A Kickapoo Kidnapping—A True Story

I recently reread Little House on the Prairie, looking for unfair denigration (“stereotypical attitudes’”) describing Indians, which the ALSC stated was one of the reasons for stripping the author’s name from their children’s literature award.

It’s true that Ma harbors a negative prejudice towards Indians, but her daughters never actually learn why. Pa sets a positive example, always seeing the Indians’ point of view. And after all, Ma had very good reasons to fear and mistrust Indians. It was a different time.


I was reminded of this bit of family lore:

In 1790, James Gillham lived with his wife, Ann, and his four children in what in a few years would become the state of Kentucky. They had followed the trail that Daniel Boone blazed through the Cumberland Gap in 1775.

Daniel Boone leading Pioneers Through the Cumberland Gap, David Wright

One day when James and his son Isaac were out plowing the corn field, a party of Kickapoo Indians descended upon the cabin, terrifying Ann and the children—Samuel, James, and little Clem, who was then four years old. The Indians ransacked the cabin, tore open the mattresses, dumped out the feathers and filled the ticking with the family’s belongings.

When James and Isaac returned to the cabin for lunch the family was nowhere to be found.  James realized what had happened and spread the alarm among his neighbors.  They grabbed their rifles and set off in pursuit, but eventually they lost the trail.

James was determined to find his family, however, and as soon as he could, he sold everything he owned and set off with Isaac to discover what had happened to them. First they went to Vincennes, Indiana, a trading center, where James hoped someone might have heard rumors of the kidnapping. But he was unsuccessful there.

For the next five years, he chased down leads, finally learning that his wife and children were alive and located in a Kickapoo village near what is now Springfield, Illinois.
Two French interpreters and an Irish trader helped him negotiate with the Indians for their release, and a Frenchman lent him the money for the ransom.

Later when Ann recounted the ordeal, she remembered that the Indians were in such a hurry to get away that they did not stop to find food for several days. She feared that they would kill the children because they were having a hard time keeping up.  She tore her clothes to make rags to wrap around their bruised feet.

When finally they stopped to hunt, they killed a racoon, singed off its hair, threw away its intestines, chopped it up and boiled what was left—meat, bones, and internal organs—into a kind of soup which everyone shared. After several more arduous days on the trail, they arrived at the Indian settlement.

When they were rescued, Clem then nine years old, could not speak a word of English.

And that’s all we know of their captiivity.

Many years later, Congress awarded Ann 160 acres of land as recompense.


The last surviving Indian captive, Bank Babb, died in 1955. She had been captured by the Comanches along with her older brother, Dot, in 1865 just four years before Laura Ingalls’ family settled on the Osage Diminished Reservation in what is now Kansas.  The Indians killed the mother on the spot, shooting an arrow into her side. You can read their story here.


 I’m glad the Kickapoo spared the lives of Ann Gillham and her sons, particularly Samuel, for he was my great, great grandfather.


The story of the capture of Ann Gillham and her children can be found in The History of Madison County, Illinois, W.R. Brink & Co, 1882.






Books · Childhood learning · Education · Laura Ingalls Wilder · Museums

In Defense of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Part Two

Replica of the log cabin Pa built, located at The Little House on the Prairie Museum, Independence, Kansas

First of all, let me dispatch the criticism of the passage most frequently cited by the media as offensive: The Little House on the Prairie was published in 1932. On the first page of that first edition, the following sentence appears:

There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no people. Only the Indians lived there.

It seemed clear to most readers that what was meant was that there were no white people like Laura and her family. But in 1952, a reader wrote to the publisher complaining about the passage. The editor was shocked that no one had ever noticed the wording before and suggested a correction. The author immediately responded:

You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you request. It was a stupid blunder of mine.

In a new edition published in 1953, the offending passage was replaced by the following:

There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.

 In other words, the original offensive wording has not appeared in the book for 65 years!  But apparently there is no statute of limitations in the case of careless political incorrectness. It is really stretching to assume that Wilder thought Indians were subhuman.

I imagine the authorities dislike Laura’s physical descriptions of the Indians or the fact that the “wild men” frighten her:

First she saw their leather moccasins. Then their stringy bare, red-brown legs all the way up. Around their waists each of the Indians wore a leather thong, and the furry skin of a small animal hung down in front. . . .Their faces were bold and fierce and terrible. Their black eyes glittered. . . .When Laura peeked out from behind the slab again, both Indians were looking straight at her. Her heart jumped into her throat and choked her with its pounding.

But make no mistake: it is Pa who is the central character of this book. It is his decisions that drive the action; his accomplishments as a frontiersman that fill the pages; his songs and fiddle that provide much of the poetry. Surely it is to Pa we must look for the values this work endorses.

And what are they when it comes to the Indians?

