American author Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) was the creator of the much-loved children's series of "Little House" books that recounted her life as a young girl on the western frontier during the last half of the nineteenth century.
Laura Ingalls Wilder never set out to become a famous writer when she first began jotting down memories of her girlhood on the newly settled American frontier. Her goal, she later explained, was simply to preserve her pioneer family's stories of adventure and discovery. But the unexpected success of her first published book, Little House in the Big Woods (1932), made her stop and realize "what a wonderful childhood I had had," as she remarked in a speech delivered in Detroit in 1937 and excerpted in Something About the Author. "How I had seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of railroads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession. I realized that I had seen and lived it all…. I wanted children now to understand more about the beginnings of things, to know what is behind the things they see-what it is that made America as they know it…." Wilder's charmingly descriptive tales of that era have captivated several generations of young readers and now rank among the classics of children's literature.
Raised on the American Prairie
Wilder was born Laura Elizabeth Ingalls on February 7, 1867, in Pepin, Wisconsin, the second of four children. She once described her father, Charles Philip Ingalls, as always jolly and inclined to be reckless. Her mother, Caroline Lake Quiner, was thrifty, educated, gentle, and proud, according to her daughter. Her sisters, all of whom would eventually appear in her books, were Mary, Carrie, and Grace. Wilder also had a younger brother, Charles, Jr. (nicknamed Freddie), who died at the age of only nine months.
As a young girl, Wilder moved with her family from place to place across America's heartland. In 1874, the Ingalls family left Wisconsin for Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where they lived at first in a dugout house and watched helplessly as an incredible grasshopper plague destroyed their crops. Two years later, the family moved to Burr Oak, Iowa, where Charles became part-owner of a hotel. By the fall of 1877, however, they had all returned to Walnut Grove. In 1879, the Ingalls family moved again, this time to homestead in the Dakota Territory.
The family finally settled in what would become De Smet, South Dakota, which remained Charles and Caroline's home until they died. Their second winter in De Smet was one of the worst on record. Numerous blizzards prevented trains from delivering any supplies, essentially cutting off the town from December until May. Years later, Wilder wrote about her experiences as a young teenager trying to survive the cold temperatures and lack of food, firewood, and other necessities.
Wilder attended regular school whenever possible. However, because of her family's frequent moves, she was largely self-taught. In 1882, at the age of 15, she received her teaching certificate. For three years, Wilder taught at a small country school a dozen miles from her home in De Smet and boarded with a family who lived nearby. The money she earned was used to help pay for special schooling for her older sister, Mary, who had gone blind in her teens after suffering a stroke.
Married a Farmer
During this same period, Wilder became acquainted with Almanzo (Manly) Wilder, who had settled near De Smet in 1879 with his brother Royal. Almanzo frequently headed out into the country on his sleigh to pick up the young teacher and drop her off at her parents' home for weekend visits. After courting for a little more than two years, they were married on August 25, 1885. Wilder then quit teaching to help her husband farm their homestead. She later wrote about this time in her life in her book The First Four Years.
Th e couple's only child, Rose, was born on December 5, 1886. Although all homesteaders had to endure the hardships and uncertainty of farm life, the Wilders experienced more than their share of tragedy and misfortune. In August 1889, Wilder gave birth to a baby boy who died shortly after, an event that never appeared in any of her books. Her husband then came down with diphtheria, which left him partially paralyzed. Finally, their house, built by Manly himself, burned to the ground.
Homeless and saddled with debts, the Wilders spent a year living with Manly's parents in Spring Valley, Minnesota. In 1890, hoping that a milder climate would improve Manly's health, they moved to Westville, Florida. They returned to De Smet two years later but left due to severe drought in the area. Finally, on July 17, 1894, they began their journey to the place they would call home for the rest of their lives, Mansfield, Missouri. Wilder kept a journal of their experiences as they traveled. When she reached Lamar, Missouri, she sent her account of their travels through South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas to the De Smet News. This was her first published writing.
Established Rocky Ridge Farm
When the Wilders arrived in Missouri, they bought a plot of land and named it Rocky Ridge Farm. At first the only building was a one-room log cabin with a rock fireplace and no windows. Wilder kept busy raising her daughter and helping her husband, who still had not completely recovered from his illness. She also planted a garden and tended the family's chickens. With money she earned from selling potatoes and eggs, she eventually bought a cow and a pig, too. After several years of hard work and saving every extra penny, the Wilders bought more land (for a total of around 200 acres) as well as more cows, hogs, and chickens. They also started building a new house, a ten-room structure made entirely out of timber and rocks from their own farm.
