By the Shores of Silver Lake

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By the Shores of Silver Lake
By shore silver lake cover.jpg
First edition
Author Laura Ingalls Wilder
Illustrator Helen Sewell
Mildred Boyle
Country United States
Language English
Series Little House
Genre Family Saga
Publisher Harper & Brothers
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
Preceded by On the Banks of Plum Creek
Followed by The Long Winter

By the Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, was first published in 1939 and is the fifth of nine books written in her Little House on the Prairie series, also known as The Laura Years. The book takes place over a period of just over one year, beginning when Laura is 12 years old and the family moves from Plum Creek, Minnesota to what will become De Smet, South Dakota. The family is one of the first to settle near Silver Lake. After moving to the Dakota Territory, the family first lives with relatives in a railroad camp, where Pa works as the bookkeeper. The railroad company asks the family to spend the winter in the surveyors' house to watch the equipment, and in the spring Pa files on a nearby claim. Until he can build a shelter there, the family lives in town in a store building Pa built of leftover railroad lumber. As soon as the claim shanty is in place, the family moves into it, although they will return to town during the coming winters until the claim shanty is fully weatherized some five years in the future.

Though Wilder began writing the books as autobiographical recollections, they are considered historical fiction and have won a number of literary awards. By the Shores of Silver Lake was awarded a Newbery Honor award in 1940 for exceptional children’s literature. The enduring popularity of the Little House books has inspired additional book series encompassing more generations of Wilder’s family as well as a long-running television series in the early 1970s that is still in syndication and available on DVD.


By the Shores of Silver Lake is based on Laura's late childhood spent near De Smet, South Dakota, beginning in 1879. Because her sister Mary was recently blinded due to an illness, Pa asks Laura to "be Mary’s eyes" by describing what she sees, and Laura becomes more patient and mature through this service. The book also introduces Laura's youngest sister Grace Pearl.

The story begins in Plum Creek, shortly after the family has recovered from the scarlet fever which caused Mary to become blind. Aunt Docia comes to visit, and suggests that Pa works as the bookkeeper in Uncle Henry’s railroad camp for fifty dollars a month. 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 morning Pa is to leave, their beloved old bulldog Jack dies in his sleep, saddening 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.)

Several months later, the family travels to Dakota Territory by train. This is the family's first train trip and they are excited by the novelty of this newfangled mode of transportation, which can cover in a few hours the distance a horse and wagon would travel in a day. Pa comes for them in town, and the next day they leave for the railroad camp. Laura and her cousin, Lena, play together when they are done with their chores, which range from collecting laundry washed by a neighbor to milking cows; Laura rides a horse for the first time when Lena allows her the use of her pony. As winter approaches, the railroad workers take down the buildings in the camp and return east. As the family has nowhere to stay with the demolition of the camp, they plan to return east, but the surveyors, who had planned to stay for the winter, are called back east and ask the Ingalls to stay in their house in exchange for keeping watch over their surveying equipment.

Laura is excited to move into a beautiful house well stocked with provisions. The newly married Mr. and Mrs. Boast arrive in the middle of a snowstorm. They stay past Christmas, and at New Year's the Ingalls visit the Boasts' small home 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] Later, Reverend Alden unexpectedly visits, and after learning Mary is blind, informs Ma that there is a college for the blind in Iowa. Laura resolves that she will eventually teach school and help send Mary to college.

During a clear night that winter, Laura and Carrie go for a moonlight walk on the lake and encounter a wolf. When Pa goes out the next day to hunt the wolf, he discovers the perfect section of land for their homestead claim. He plans to file a claim at the land office in Brookings as soon as the weather improves. However, his departure is delayed by a rush of men moving west who stop at the surveyors' house on the way to their own claims. The money earned from boarding these men is later used for Mary's college education. After Pa's return from Brookings, he builds a store building in town so the family can move when the surveyors return. The book ends as the Ingalls family settles into the snug claim shanty on their new land.