One day a tall Indian suddenly appears in the doorway,

‘How!’ he said to Pa. Pa held onto Jack and replied, ‘How!’ He dragged Jack to the bedpost and tied him there. While he was doing it, the Indian came in and squatted down by the fire. Then Pa squatted down by the Indian, and they sat there, friendly, but not saying a word, while Ma finished cooking dinner. . . .Ma gave Pa and the Indian their dinners on two tin plates, and they ate silently. The Pa gave the Indian some tobacco for his pipe. They filled their pipes, and they lighted the tobacco with coals from the fire, and they silently smoked until the pipes were empty. . . .A while longer they all sat silent. Then the Indian rose up and went away without a sound.

‘Let Indians keep themselves to themselves,’ said Ma, ‘and we will do the same. I don’t like Indians around  underfoot.’

Pa told her not to worry, ‘That Indian was perfectly friendly,’ he said. ‘And their camps down among the bluffs are peaceable enough. If we treat them well and watch Jack, we won’t have any trouble. . .

The next day, when Pa opens the door there is another mounted Indian  on the trail that runs by the house. Jack stands snarling before the Indian, ready to pounce. When the Indian sees Pa, he points his gun at Jack. Pa grabs Jack’s collar and pulls him off the trail.

‘That was a darned close call!’ Pa said. ‘Well, it’s his path. An Indian trail, long before we came.’

Later, Laura overhears a conversation between Pa and Mr. Scott and Mr. Edwards, who are distant neighbors. Scott and Edwards think that perhaps the Indians started a recent prairie fire on purpose to drive out the settlers and that they “mean devilment.”

Mr. Edwards said there were too many Indians in those camps; he didn’t like it. ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian,’ Mr. Scott said.

Pa said he didn’t know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they  had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.


You be the judge.


Coming next: A Kickapoo Kidnapping, A True Family Story 



Books · Childhood learning · Education · Laura Ingalls Wider

In Defense of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Part One

Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I read of the decision by the ALSC, a division of the American Library Association, to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from their prestigious children’s literature award, I was outraged. Now that I think about it I am also insulted.

The seven volumes of Wilder’s Little House books trace one restless pioneer family’s journey as they push their way west. Wilder once said, “In my own life, I represented a whole period of American history. I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns.”

And at the age of 63, she determined to set it all down. The eventual result was a masterful accomplishment. The books are not memoir, but historical fiction, which is 414+HGFRK1L._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_not to say they are in any way false. Quite the contrary. They tell a story that is historically and emotionally accurate, based on Wilder’s own childhood, crafted with such artistry that in 2012, The Library of America issued a two volume edition of the Little House books, acknowledging thereby Wilder’s place, along with Dreiser,  Fitzgerald, Hemingway et al. in the canon of American literature.


It seems that the ALSC believes that Wilder’s legacy is inconsistent with their “core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsivenes..”


It’s been a long time since I read these books, so I thought I’d take another look to see what on earth they were complaining about. Since their objections have largely to do with the treatment of native Americans, I decided to reread Little House on the Prairie, which covers the year the family lived on the Osage Diminished Reservation in what is now the state of Kansas.

What I found is just what one would expect in an accurate historical account of white settlers in 1870 living in Indian territory.

The point of view of the story is what English teachers like to call “limited third person.” As readers, we are only privy to what Laura can see, hear, or feel. We are notWceGgDUNlCA8RPHOz66AbHHs4RI12Vqg+OoBRGBrKx0gjMb1TSGn63!P3!BaM61Ycim7TPw2yzIaTKEqk4wNnOSIUTFPL26LZtn9KZVC7!lQ5iDKyCBWtzAWMsmQ+7PK in on adults’ private conversations or thoughts. The disparaging remarks made about Indians are fragments of adult conversation which are overheard by Laura, never elaborated or explained by her parents. It’s clear that Laura’s ma doesn’t like Indians, but she is not specific and always deflects her daughters’ questions about them. Pa is wary but consistently sees circumstances from the Indians’ perspective. Honestly, I find nothing indefensible in these pages.  As for “inconsistent with current values,” this is HISTORY, for crying out loud. Historical attitudes are not always consistent with current beliefs. And there’s no getting around that.

I am insulted because the implication is clear that the librarians consider themselves morally superior, having detected what they consider offensive racist treatment of minorities (they also object to the account of a minstrel show in a later book in the series) and so have decided that the books and their author are not entitled to the respect their children’s award signifies.

They assure us that this does not mean that they think we shouldn’t read these books if we want to or even love them if we do, but of course, it logically follows that if we do read them and love them, either we are just too insensitive to understand that these books are unacceptable or more likely we do understand and are simply bigoted racists ourselves.

The Little House books tell about people who are hard-working, self reliant, and courageous in the face of hardship. They take joy in simple pleasures and strengthened by their faith in God, they are confident in the future, always ready to move on, to see what lies ahead. These are the values that are currently under assault, most recently by the American Library Association’s supercilious dismissal of one of America’s most cherished and talented literary artists.

Come back Saturday for Part Two in which I’ll quote passages from the book to defend my position.