Laura Ingalls Wilder Biography

Biography

Article abstract: As a newspaper columnist in the 1910’s and 1920’s, Wilder espoused traditional values. Through the widely acclaimed fictionalized account of her youth in the “Little House” novels, she presented a picture of pioneer and homesteading life from the 1860’s to the 1880’s.

Early Life

Laura Ingalls was born in Pepin, Wisconsin, the second of four daughters of Charles Phillip Ingalls and his wife, Caroline Quiner Ingalls. They moved around frequently before finally settling in De Smet, South Dakota, in 1879. Because of an economic depression, the Ingalls family moved to Missouri in 1868, which Laura’s father found too crowded, and then in 1869 to Osage Indian Territory in Kansas, as recounted in Little House on the Prairie (1935). Returning to the woods of Wisconsin, the family found that it had become too populous for good hunting, so in 1874 the family settled in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in a dugout house described in On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937). On November 1, 1875, a brother, Charles Frederick, was born. The family decided to move again, to Burr Oak, Iowa, where Charles and Caroline ran the Masters Hotel. Baby Freddie died, and in 1877, sister Grace Pearl was born. In the fictionalized account of her life, Laura omitted the two years at Burr Oak and, to compensate, placed the events of the first book, Little House in the Big Woods (1932), in 1870. After Burr Oak, the Ingalls returned to Walnut Grove, where the eldest daughter, Mary, became severely ill and lost her sight.

With sickness and debt haunting them, the Ingalls moved to the Dakota Territory in 1879, prompted by Charles’s brother-in-law, who worked for the railroad and who needed someone to help him take care of the books and payroll of the store. Though Charles filed a homestead claim, the family lived in the surveyor’s house at first and moved into town the next spring. Charles built a store there but soon moved the claim because of the threat of claim jumpers.

In De Smet, the Ingalls endured the hardships detailed in The Long Winter (1940). Laura met her husband, Almanzo Wilder, and earned her teacher’s certificate at the age of fifteen. Her first position was at the Bouchie school, called the Brewster school in These Happy Golden Years (1943). By then, Almanzo was courting her, and after she taught two more terms, they married on August 9, 1885. Almanzo filed a homestead claim and a tree claim. On December 9, 1886, daughter Rose was born. The young couple, however, had to endure many troubles. Almanzo contracted diphtheria, which left him with a permanent limp. A son died shortly after birth in 1889. They lost the homestead claim, their house on the tree claim burned down, crops failed, and the trees on the claim died. The family was deeply in debt.

Laura, Almanzo, and Rose left De Smet in 1890, spent a year in Spring Valley, Minnesota, with Almanzo’s parents, and then lived for two years in Florida. They returned to De Smet in 1892. Laura sewed to earn enough money for the family to leave Dakota. By covered wagon, they moved to Missouri, “The Land of the Big Red Apple,” and settled near Mansfield. Wilder’s diary of the trip was published in On The Way Home (1962). In Missouri they established Rocky Ridge Farm, where they remained for the rest of their lives.

Life’s Work

Wilder’s writing career began when she was in her forties. Until this point, she had been a farmer’s wife. As she had become an expert in raising chickens, agricultural groups occasionally invited her to speak. One time in 1911, she was unable to attend the meeting, so she had someone read her talk. It impressed the editor of the Missouri Ruralist, who was in the audience, and he invited her to submit essays for publication. With this invitation, the author Laura Ingalls Wilder was born. Her first article, “Favors the Small Farm Home,” appeared on February 18, 1911, and developed several themes often appearing in her work: the virtues of the rural life and small farm; the benefits of technological developments such as the telephone, news delivery, and transportation innovations; and the necessity of cooperation between husband and wife in farm management. From the beginning, detailed descriptions applied to broader lessons characterized her writings. Between 1911 and 1915, she wrote only nine articles, some of which were signed not with Mrs. A. J. Wilder, as was the first one, but with Almanzo Wilder, to give them more authority.

In 1915 she went to San Francisco, California, a trip detailed in letters in West From Home (1974), to visit her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, herself an experienced writer. Lane recognized that her mother was highly skilled in...

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