Historical background[edit]

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]

A few details in By the Shores of Silver Lake differ from accounts in more autobiographical sources. For example, it seems that Laura never actually visited the railroad grade, but in the book she went to the grade with her father.[3] Wilder also wrote that the surveyors left food in the house when they moved in and let the Ingalls have it. However, other sources are contradictory and it is unclear whether Pa had to buy the supplies for winter.[4]

Modern Influence[edit]

The Surveyors' House is a Laura Ingalls Wilder historic site in De Smet, South Dakota

Today, De Smet, South Dakota, attracts many fans with its historic sites from the books By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years. From 1879 to 1894 the Ingalls family lived in De Smet. The family homestead, a house in town built by Charles Ingalls, the Brewster School where Laura taught, and the surveyors' house the family lived in between 1879 and 1880 are open to visitors.

In addition to the Little House books, four series of books expand the Little House series to include five generations of Laura Ingalls Wilder's family. The success of the Little House series has produced many related books including two series ("Little House Chapter Books" and "My First Little House Books") that present the original stories in condensed and simplified form for younger readers. Additional series have been written to tell the stories of Laura’s mother, “The Caroline Years,” her grandmother, "The Charlotte Years," her great-grandmother, “The Martha Years,” and her daughter, “The Rose Years.” There are also Little House-themed craft, music, and cookbooks.

The Little House on the Prairie television series was loosely based on the Little House books. A total of 203 episodes were produced and originally aired on NBC from 1974 to 1982. Pa was played by Michael Landon, Ma by Karen Grassle, Laura by Melissa Gilbert, Mary by Melissa Sue Anderson, and Carrie by identical twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush. The series remains popular in syndication and has been released on DVD.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ingalls Wilder, Laura (1939). By The Shores of Silver Lake (1979 rep). Harper Trophy. pp. 208–211. ISBN 978-0-06-440005-3. 
  2. ^ Wade, Homesteading on the Plains, pp.11-16
  3. ^ Anderson, A Little House Reader p. 19
  4. ^ Anderson, A Little House Reader, p. 21, indicates that Pa purchased the food; Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, p.49, indicates that the food was given in exchange for caring for the property.


  • Anderson, William. A Little House Reader. New York: Harper Collins publishers. 1998. ISBN 0-06-026394-6.
  • Anderson, William. Laura’s Album: a remembrance scrapbook of Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 1998. ISBN 0-06-027842-0.
  • Anderson, William. Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Iowa Story. Burr Oak, Iowa. The Laura IngallsWilder Park and Museum. 2001. ISBN 0-9610088-9-X
  • Anderson, William. Prairie Girl: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 2004. ISBN 0-06-028974-0
  • Anderson, William. The Little House Guidebook. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 1996. ISBN 0-06-446177-7
  • Garson, Eugenia and Haufrecht, Herbert. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook: Favorite Songs from the Little House Books. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books. 1996. ISBN 0-06-027036-5
  • Gormley, Beatrice. Laura Ingalls Wilder: Young Pioneer. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks. 2001. ISBN 0-689-83924-3
  • Miller, John E. Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend. University of Missouri Press. Columbia, Missouri. 1998. ISBN 0-8262-1167-4
  • Wade, Mary Dodson. Homesteading on the Plains. Millbrook Press. Brookfield, Connecticut. 1997. ISBN 0-7613-0218-2.
  • Wallner, Alexandera. Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: Holiday House inc. 1997. ISBN 0-8234-1314-4.
  • Ward, S. Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: Rosen Publishing Group. 2001. ISBN 0-8239-5712-8
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Dear Laura: Letters From Children To Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 1996. ISBN 0-06-026274-5
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 1953. ISBN 0-06-026430-6
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls. A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journey Across America. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 2006. ISBN 0-06-072491-9
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls. On the Shores of Silver Lake. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 1967. ISBN 0-06-026416-0.

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