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Wilder, Laura Ingalls (1867–1957)

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Black and white photograph of Laura Ingalls Wilder, c.1894.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, c.1894.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was sixty-five when she published Little House in the Big Woods, a novel for young readers inspired by her childhood in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Her book, and the others that followed, made her an icon of children's literature. The Little House series offered generations of children a glimpse into life on the nineteenth-century American prairie and immortalized a sod house on the banks of Minnesota's Plum Creek.

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born on February 7, 1867, near Pepin, Wisconsin. She was the second of Charles and Caroline Quiner Ingalls' five children. In 1868 the family left the Big Woods of Wisconsin, probably moving first to Missouri before continuing to territory in southern Kansas that was part of the Osage Indian Reservation. However, the Ingalls family, along with the other settlers who had hoped to stake a claim on Osage land, was soon forced to leave. They returned to Wisconsin around 1870.

The family's frequent moves highlight the differences between the facts of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life and the fiction that she created. In the Little House books, the Ingalls family leaves Wisconsin late in Laura's childhood and follows a direct path from Wisconsin to Kansas. In reality, their movements were more complicated and were undertaken when Laura was quite young. As an author Wilder frequently smoothed, altered, and simplified the events of her life when creating the fictional Laura.

In 1874, the Ingalls family left Wisconsin again. This time they were bound for Minnesota. Charles Ingalls bought a 172-acre farm outside the new town of Walnut Grove and moved his family into a sod house on the banks Plum Creek. The Ingallses were active participants in the growing town on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. Laura and her sister, Mary, attended the local school. The family was among the earliest members of Walnut Grove's Congregational Church.

Their stay in Walnut Grove was cut short by crop failures in 1875 and 1876 caused by the grasshopper plague that was sweeping the area. They left their farm and moved east, settling briefly in Wabasha County with extended family. There, the youngest Ingalls child, a son born in Walnut Grove, sickened and died. In the wake of these hardships, the family moved south to Burr Oak, Iowa, where Charles and Caroline had arranged to manage a hotel in partnership with another couple, the Steadmans.

The family returned to Walnut Grove in 1878. However, a year later, when Charles Ingalls took a job with the railroad, they moved again, settling in De Smet, Dakota Territory. The family lived in De Smet throughout the rest of Laura's childhood, and her four final books are set there.

When she was fifteen, Ingalls qualified for a teaching license and began teaching at local schools. In De Smet she met New York native Almanzo Wilder and married him in August 1885 The couple had a daughter, Rose, in December 1886, and a son who died shortly after his birth in 1889.

After the couple settled on a farm near De Smet, multiple setbacks—including a bout of diphtheria that nearly killed Laura and Almanzo, crop failures, and a house fire—forced the couple to relocate. They moved first to Spring Valley, Minnesota, where they lived with Almanzo's parents, and then to Westville, Florida before settling more permanently on a farm in the Ozarks near Mansfield, Missouri.

Wilder was an active member of the Mansfield community. She helped to found discussion societies and a loan association for farmers. She became an avid writer, publishing her first regular column in the Missouri Ruralist in 1911. By the following year she was also the editor of the home column.

In 1930, Wilder set out to write the story of her life. With the help of her daughter, she revised her manuscript "Pioneer Girl" into a series of stories for children. In 1932, Harper and Brothers published Little House in the Big Woods, launching the series that would make Laura Ingalls Wilder one of America's best-known authors for children. Seven books followed over the next eleven years, including On the Banks of Plum Creek, which describes the character Laura's life on the Minnesota Prairie. Wilder died in Mansfield, Missouri on February 10, 1957, just three days after her ninetieth birthday.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Miller, John E. Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Romines, Ann. Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Zochert, Donald. Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1976.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Laura Ingalls Wilder, c.1894.
Black and white photograph of Laura Ingalls Wilder, c.1894.
Color image of the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa, 2009.
Color image of the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa, 2009.
Color image of Rocky Ridge farm in Mansfield, Missouri, 2011.
Color image of Rocky Ridge farm in Mansfield, Missouri, 2011.

Turning Point

In 1874, Laura Ingalls moves with her family to a sod house near Walnut Grove. Her life there eventually inspires her Newberry Honor-winning novel On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937).

Chronology

1867

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls is born on February 7 near Pepin, Wisconsin.

1868

The Ingalls family leaves Wisconsin and settles in Missouri before moving on to southern Kansas.

1870

The Ingalls family returns to Wisconsin after being removed from Kansas territory held by the Osage.

1874

The Ingalls family moves to a sod house outside Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

1876

Following the devastating effects of Minnesota's grasshopper plagues, the Ingalls family leaves Walnut Grove and moves to Burr Oak, Iowa, to help manage a hotel.

1878

The Ingalls family returns to Walnut Grove.

1879

Charles Ingalls takes a job with the railroad and moves the family west to Dakota Territory.

1885

Laura Ingalls marries Almanzo Wilder on August 25.

1890

Laura and Almanzo Wilder, along with daughter Rose, move to Spring Valley to live with Almanzo's parents.

1894

The Wilders move to a farm outside Mansfield, Missouri.

1912

Laura Ingalls Wilder is made the home column editor of the Missouri Ruralist.

1932

Harper and Brothers publishes Little House in the Big Woods.

1937

On the Banks of Plum Creek, a fictionalized account of Wilder's childhood in Walnut Grove, is published. It wins a Newberry Honor the following year.

1949

Almanzo Wilder dies in Mansfield, Missouri.

1957

Laura Ingalls Wilder dies on February 10, three days after her ninetieth birthday.