I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and her autobiographical novels about her childhood on the frontier fueled my imagination. Since I'm from St. Joseph, Mo., once the edge of the Missouri frontier, I found pioneers fascinating. In the mid-1800's, St. Joe was a popular spot to embark on westward journeys in covered wagons.

I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and her autobiographical novels about her childhood on the frontier fueled my imagination. Since I'm from St. Joseph, Mo., once the edge of the Missouri frontier, I found pioneers fascinating. In the mid-1800's, St. Joe was a popular spot to embark on westward journeys in covered wagons.
When most little girls played the simple and traditional game of House, I liked to tweak my games a little. I liked a version of House that I called Olden Days and at times, I pretended to be a westward bound pioneer. I usually donned one of my mother's discarded dresses because they came to my ankles or dragged the floor. I often borrowed the small cone-shaped lamp that sat on top of our television set to use as my faux campfire. To simulate flame I often draped a nylon scarf (that belonged to my mom) but I experienced an epic fail when the light bulb heated up enough to melt the scarf. It burned through into a small circle  that hardened and the resulting smoke extinguished my play campfires once and for all.
I penned a little poem that referenced the wagons trains that had once departed from my hometown and it was published on the kids' page of the local paper.
My family liked the poem and when my grandfather passed away, a clipping of the poem was buried with him.
I guess my early fame spread farther than I knew because the following summer, when we attended a large family reunion at Kansas City's Swope Park, my great-grandfather's brother requested my presence. He had retired after decades as a prison guard in the Missouri State Penitentiary system and was elderly. "Leave her with me," he told my mom, who did.
Uncle Paul told me he'd heard I liked pioneers and wagon trains. I admitted I did.
So he told me that I was descended from pioneers. He told me stories, some of which I remember and others that I don't. I had listened to my Granny's stories as long as I could remember and between them, they instilled me in a love of both history and genealogy.
On that long ago summer's day, he told me how my great-great-great grandparents were traveling by wagon train and were bound for California. When they reached St. Joseph, the matriarch said she like the place and that she'd rather stay in St. Joe. At the time, it was a raw river town and jumping off point for the West but to her, it seemed preferable than continuing West or turning around. The fact that she gave birth to my great-great grandfather there in 1850 might have had something to do with her reasoning as well.
Later, in my ever ongoing research, I would learn that the Lewis family sailed from Belfast in Ireland, with some Welsh roots prior to that. They arrived early in Virginia, fought in the Revolutionary War, and eventually moved on to Kentucky. Wanderlust must have been a family trait because they then moved to Sangamon County, Illinois before they headed for California but stayed in St. Joseph instead.
I also learned other ancestors, namely the Zumwalts, were also early pioneers and some of the first who settled parts of Missouri.
In addition to reading The Little House books, I've read several other biographies and works about Laura Ingalls Wilder. One was a collection of letters she wrote home to her husband from a visit to California. The latest, which I've not yet read, is called 'Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.'  It's on my to-be-read list because I've never lost my fascination with Laura Ingalls Wilder, pioneers or the West.
If I had not read her books as a child, I might not have had such an interest in my own family history or followed the trails that led me back into history.



Lee Ann Murphy is a staff writer and writes a column for the Neosho Daily News.