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 By the Shores of Silver Lake




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Title Author Grade level
  "By the Shores of Silver Lake"   Laura Ingalls Wilder   Grade 3 to 5th


Fiction, chapter book, Historical fiction 


Summary of the story :

By the Shores of Silver Lake is based on Laura's late childhood spent near De Smet, South Dakota, beginning in 1879. The book also introduces Laura's youngest sister Grace Pearl. Sadly, in the beginning their beloved dog Jack dies of old age. Laura meets her cousin Lena Waldvogel who becomes her good friend (Lena was the daughter of Laura’s Aunt Docia, who married August Waldvogel). Because her sister Mary is blind due to an illness, Laura also acts as Mary’s eyes and becomes kinder and more mature through this service. When they first move to the railroad camp, the Ingalls stay in a railroad shanty, and the following spring they are able to stake a claim of their own. Also her father gets offered a job in the west by his sister.

 Moving to Dakota territory

By the Shores of Silver Lake begins when the family is about to leave Plum Creek, shortly after the family has recovered from the scarlet fever which caused Mary to become blind. The family welcomes a visit from Aunt Docia, whom they had not seen for several years. She suggests that Pa and Ma move out west to Dakota Territory, where Pa would work in Uncle Henry’s railroad camp. Ma and Pa agree, because then Pa can look for a homestead while he works. Since Mary is too weak to travel, Pa goes ahead with the wagon and team, and the rest of the family follows later by train. The day Pa leaves, however, their beloved bulldog Jack is found dead, which saddens Laura greatly. (The dog upon whom Jack was based was no longer with the family at that point, but the author inserted his death here to serve as a transition between her childhood and her adolescence.)

The family travels to Dakota Territory by train—this is the children's first train trip and they are excited by the novelty of this new-fangled mode of transportation. In an hour they cover the distance it would take a horse and wagon a day to cover. Upon arrival, they go to the hotel to eat and await Pa.

Life in the railroad camp

Pa shows up within the hour, and they leave for the railroad camp. There, Laura meets her cousin Lena, and she and Laura bunk together for the time that the Ingalls family spends with them. Laura and Lena play together when they are done with their chores, which range from collecting laundry cleaned by a neighbor to milking cows; Laura rides Lena's pony, the first time she has ever ridden a horse.

Winter approaches, and the railroad workers take down the cabins for transport and go back East. Pa had found a piece of land on which he wanted to stake his claim in the spring, and as a result he wishes to remain behind in order to file a claim on the land as soon as the land office opens again in spring. Fortunately, the surveyors, who had planned to stay in their home all winter, are called back East also and ask the Ingalls to remain in their house in exchange for keeping watch over their surveying equipment

[ A new claim, a new house

So the family moves, and Laura feels that no one could be as excited as she to be moving into a beautiful house. Winter comes, and one night when Pa is playing the fiddle, Mr. and Mrs. Boast arrive in the middle of a snowstorm; they are migrating West but were caught by the bad weather. They stay past Christmas, and at New Years the Ingalls travel to the Boast’s for dinner. To pass time, Mrs Boast shares her collection of newspapers with Laura and shows the Ingalls family how to make a what-not.[1] Soon afterward Pa goes to file his claim, but two men want the same piece. Mr. Edwards (an old friend of the Ingalls) holds them back while Mr. Ingalls files his claim.

While Pa is gone, people emigrating west stop at the surveyors' house on their way to their eventual claims. Ma charges money for the service, and in the end has a little over $42. This money is later used to help send Mary to the college for the blind in Iowa. Pa uses leftover lumber from the railroad to build a house in the new town, because the surveyors are returning and will need the house in which the Ingalls have been living. Though Pa has been awarded his own claim, he needs time to build a house on it, so the family stays in the house in town until the claim shanty is finished, and during the harsh winters when it is too cold to remain in an un-insulated shanty.





Possible Design Challenges:
  • Build a house on the prairie
  • design a tool to make it easier to get things on and off a wagon
  • Design a song recording device for this time period


  Laura Ingalls Wilder lived the events described in her Little House books. As a young girl, she traveled with her parents and her older sister, Mary, in a covered wagon across Minnesota, Iowa, and Kansas, and into Indian Territory, where they lived in the Little House on the Prairie. Then the family traveled back to western Minnesota and lived on the banks of Plum Creek. Finally, they went west again and settled on the shores of Silver Lake in Dakota Territory.

Historical background

To encourage settlement of the mid-west part of the United States, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862. This act divided unsettled land into sections, and heads of households could file a claim for very little money. A section was 1-square-mile (2.6 km2), and a claim was ¼ of a section. 36 sections made a township. A section was identified by three numbers, for example NW quarter of Section 18, Township 109, Range 38. By paying $10.00 plus other filing fees, a man could get 160 acres (0.65 km2) of land for his use if he could live on it for 5 years and not give up to go back east. The Ingalls’ staked one claim near Plum Creek. In the spring of 1880, Charles Ingalls filed a homestead claim south of De Smet for the NE quarter of Section 3, Township 110, Range 56.[2]



  Prepared by  Bill Wolfson.  Copyright © 2011
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