Little House on the Prairie and Family History

My college roommates once came home to find me weeping during an episode of Little House on the Prairie.  I don’t remember the specifics of the show, but I do remember my embarrassment.  They laughed at me, but I maintain that the series is one heartwarming and charming enough to cry over.  There are many touching moments when young, plain Laura evokes deserved pathos.

I also remember crying when Michael Landon died.  I attended middle school at the time, but his untimely death struck me as the most tragic event in recent memory, and the fact that he lived on as Laura’s “Pa” in the Little House series seemed to lessen that sadness.  His sure immortalization in syndication, however, did not prevent me from clipping a picture of him sporting that long, glossy hair from a magazine of mine (probably Seventeen) and keeping it in my jewelry box.  The caption said something about his tragic death from cancer.  I felt determined to honor his life and not let my descendants be unaware of who he was.

And, my descendants (my two little daughters) do not know who he is, but they may soon.   In the spirit of combating princess culture with prairie culture, I have begun reading the Little House series to my oldest daughter.  We recently finished Little House in the Big Woods, and are now on to Little House on the Prairie.  After finishing a chapter one evening, I revealed to my daughter that these characters are also portrayed on a television series.  Her face lit up, and I promised we would watch it together as soon as we have read all the books.  (This is also my plan with the Harry Potter series as soon as she is old enough.  We will read them all, and then watch the movies.)

I adore the Little House books, and I find myself enthralled with Laura Ingalls Wilder for several reasons.  Poor Laura is the plain sister, and I ache for her when she feels jealous of Mary’s beautiful, golden hair.  More compellingly for me, as I get older, is an admiration for Mrs. Wilder’s having written these books, which are a record of a time in which our ancestors lived.  They too lived on the prairie and tamed the wild west.

Public domain photo of Laura Ingalls Wilder from Wikimedia Commons

As I read about Laura’s family leaving their beloved house in the Big Woods and heading toward Kansas, I can’t help but think of my own ancestors, who settled Texas during the 1840s (shown below), close to the same time period of Laura’s adventures.  I can’t help but wish that one of my great grandmothers or grandfathers had written down family memories for me to read and enjoy with my children.  What a treasure Laura Ingalls Wilder has left her posterity!

I am intensely interested in family history.  I find the hunt for information to be thrilling, as if I’m a detective and I must put all of the pieces together to solve a mystery.  The mystery I am solving is a portrait of my great grandmother or great grandfather.  I want to know who they were and what they experienced.  I have found a few resources to be most helpful in my role as an ancestor detective.  First is the book Who Do You Think You Are?: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History by Megan Smolenyak.  It is a companion to the NBC television show.  Second is Ancestry.com.  The site requires a paid membership, but the money I have paid in the last year has been worthwhile because of the reward.

I compiled all of these rewards last month into a book.  I titled it The January Family: A Brief History (1549-1968).  I printed it through My Publisher, and when I presented a copy to each of my sisters, they laughed at the title.  The dates tend to render invalid my use of the word “brief.”  However, it is brief because there is no Laura Ingalls Wilder in my January line.  However, much has been written about my sixth great grandfather Samuel January, who helped found Maysville, Kentucky and who served in the Revolutionary War with his father and brothers.

I found thirteen newspaper articles in the Kentucky Gazette, The Daily Bulletin, and The Daily Public Ledger that mention Samuel January, for whom January Park and January Street in Maysville (shown above) are named.  Many of the articles were published after he died and refer to the founding of this park or a city ordinance about his land and legacies.  Other newspaper clippings are notices from Samuel himself, offering merchandise for sale, requesting payment from those who have taken credit from his store, and offering money for a missing (possibly stolen) horse.  His brother, John Irvin January, also my 6th great grandfather (John’s son and Samuel’s daughter married), has his Kentucky home listed for sale in the newspaper as well.  Once the house sold, John migrated to Illinois.  His son and Samuel’s daughter went with him, and the two eventually take their sons to Texas.  Consequently, there are many Januarys in Texas today.  I found several land deeds and records from the Panola County Courthouse in Texas, and those records are invaluable to me.  They give me a glimpse into their dealings and their lives.

Obviously, I’m passionate about my ancestors.  Therefore, when I read Little House on the Prairie to my daughter, my voice sometimes cracks and my eyes sometimes tear up.  I’m reminded of the time I was caught crying while watching the show.  The stories are heartwarming, but they also remind me of a time when my ancestors too were settling the west.  My daughter is embarrassed for me when I get emotional because she doesn’t understand why.  I hope someday, when she’s old enough, to show her the information I’ve gathered about our heritage and maybe she’ll then understand my connection to the past and my love for people I have never met.

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