Laura Ingalls Wilder Biography
Born: February 7, 1867
Died: February 10, 1957
American author Laura Ingalls Wilder 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 late 1800s.
Raised on the American prairie
Laura Ingalls 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 sometimes reckless. Her mother, Caroline Lake Quiner, was educated, gentle, and proud, according to her daughter. Her sisters, all of whom would eventually appear in her books, were Mary, Carrie, and Grace. Laura also had a younger brother, Charles, Jr. (nicknamed Freddie), who died at the age of only nine months.
As a young girl, Laura 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. 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, Laura wrote about her experiences as a young teenager trying to survive the cold temperatures and lack of food, firewood, and other necessities.
Laura attended regular school whenever possible. However, because of her family's frequent moves, she was largely self-taught. In 1882, at the age of fifteen, she received her teaching certificate. For three years, Laura taught at a small country school a dozen miles from her home in De Smet and boarded with a family who lived nearby.
Married a farmer
During this same period, Ingalls came to know 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. Laura Wilder then quit teaching to help her husband on their farm. She later wrote about this time in her life in her book The First Four Years.
The couple's only surviving child, Rose, was born on December 5, 1886. Although all homesteaders (those settling new lands) 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, a terrible disease that causes breathing problems, which left him partially paralyzed. Finally, their house, built by Manly himself, burned to the ground.
On July 17, 1894, the Wilders began their journey to Mansfield, Missouri, the place they would call home for the rest of their lives. There they established a farm and named it Rocky Ridge. 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.
Produced her first autobiographical work
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 three until she reached the age of eighteen. 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.
In 1932, at the age of sixty-five, 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. 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 (1912–1996).
Wilder was seventy-six 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 seventy acres of Rocky Ridge. It was there that Manly died in 1949 at the age of ninety-two.
Wilder was ninety when she died at Rocky Ridge Farm on February 10, 1957. After her death, her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, edited the diary 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. Twelve years later, a television series based on Wilder's stories debuted and ran for nine seasons. 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.
For More Information
Anderson, William. Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Miller, John E. Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legacy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.
Wadsworth, Ginger. Laura Ingalls Wilder: Storyteller of the Prairie. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1997.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder to Almanzo. Edited by R. L. MacBride. New York: Harper, 1974.
Zochert, Donald. Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Chicago: Regnery, 1976.