An Ode to Half-Pint: Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder
“I began to think what a wonderful childhood I had had. 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…Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history” Laura Ingalls Wilder speaking at a Detroit Book Fair in 1937
Laura Ingalls Wilder was a Missouri farm woman with virtually no publication experience writing her first book. She was a lovely, white haired fragile appearing woman who drew on her wealth of memories to produce classic books for young Americans. As she published book after book, eight during her lifetime, the legend flourished . Wilder herself, consciously or unconsciously, contributed to it. In 1949 a reporter asked her what advice she would give young writers, she replied, “I hardly feel competent to do that, for all I did was write what happened to me.” She wrote her early drafts on wide-lined school tablets which only added charm and credibility to her story. Her description of her writing process, “After I would write something I would set it back for a month or so and let it cool. Then I would read it back and maybe change it a little before I sent it in.” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in isolation from her remote Ozark farm. She wrote in collaboration with her editor and daughter Rose Wilder Lane, helping her books evolve and deepen as her skills as a novelist matured. Her writing ambitions dated from her adolescence in the Dakota Territory when she began writing poems which she kept and eventually inserted into The Happy GoldenYears. She served a lengthy apprenticeship as a farm journalist and grappled with her daughter’s advice to write for adult markets and not children. Ultimately, Wilder faced the trials and tribulations of most American novelists as they struggle to find their voices, their publishers, and their readers. Wilder grew creatively, learning from her daughter, her editors at Harpers & Brothers, her agent, and ultimately from herself. Her emergence as a novelist revealed her commitment and passion to the craft of writing fiction.
Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder
The fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder clearly autobiographical in nature, demonstrating her emerging understanding of story: conflict, character, plot, dialogue, description, narrative, and theme all bound together with her love of family, the prairies of the Middle Border and the West.
The greater truth of fiction, the satisfying arc of a good story is what interested Wilder far more than the precise details of her own past. The facts she embellished, changed, and eliminated from her family’s history, her own life, transformed the real Laura Elizabeth Ingalls, the girl born to Charles and Caroline Ingalls on February 7, 1867, into the fictional Laura Ingalls, an immortal character in American children’s literature, born in 1932 when Harper & Brothers released Little House in the Big Woods.
The Ingalls Family L-R: Ma seated Caroline Ingalls, Grace Ingalls, Laura, Pa Charles seated, Carrie and Mary Ingalls, 1870s
Biography of Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born on February 7, 1867, the second daughter of Charles and Caroline Ingalls, in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, seven miles north of Pepin. In 1868, Pa and Ma (as Laura would later call her parents) took baby Laura and her sister Mary, age three, from the Big Woods to Chariton County, Missouri. The family did not stay in Missouri long. Inspired by the Homestead Act of 1862 which offered 160 acres of "free land" to settlers who would farm and live on it for five years, Pa took his family to the prairies. The land Pa chose was about 12 miles from Independence, Kansas, within the boundaries of the Osage Diminished Reserve.There Pa built a house and stable with the help of a neighbor, Mr. Edwards. Later, the family contracted malaria and were fortunate that Dr Tann, who was actually a doctor to the Indians, was in the area. After building a house and planting crops, the Ingalls family was forced to leave in the fall of 1870, just after the birth of their third daughter, Carrie. Pa heard that the government had changed their minds about opening the land for homesteading and that soldiers were on their way to force the settlers out. Pa did not wait for the soldiers. He took his family to their old home in the Big Woods. This enabled the girls to see more of their grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Laura and Mary attended the Barry Corner School, and spent many happy hours playing with their cousins. Ma was glad to be home, but Pa longed to go west again.
In 1874, the Ingalls journeyed west, trading for a small farm near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The family lived in a dugout in the creek bank until Pa could build a wonderful new house made of sawed boards. In Walnut Grove, the family joined the church pastored by Rev. Alden and Laura and Mary were able to attend school again. It was here that Laura met the snobby and cruel Nellie Owens.
Pa raised a wonderful wheat crop, and the family felt that surely this was the end of their troubles. However, grasshoppers invaded the area and destroyed all the crops. The family tried again the next year to raise a crop, but the grasshopper eggs left the previous year hatched and destroyed the crops again.
On November 1, 1875, a son was born to the Ingalls family, Charles Frederic. The following summer, the family traveled to Uncle Peter's farm in eastern Minnesota, where Pa helped with the harvesting. While there, baby Freddy became ill, and died on August 27, 1876. The family, saddened at the loss of their son, moved on to Burr Oak, Iowa, where Pa's friend Mr. Steadman had purchased a hotel. The family lived in the hotel, and Ma and Pa helped the Steadman’s manage it. They did not like the work, and moved first to some rented rooms over a grocery, and then to a little brick house outside of town.
