Sentimental Sunday- Little Houses on the Prairie

Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls, 1975
Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls, 1975. Wikimedia Commons.

September 11, 2014, among other things, was the 40th anniversary of the television premiere of, “Little House on the Prairie” which was based on the beloved books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The books were favorites of mine as a child- I would check out one after the other at the school library and the public library, devouring them even under the covers with a flashlight, over and over. I would dream of what it must have been like to be a pioneer in the olden days- that was probably the beginning of my (virtually) time-traveling, family history-loving self. Even though I was an adult when the series premiered, I just had to watch the programs, and they never disappointed- not a case here of ‘the-books-were-so-much-better.’ I loved seeing the settings and costumes, and sometimes-ornery, sometimes-sweet Laura, portrayed by Melissa Gilbert. (She made me think of how my grandmother would have been at that age. Grandma thought that too.) The series added characters and changed story lines from the books, but they did them well. They had the bonus of the very handsome Michael Landon, my favorite from his previous series, “Bonanza,” as Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father.  The programs from 1974-1983, plus movies from the series, still air around the world in reruns and are now being released as DVDs in their uncut and remastered versions, indicating their popularity through time.

Melissa Gilbert is releasing a cookbook full of “Little House” series recipes and memories on 16 Sep 2014, entitled My Prairie Cookbook: Memories and Frontier Food from My Little House to Yours. She also published, in 2010, an autobiography that includes stories from her “Little House” days.

The “Little House” books have an even more special meaning for me- I knew my boyfriend was THE one when he gave me the whole set of “Little House” books as a Christmas gift when we were starving college students. OK, they were just paperbacks, but it was a nice boxed set and invaluable because I loved the books so much. The fact that he thought of them for a gift- well, that was stupendous. We are still together 35 years later, and thinking of the stories, the books, and the gift (plus the extra hours he worked to earn the money for them on top of a full load of classes plus work), make this a very ‘Sentimental Sunday.’

Schoolhouse attended by the children of George and Ella Daniel Roberts. Image taken c1970 and building is now gone. The children attended c1900-1915.
Schoolhouse attended by the children of George and Ella Daniel Roberts. Image taken c1970 and building is now gone. The children attended c1900-1915.

It is also a ‘Sentimental Sunday’ because we had the same kind of pioneers in our family! Edith Roberts McMurray Luck told stories of how her family migrated to Illinois and then to Jasper County, Iowa in the late 1800s, just after folks like the Ingalls family pioneered farming and towns on the midwest prairies. The Roberts, Daniel, and Murrell families were originally from Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana, and migrated to Roseville in Warren County, Illinois from their respective homes in the 1850s. They then traveled to Jasper County, Iowa, in 1858 with a large grouping of families and covered wagons full of household goods, elderly parents, and children.

Our McMurray and Benjamin ancestors were people of the frontiers, migrating west as the lines blurred between native and white settlements, sometimes being part of the casualties or captured during those hostilities, and eventually migrating to Iowa from Pennsylvania. Heinrich Horn immigrated from Germany (probably as a conscripted mercenary “Hessian” in the Revolutionary War and captured by George Washington’s forces at Trenton, then paroled when he became an American citizen); he settled in Virgina, then Pennsylvania with some of his descendants moving later to Iowa. The New England-born Paynes and Burnells became farmers and ministers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas, and even took the train to settle out in California in the 1870s, when it still was a sort of ‘Wild West.’

The Lee family sailed from England to the Illinois prairies, going up the Mississippi from New Orleans, and although the Bunker Hill, Illinois area had been settled a while, the prairie was still a harsh environment to farm and have a business in 1875. Lee married-ins like the Lutz, Russell, and Aiken families had moved west through frontier Ohio and even into ‘Indian Territory,’ which has since become the state of Oklahoma.

The Helblings migrated to Pennsylvania from Germany, and lived on the unsettled outskirts of what is now the large Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania metropolitan area. The Springsteens were from New Jersey and watched the growth of the early Indiana prairie town that became Indianapolis, Indiana.

Edith Roberts said often to her family, “You come from strong pioneer stock. You can do anything you set your mind to.” That legacy has helped many of her descendants get through tough times, and appreciate the strong, determined pioneers that fill our family tree.

Stories to come about these families and their migrations!


Notes, Sources, and References:

1) “Little House on the Prairie” tv series information:

2) Wikipedia article about the TV series:

3) Wikipedia article about the books:

4) “Little House” books- 

5) Melissa Gilbert’s autobiography- Prairie Tale: A Memoir, Gallery Books, 2010, ISBN-13: 978-141659917.




