After three ineffectual years and one long elliptical journey, the Ingalls returned to friends and family in Wisconsin. But the Big Woods would not be home for long. Times were tough in Pepin. The town’s initial logging boom had passed and the economic center of the area had shifted across the river to Lake City, Minnesota, which had the better boat landing and new rail connections. 1 Over time, the increase in settlers had reduced the amount of game in the woods. This was a serious drawback to hunters such as Charles Ingalls, who depended on venison, bear meat, and wildfowl to feed their families. In October 1873, Charles sold his land in Pepin County for the second time and made a handsome profit on the $1,000 transaction. 2 He was actively planning another move west, this time with his elder brother Peter. Peter intended to rent a farm in southern Minnesota, near the Zumbro River; Charles was moving farther on, to the naked, blackdirt prairies of western Minnesota. In order to cross Lake Pepin before iceout, they planned to leave Wisconsin in February-an unlikely month for wagon travel and open camping, but necessary if Charles and Peter had any chance to plant that spring. Their departure date was delayed when
the young Ingalls cousins, all living together in Peter’s house in preparation for their move west, contracted scarlet fever. When, as an adult, Laura wrote about this period in her family’s history, she remembered it as a tense time for everyone. As Caroline and her sister Eliza nursed eight sick children, all sprawled together in makeshift beds on the floor, Charles and Peter anxiously toe-tapped the spongy ice along the shoreline. The children recovered just in time for their parents to drive teams across the booming ice. Laura recalled being bundled into the wagon and that her ears hurt so badly she was unable to play with her cousins. 3 In general, pioneers dreaded crossing frozen lakes and rivers, knowing that any miscalculation of the thickness or stability of the ice could potentially claim their wagons, their teams, all their worldly possessions, or even their lives. As the Ingalls drove their creaking wagons across the lake on the treacherous ice road, over the snowy embankment, and through the streets of Lake City on the far side of the Mississippi River, they must have been aware it was unlikely that they would ever see their parents or the woods of Wisconsin again.