Wilder was among those progressive farm wives who believed that they were also businesswomen and that their contributions were vital to the family's success. Thus, she began looking into ways to help improve the quality of life for other women in her position. In 1910 she became an Officer of the Missouri Home Development Association. She often spoke at meetings of various farmers' organizations, where she would discuss topics such as her method of raising poultry. In 1911, she published her first article, a piece in the Missouri Ruralist entitled "Favors the Small Farm." She subsequently worked as the home editor of the Missouri Ruralist and the poultry editor of the St. Louis Star and contributed articles to periodicals such as McCall's and Country Gentleman.
Produced Her First Autobiographical Work
In 1915 Wilder took a trip to San Francisco to visit her daughter, who was a star reporter with the San Francisco Bulletin. She wrote back to Manly that she and Rose were planning to visit the Panama-Pacific Exposition and "then I do want to do a little writing with Rose to get the hang of it a little better so I can write something perhaps I can sell," as recorded in the book West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder to Almanzo.
By the mid-1920s Wilder and her husband were doing little of their own farming on Rocky Ridge, which allowed her to spend most of her time writing. Around this same time, Rose returned to Missouri, built a new home for her parents on Rocky Ridge, and moved into the old farmhouse. She also began encouraging her mother to write the story of her childhood.
Wilder completed her first autobiographical work in the late 1920s. Entitled Pioneer Girl, it was a first-person account of her childhood on the frontier from the time she was 3 until she reached the age of 18. After Rose edited the book, Wilder submitted it to various publishers under the name Laura Ingalls Wilder. But no one was interested in her chronicle, which contained plenty of historical facts about her childhood but little in the way of character development.
Created the "Little House" Books
Refusing to become discouraged, Wilder changed her approach. The "I" in her stories became "Laura," and the focus moved from the story of one little girl to the story of an entire family's experiences on the new frontier. Wilder also decided to direct her writing specifically at children. Although she sometimes streamlined events, created or omitted others entirely (such as the birth and death of her brother), and opted for happier endings, she wrote about real people and things that had actually happened.
Thus, in 1932, at the age of 65, Wilder published the first of her eight "Little House" books, Little House in the Big Woods. It told the story of her early childhood years in Wisconsin and was a huge hit with readers. Farmer Boy, an account of Manly's childhood in New York state, followed in 1933. Two years later, Little House on the Prairie appeared on the shelves. (The popular television series of the late 1970s and early 1980s that was based on Wilder's stories used this title as well.) Five more books followed that took the reader through Wilder's courtship and marriage to Manly-On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939), The Long Winter (1940), Little Town on the Prairie (1941), and These Happy Golden Years (1943). New editions of all of the "Little House" books were reissued by Harper in 1953 with the now-familiar illustrations of Garth Williams.
Brought Series to a Close
Wilder was 76 years old when she finished the final book in her "Little House" series. By that time, she and her husband had sold off the majority of their land and virtually all of their livestock, but they still lived on the remaining 70 acres of Rocky Ridge. It was there that Manly died in 1949 at the age of 92.
Although she was quite lonely on the farm without her husband (Rose lived in Connecticut by then), Wilder was heartened by the honors that came her way for the "Little House" books and amazed at the steady outpouring of affection from her many fans. Letters arrived daily from all over the world (on her eighty-fourth birthday, for instance, she received 900 cards), and she did her best to answer all of those that required a response. Her friends and neighbors were a source of comfort, too; they saw to it that groceries were delivered to her door, that her fuel tank was always full, and that everything in her house was in proper working order.
Wilder was 90 when she died at Rocky Ridge Farm on February 10, 1957. After her death, her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, edited the diary that her mother had written as she and Manly traveled to Missouri, the one that had first appeared in the De Smet newspaper. The resulting book, On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894, was published in 1962. Several other posthumous works followed, including The First Four Years (1971), an unpolished first draft about the early years of her marriage, and West from Home (1974), a collection of letters Wilder wrote to her husband during her visit to San Francisco. Through her engaging tales of life on the untamed American frontier, Wilder succeeded beyond her wildest dreams at taking a unique time and place of adventure, hardship, and simple pleasures and making it real to scores of young readers across the world.
Further Reading on Laura Ingalls Wilder
Something About the Author, Volume 29, Gale, 1982, pp. 239-249.
Blumberg, Lisa, "Toward the Little House," American Heritage, April 1997.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls, West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder to Almanzo, edited by R.L. MacBride, Harper, 1974.
Slegg, Jennifer, My Little House on the Prairie Home Page, http://www.com/home/jenslegg/index/htm (March 14, 1998).