over 100 of their best horses stolen [in the past month]. I learn that scarcely a day passes that they do not lose from five to twenty horses….Not one of [the horse thieves has] as yet been brought to justice, or one in a hundred of the Indians’ horses returned to them.”
The settlers “threaten me with Crawford’s militia, and say they will hang me if I interfere with them,” the Indian agent complained, referring to the Kansas governor. Samuel J. Crawford was so opposed to Indians in general and Osages in particular that he once told a white constituent, Theodore Reynolds, complaining about problems over filing a claim because of a mixed-blood Osage, Augustus Captain: “Shoot the half-breed renegade and I will pardon you before the smoke gets away from your gun.”
U.S. agent Isaac T. Gibson wrote in his annual report for 1870 that settlers had grown bolder, forming vigilante groups
” pledged to defend each other in the occupation of claims, without regard to the improvements, possession, or rights of the Indians. Many of the latter were turned out of their homes, and threatened with death if they persisted in claiming them. Others were made homeless by cunning and fraud.
While absent on their winter hunt, [the Osages’] cribs of corn and other provisions, so hardly earned by their women’s toil, were robbed. Their principal village was pillaged of a large amount of [casks], and wagon-loads of matting hauled away and used by the settlers in building and finishing houses for themselves. Even new-made graves were plundered with the view of finding treasures, which the Indians often bury with their dead….
The question will suggest itself, which of these peoples are the savages?”
The outrages of 1870 were a turning point for the Osages. At that spring’s payment in provisions of promised treaty annuities, the government again pressed the Osages to sell their Kansas lands. In 1865, the Osages ceded under pressure nearly 4 million acres on the northern and eastern perimeters of their reservation, and in 1868 were forced to agree to sell their 8-million-acre “diminished reserve,” as the government called the remainder of their land, to a railroad corporation for 19 cents an acre. But President Ulysses S. Grant withdrew the treaty in 1870 when it became obvious that the Senate would not ratify it amid an explosion of outrage from settlers that the sale would put the Osage lands in the hands of the railroads and not in theirs. Gibson noted the weariness of the Osages at the 1870 spring annuity payment, quoting “one of their head-men” as complaining, “Why is it that our Great Father can never even send us our annuities, without asking us to sell and move once more?” The Indian added, “We are tired of all this.” Gibson described the Osage as having “the look and tone of a man without hope.”It was in this spirit that the Osages agreed to sell, and luckily for them, their decision to wave the white flag coincided with a radical change in the government’s Indian policy. President Grant had just relieved the Army from administrative responsibility for Indian affairs, and turned the whole problem over to Quakers, such as Gibson. They saw in the Osages the chance to inject a missing ingredient—fairness, or at least their conception of it—into official treatment of Indians. The Quaker commissioners of Indian affairs—“true friends of the Indians,” they regarded themselves—persuaded Grant to up the ante: $1.25 per acre, and the opportunity for the Osages to use their money to purchase a new reservation in Indian Territory. Grant had no choice but to agree. The president had announced his “peace policy” with much flourish and fanfare in his inaugural address on March 4, 1869, and would have suffered a humiliating embarrassment if he had rejected his new Quaker commissioners’ counsel.
When the Osages signed the treaty on September 10, 1870, they became the richest Indians in America with nearly $9 million in the U.S. Treasury—although their signatures on the Kansas removal treaty actually put them between reservations, having given up one and having only the historically questionable word of the U.S. government that they would get another.
The Quaker commissioners hailed their treaty as “so just that in itself it marks an era in the history of our government in its legislation on Indian affairs,” and as proof “of the overruling goodness of God.” But the Osages did not share the Quakers’ joy. The morning after they signed the treaty, “the air was filled with the cries of the old people, especially the women, who lamented over the graves of their children, which they were about to leave forever,” a Kansas newspaper reported.
Most of the Osages left Kansas in late fall for their annual winter buffalo hunt on the plains, and did not return, staying instead in Indian Territory. Laura Ingalls—and her readers—did not know it, but she witnessed a watershed moment in the history of the Osages—their removal from Kansas—when one morning she looked out the window of the little house and saw a traffic jam of Indians riding past. They came from the creek bottoms to the east and rode west, past the house, on an old Indian trail that later was paved and became U.S. Route 75.
One of the Osage warriors who rode past the little house that day was my great-great-grandfather, and one of the Osage women Laura saw was my great-great-grandmother.
The Ingalls family left Kansas a few weeks later. Mrs. Wilder claimed that a cavalry troop rode in one day and warned Pa to vacate or be evicted, since the house was located just inside the Osages’ diminished reservation. But that could not have been the reason the Ingallses left Kansas and moved back to Wisconsin. The U.S. Army had not moved one squatter off the Osages’ land when it was their reservation, so why would that happen when there no longer was an Osage reservation in Kansas?
The Ingallses’ neighbors were not through with the Osages yet. Nearly twenty mixed-blood Osages had decided to remain on farms they had developed and improved over the years, and to formally enter the white man’s world by becoming U.S. citizens. They secured a special treaty with the good citizens of Independence to allow them to stay. But in the weeks after the main body of Osages left Kansas, the mixed-bloods’ farmhouses, one after another, were burned down.
One night, the white neighbors of Joseph Mosher broke into his house—a mile or two from the Little House on the Prairie—dragged him, his wife and children out of their beds and into the yard, where they beat them and torched the house.
Then they took the Osage man to the nearby woods, and pistol-whipped him to death.
— Dennis McAuliffe, Jr.