“Once upon a time…a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little grey house made of logs”
Laura Ingalls Wilder is best known for her children’s novels about life in pioneer America – the “Little House” series. While the series is autobiographical, it has fictional elements, leading to some discrepancies between her biographical information and the stories known and loved by millions.
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born on February 7th, 1867, near Pepin, Wisconsin
, the second child of Charles Philip Ingalls
and his wife Caroline Lake Quiner
. When Laura was just a baby, the family moved to Chariton County, Missouri
, and from there to Independence, Kansas
. The time the family spent trying to earn the claim in Indian Territory
formed the basis for the book “Little House on the Prairie
”. While in Kansas
, Laura’s sister Carrie (Caroline Celestia Ingalls) was born.
In the spring of 1871, when the U.S. Government reversed the decision to allow homesteaders in Indian Territory, the Ingalls family moved back to Wisconsin. The time there inspired Laura’s first book: “Little House in the Big Woods”. In 1874 they moved again, to Redwood County, Minnesota. While in Minnesota, Laura’s only brother, Charles Frederick, was born. The boy died less than a year later. Laura wrote about Minnesota in “On the Banks of Plum Creek”, but made no mention of her brother.
After living near Plum Creek, the Ingalls family moved to Burr Oak, Iowa, to assist a friend in running a hotel there. They lived in the hotel, then in rented accommodation, and then in a little brick house just outside the town. The life did not suit them, and in 1878, shortly after the birth of the youngest Ingalls child, Grace (Grace Pearl Ingalls), they moved back to Minnesota.
In 1879 the Ingalls’ moved to De Smet, Dakota, where Laura (apart from short absences while teaching) would remain until her marriage. Laura’s elder sister Mary had been blinded just before their move – probably from a stroke caused by either scarlet fever or meningitis. Laura’s life in Dakota Territory is detailed in her books: “By the Shores of Silver Lake”, “Little Town on the Prairie”, “The Long Winter”, and “These Happy Golden Years”.
While in De Smet, Laura worked in various roles – mostly as a seamstress or a milliner’s assistant, in order to help pay for Mary to attend the Iowa School for the Blind. Just short of her sixteenth birthday she gained her teaching certificate, and began to teach in little school houses around the area. Her typical “class” consisted of around five students, often some older than she was. The distance of the schools meant that she had to board with one of the families, often the school’s owner. It was during this time that Almanzo Wilder, a De Smet homesteader, began driving Laura home for weekends.
Laura and Almanzo (known as "Manly") married on August 25th, 1885 and settled on Almanzo’s “claim”. Their only daughter, Rose, was born in December 1886. Overwork and diphtheria left Almanzo somewhat crippled, and Laura’s life was very difficult for some years. Laura’s only son was born in 1889, dying unnamed twelve days later. In the same month, Laura and Manly’s house burned down. Laura described the early years of her marriage in “The First Four Years”.
Laura, Manly and Rose, along with Manly’s brother Royal, moved to Spring Valley, Minnesota, to live with Almanzo’s parents. The cold weather exacerbated Manly’s paralysis, and the Wilders moved to Florida to stay with Laura’s cousin Peter. The warmer weather improved Almanzo’s health, but Laura felt ostracized by the women, and in around 1891 they moved back to De Smet.
In 1894 the family moved to the Ozarks, Missouri, and purchased Rocky Ridge Farm. The land was originally very poor farming country, but with much effort it became a prosperous farm. Almanzo gradually built a rambling farmhouse and bought up more land.
In 1909 Laura’s daughter Rose married and moved to San Francisco. By 1911, the Ozarks farmhouse was an established and admired building. Laura began writing articles about farming for magazines and newspapers, and was given an editorship with the “Missouri Ruralist”.
Laura began writing down an account of her life in1930, encouraged by the now-divorced Rose, a writer in her own right. Though Laura could find no publisher at first, Rose convinced her to re-write just part of her story, and it was published as “The Little House in the Big Woods”.
Throughout the 1930s and early ‘40s, Laura published the series of books detailing her life, up to her marriage in “These Happy Golden Years”.
By 1946, Laura was the last living member of the Ingalls family she made famous. Her parents “Ma” and “Pa”, and her sister Mary had died some decades earlier, and her sisters Grace and Carrie died in the 1940s.
On October 23rd, 1949, Almanzo Wilder died after two heart attacks, at the age of 92. Laura Ingalls Wilder died on the 10th February 1957, three days after her ninetieth birthday.
Several Laura Ingalls Wilder books were published posthumously, including a collection of poems, her letters to Almanzo from San Francisco, and the account of their travels to Missouri. Of her posthumous publications, the most well known is “The First Four Years” – an account of the early days of her marriage. It is evident in reading the book that it did not undergo the editing and fine-tuning of her other “Little House” books.
“I was amazed because I didn't know how to write. I went to ‘Little red schoolhouses’ all over the west and I was never graduated from anything.”
The “Little House” books have been enchanting readers young and old for over 70 years. The books are fairly simply written, with language generally aimed at the pre-teen reader. This does not tend to detract from the older readers’ experience.
The books are written in the third person, focusing on Laura’s thoughts and actions. She appears fairly honest about her emotions, and about the actions of others. There is a certain moral element to her stories – a book does not go by where Laura doesn’t learn one of the good old-fashioned values of obedience and respect and so-on.
The more unpleasant aspects of Laura’s life are excluded from the books. The existence of her baby brother was ignored – Charles Frederick died before reaching one year of age. The time the family spent working at a hotel is not mentioned – as it seems to have been an unhappy experience for all of them. The trials of pioneer life are described apparently fairly accurately, but as these are children’s books, Laura obviously chose to focus on happy endings, or at least the triumph of perseverance through adversity.
With that in mind, the reader must remember that some aspects of Laura’s story are fictionalized. While most characters were real people and can be traced through records such as the census, others are amalgamations of people Laura met. Unpleasant people were often given pseudonyms – the Brewster family who Laura boarded with in “These Happy Golden Years” were in fact the Bouchie family. Nellie Oleson – Laura’s continuing nemesis from “On the Banks of Plum Creek” right through to “These Happy Golden Years” is actually a combination of three girls – Nellie Owens and Genevieve Masters, from Minnesota days, and Stella Gilbert, a girl who seems to have caused friction during Almanzo and Laura’s courtship. The character of Mr. Edwards – a friend who helped the Ingalls’ in many ways, is impossible to track down. It has been suggested that he became the combination of many people who were kind to Laura and her family over the years.
The “Little House” books were made into a television series in the late 1970s, stretching into the early 80s. Under the name “Little House on the Prairie”, it ran for over 200 episodes, and is still available on video and DVD. Though there were many diversions from reality, and quite a few inaccuracies (one viewer complains that “Pa always seemed to be ploughing…no matter what the time of year”), the series was well loved and quite effective.
Many other books have been published about the Ingalls family and their exploits. Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane published books about other members of the family, as well as a fiction book “Young Pioneers”, combining aspects of the lives of her mother, grandparents and great grandparents.
Museums and parks dedicated to Laura Ingalls Wilder are scattered throughout the towns where she lived. Her Ozarks farmhouse was closed at her death by her daughter, and has been preserved intact. Many of her possessions are to be found in all these museums, such as Pa’s fiddle, the lace she was given on her wedding day, and the manuscripts of her books.
Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder include (in order of publication):
Italicised quotes by Laura Ingalls Wilder