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Copyright 2013-2014 by Heritage Ramblings Blog and pmm.

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Stories- A Family Legacy, Part 2

Edith Roberts- Declamatory Contest. Prairie City News, Prairie City, Jasper Co., Iowa, shortly after 2 Feb 1917. (from a clipping without date)
Edith Roberts- Declamatory Contest. Prairie City News, Prairie City, Jasper Co., Iowa, shortly after 2 Feb 1917. (From a clipping without date)

Telling the family stories is a wonderful legacy to pass on to your children.

But I can’t find ANYTHING about my ancestor ANYWHERE…

Don’t know much about the actual stories of the lives of your ancestors? There are many resources available, both online and at specific places that can help you piece together a life and/or a family. If you are not lucky enough to have many family stories, you can learn more about your ancestors to help put their lives in context.


Newspapers are a great resource for learning the stories of ancestors, or the places and times in which they lived. Newspapers of 50+ years ago included who was visiting where, long or one-line obituaries, detailed political and voter information, etc. The obituary of Jefferson Springsteen (1820-1909) tells of him running away to join the circus as a boy- how could he then be upset when his son Abram Springsteen ran away to join the Union Army as a drummer boy at age 12? There is a story there… A short note about Miss Edith Roberts (1899-1982) taking first place in the Declamatory Contest as well as “the Dramatic’ is on the same page as the notice of  the “Death of Grandma Roberts” (her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Murrell Roberts, 1835-1917). What mixed emotions Edith must have felt that day! Such information from newspapers allows us to realize and then understand the challenges and triumphs of those who have gone before, and help us tell the stories of our ancestor’s lives.

"Death of Grandma Roberts"- Elizabeth Ann Murrell Roberts. Prairie City News, Prairie City, Jasper Co., Iowa. Undated newspaper clipping but Elizabeth died 02 Feb 1917.
“Death of Grandma Roberts”- Elizabeth Ann Murrell Roberts. Prairie City News, Prairie City, Jasper Co., Iowa. Undated newspaper clipping but Elizabeth died 02 Feb 1917.

Genealogy Bank is my favorite newspaper website for ease of use and breadth of papers held, though it is a for-pay website. also has newspapers, as do a few other for-pay websites. Some favorite free websites are, for California newspapers, and for New York state and other newspapers, postcards, etc.

If you can’t find articles about your own family, read through the headlines, ads, and social columns of the newspaper from where they lived and during that time period- it will help to put your ancestors into the context of their times.


There are many books that can be found in the history section of the bookstore or library that can help you to piece together more information about your ancestor’s probable daily life. (Jane Austen’s England by Roy Adkins is on my list to read- it tells about everyday life in the late 18th and early 19th century England.) Used or out-of-print books may be found at,, or a local used bookseller can do a search for you. Many other family or social history sources can be found on Google Books (, such as county histories. Although your ancestor may not have had the money or inclination to buy a writeup in a county history (AKA “Mug Books” since they sometimes required a payment to be included), just reading about the area in the first part of the history can give an idea of the topography, religion, economics, goods and services provided, social groups, etc. Google Books may give you a snippet of information from a book so that you can determine if you would like to buy it, or it may provide an ebook for free to download. The Internet Archive ( has millions of pages of books, videos, etc. available for free. (Sadly, some of them are OCR’d images and may be hard to read, but may still be useful.) They also offer “The  Way Back Machine” to help you find old web pages from now-defunct websites. Another good free online book source is

WorldCat ( is a great place to find a book, and then your library may be able to get it on interlibrary loan for you if it can’t be found locally. College libraries that include manuscript or special collections and dissertations may provide wonderful information. Some may be dry and/or scholarly, but you may be able to find information that can help you enhance the date and place information you already know about your family.

Here are some social history questions to ask, and research, about your ancestor’s time, place, and life:

What events were going on locally, nationally?

What was the economy like? Boom time or bust, or just a long struggle like in the 1890s?

What were prevailing religious views?

What were political leanings and issues of those in the area where your ancestor lived?

What provided income to your ancestor, and how common was that occupation?

Some of the answers can help provide family stories. We inherited some strange tools- they were very old and it was hard to tell what they were used for. They belonged to descendants of George Lee (1821-aft 1880) who lived in Irthlingborough, Northamptonshire, England, which was a large shoe-making center. George and his sons all came to America, and at least one son, Josiah, was a shoemaker. With the knowledge that shoemaking was important in their hometown in England, and then the US Federal Census that listed shoemaking as an occupation for Josiah, some online research for shoemaking tools helped us identify the purpose of the artifacts. The tools we have were probably Josiah’s, and now we can add shoemakers to the family stories.