The family's last child, Grace, was born in Burr Oak on May 23, 1877. The family was homesick for their friends in Walnut Grove, so they returned in the summer of 1877 to live in town while Charles did carpentry and other odd jobs, and opened a butcher shop.
Laura and Mary were eager to find out what had happened in Walnut Grove while they were away. They found that Nellie Owens now had a rival, Genevieve Masters, the school teacher's daughter. Nellie and Genny fought for the leadership of the girls but it was Laura who became the leader, without even trying.
In 1879, Mary suffered a stroke and lost her eyesight. In that same year the Ingalls family made their final move when Aunt Docia from the Big Woods arrived and offered Pa a job as a railroad manager in Dakota Territory. When the railway work moved on, the Ingalls family stayed. Together with their friends, the Boasts, they became the first residents of the new town of De Smet, South Dakota. Pa and Laura would have happily gone further west but Ma insisted that they stay put so that the girls could get an education. Pa filed a claim on 160 acres of land 3 miles southeast of De Smet. The Hard Winter of 1880-81 resulted in almost continuous blizzards from October to the following May. The blizzards made it all but impossible to travel in or out, and trains could not run to bring in supplies.
By late 1881, the family had saved up enough money to send Mary to the blind school at Vinton, Iowa. The government supplied the money for her tuition, but Ma and Pa had to pay for transportation to and from the school, and for suitable clothes for a young college girl.
As a teenager Laura had become rather a shy girl and initially found it difficult to mix with people. She seemed quite fearful of crowds. Laura worked hard at school and showed a great interest in English, history and poetry. Unfortunately, Genevieve Masters had arrived in De Smet and along with the teacher, Eliza Jane Wilder, began to cause trouble for Laura. However Miss Wilder left the school and Laura was able to become top of her class.
At the early age of 15, Laura earned her teaching certificate. She was hired by the Bouchie School, 12 miles away, and boarded with the Bouchie family. Mrs. Bouchie was apparently going through a mental breakdown due to the isolation of the settlement, and Laura was frightened of her. She was therefore very grateful when a young man, Almanzo Wilder, a local farmer and brother of her old teacher, offered to drive his sleigh through howling gales and freezing temperatures each weekend to bring her home. At first Laura thought Almanzo was doing it only as a favor to Pa. Over the next three years, however, she gradually allowed Almanzo into her affections and they married on August 25, 1885.
Their daughter Rose was born December 5, 1886, but the farming life was no easier for the newly married couple than it had been for Laura's father and mother. Droughts and hail storms ruined crops and kept them in debt. Diphtheria and overwork led to Almanzo being crippled. Their second child, a baby boy, died unnamed soon after his birth in August 1889. An accident in the kitchen resulted in their house burning down.
Laura around 1917.
Photo courtesy of Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.
Used with permission.
Almanzo and Laura left De Smet to live with Almanzo's parents in Spring Valley, Minnesota, but the weather did not help Almanzo's health. They moved to Westville, Florida, where Laura's cousin Peter had made his home. Almanzo's health improved, but Laura could not take the heat, and the women did not accept her socially because she was a "Yankee". In 1892, Almanzo, Laura, and little Rose returned to De Smet, where Rose began her schooling although she was young, and Laura and Almanzo worked and saved up money to make a fresh start.
On July 17, 1894, the Wilders left South Dakota again. This time, they traveled to Mansfield in the Ozarks of Missouri. They arrived on August 30, and purchased Rocky Ridge Farm. The house began as a small log cabin, but Laura and Almanzo added to it over the years, until it became the large rambling farmhouse that it is today.
Almanzo died on October 23, 1949, at the age of 92. Laura died on February 10, 1957, at Rocky Ridge Farm at the age of 90. Laura is buried in Mansfield, Missouri with her husband and only daughter Rose Wilder Lane.
Laura and Almanzo wedding 1885
Laura and Almanzo 1940s
This is my personal childhood set of books I read as a child, circa 1979, I still have them proudly on my shelf!
Laura Ingalls Wilder Country: The People and places in Laura Ingalls Wilder's life and books By William Anderson, 1990, Harper Collins
Laura Ingalls Wilder By Emma Carlson Berne, Nicole Elzenga, 2008, ABDO Publishing Company
The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie By Wendy McClure, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group USA, 2011
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