When telling your family stories, whether in print, electronic form, or oral stories, it is important to ALWAYS differentiate general facts from those known specifically about your family. Also, document sources with proper citations, so that you or others may revisit those sources to verify or  disprove ideas and ‘facts.’


Adding social history to your research can give a deeper understanding of the lives of our ancestors, and enrich the family stories we leave as a legacy to our descendants.


Notes, Sources, and References:

1) Newspaper clippings are from the Prairie City News, around 02 feb 1917.

2) I have no affiliation with any of the websites listed, and do not receive any benefits from them financially or in product. (FTC Disclosure.)

Please contact us if you would like higher resolution images.

Copyright 2013 by Heritage Ramblings Blog and pmm.

Stories- A Family Legacy, Part 1

Edith Roberts McMurray with Son, about 1924.
Edith Roberts McMurray with Son, about 1924.

Family historians have a saying:

Genealogy without sources is just ‘mythology.’

We really should go a step further and say:

Genealogy without stories is just… well, BORING!

A recent New York Times article, “This Life. The Stories That Bind Us,” discusses developing a “strong family narrative.” The article (and book) is based on research by the Emory University psychologist Marshall Duke and his colleague Robyn Fivush. Their studies showed that children who had a strong sense of their family history had a higher sense of control of their life and greater self esteem. They also found these children were more resilient when faced with challenges.  This research hit home with me- at tough times in my life, my grandmother would tell me, “You come from strong pioneer stock- you can do anything you set your mind to.” Knowing those pioneer stories, and knowing the family support I had, helped me get through those tough times and use it as a lesson in my own life, and helped some of those times become a story for our own family.

When I started doing genealogy back in the 1960s (I really was a teen then, so not quite THAT old now), pedigree charts, family group sheets, and Ahnantafel and Register reports full of names and dates and places were what genealogy was all about. What really hooked me, though, was a trip to the county library where I found a book that actually told a story about my ancestors. I had family bible, obituary, and other information that my grandmother helped me find, but they were just cold, hard facts (mostly). When I saw the Benjamin name in a book I was browsing in the library stacks, however, my heart skipped a beat. I didn’t think it could possibly be my ancestors in a library book. Then I saw the name Brown, and because of the place and dates, knew it had to be my ancestors! The book was a reference book, so I could not check it out. I couldn’t stop reading, even though I knew my mother would be sitting out in the car waiting to pick me up. (See, I really wasn’t that old- couldn’t drive yet.) The story was about an Indian massacre of the Brown and Benjamin families in Loyalsock, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, in May of 1778. Many family members were killed, others taken captive and later released. (More in an upcoming post.) I copied the information by hand- copiers were still new-fangled  machines back then and not readily available- and rushed breathlessly to the car. My mother was not happy she was kept waiting, but thrilled when I told her what I had found about my father’s family. She was somewhat disappointed that it was not her family, and felt that since her ancestors were probably poor immigrants from Ireland and Germany, we would not find much about them. Little did she know what wonderful stories were to come about her family- one of her “poor immigrant” ancestors was actually a physician, John H. O’Brien (1808-1887). Dr. O’Brien came to America shortly after receiving his medical degree at the University of  Dublin, Ireland, around 1830, in the midst of a cholera epidemic in Pennsylvania. He survived and married Jane Neel (1823-1895) who came from a family of early pioneers in this country. (More about them in another post too.)

Social History

Telling the stories of the common people is a part of ‘social history.’ Scholarly historians have long looked down on genealogy as a mythology of name seekers who want to be related to someone famous, but are finally realizing that the everyday life of everyday people has as much importance as famous generals, battles, and political figures. (I think even more important.) This movement began with books such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, and continues with the hundreds of books more recently published by both scholarly and family historians. Some of the books are biographies, but others are scholarly studies on events or places. These books can help us place family in the context of the times. Tip: Check the index to see if your family is listed. Indexes do not always pick up every individual, however, so skim through the book and you may find a treasure. Even if your family member is not listed, other information in the book may apply to your family. I had ancestors in northern New England in the late 1600s-early 1700s, so another Ulrich book, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, had much information to help me gain a sense of what their daily lives would have been like.

 To be continued…

Notes, Sources, and References:

1) New York Times article “This Life. The Stories That Bind Us” published online 15 Mar 2013 at “Bruce Feiler’s recently published book, “The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More.”

2) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812  (Knopf, New York, 1990)

3) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750  (Knopf, New York, 1980.)