More than half a century after her death in 1957, countless fans both young and old still read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book series that recounts her pioneer childhood on the American frontier. If you’ve found this page, you are one of those fans. The following is a brief biography intended to start you on your way to the fascinating real life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. (While it is accurate, it does not match exactly the path she took in the book series, which was fictionalized.)
Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867 in the Big Woods near Pepin, Wisconsin, on the western border of Wisconsin near the banks of the Mississippi River. Laura’s parents, Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner, had been childhood sweethearts, marrying on February 1, 1860. Mary Amelia Ingalls was born on January 10, 1865 (her father’s twenty-ninth birthday). The Little House in the Big Woods, Laura’s birthplace, no longer exists, but a replica cabin has been built near the original location of the Ingalls’ home.
In February of 1869, the Ingalls family left Wisconsin to travel south and west to new land that Pa had purchased. Pa and Ma’s brother, Henry Quiner, bought land in Chariton County, Missouri near the town of Rothville from a land agent sight unseen. Both families traveled there in the spring of 1869. Little is known about this time. (LIWRLA member John Bass has placed a historic marker at the site of Pa’s land.) In early 1870 the Quiners decided to return to the Big Woods, and Pa decided to press south and west on the promise of free land in Kansas.
The Ingalls family arrived in Montgomery County, Kansas in the spring of 1870. They settled on land approximately thirteen miles south of Independence, Kansas deep in Osage Indian Territory. This is the setting for Little House on the Prairie. Caroline Celestia Ingalls, or Carrie, was born on August 3, 1870. Unfortunately the Ingalls family had settled on land that was still owned by the Osage people, who were in heated negotiations with the United States government. The government wanted the remaining Osage Diminished Reserve to be added to the new state of Kansas. The Osage were not willing to simply give their remaining land to the government. In Little House on the Prairie, Laura explains that the soldiers were going to force all of the illegal settlers to leave. While this may be true, multiple theories exist as to why the Ingalls left Kansas. Today the Little House on the Prairie Museum is steward of a little cabin reconstructed on the original tracing of Pa’s cabin, which was located in the 1960s.
Because the buyer had defaulted on his payments, the family was able to reclaim the house and land they left behind in Wisconsin, where they remained until 1874. The stories in Little House in the Big Woods come from this time period. In 1874, Pa’s wanderlust took the family west to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The family initially lived in a dugout in the bank of Plum Creek. In the summer of 1875 Pa’s wheat crop was bountiful and he had high hopes of paying off the debt he had incurred during the first year living in Minnesota. However, grasshoppers destroyed every living thing that year. On November 1, 1875 Charles Frederick Ingalls was born. The family needed money so Pa left that winter to find work. He was able to send money home and when he returned in the spring he planted a new crop. A second grasshopper plague occurred again that summer when the eggs laid the previous year hatched; Pa’s crop was again destroyed. Ma had been sick and there were doctor bills to pay, so the Ingalls family left Walnut Grove temporarily to move to Burr Oak, Iowa, where Pa was promised a job running the Masters Hotel. Along the way they stopped near Zumbro Falls, Minnesota to visit Pa’s brother Peter and his family. While there, baby Freddy became ill and died. He is buried in Zumbro Falls in an unmarked grave.
The Ingalls family moved into the hotel. Pa and Ma ran the hotel and Pa found work around town to supplement the family’s income. Ma did not like living in the hotel because she felt it was too rough and worldly for her girls. They eventually moved into a brick house in town. On May 23, 1877 Grace Pearl Ingalls was born, bringing new happiness to the family. The Masters Hotel still stands in Burr Oak and is a museum dedicated to Laura’s stay there. (The Burr Oak years do not appear in the final Little House series because it was a sad time in her life, and she did not want her books to be sad.)
The Ingalls family returned to their Walnut Grove land in 1878. Pa picked up odd jobs in town during the next year. Even though Laura was barely 11, she also helped to work, helping two women with their new babies and also housekeeping in a hotel. In the spring of 1879 Mary became ill with what was called brain fever; this was likely a case of meningoencephalitis, possibly complicated by a stroke. The illness damaged the nerves in her eyes and she became blind. This was a difficult time for the Ingalls family. As Mary was recovering, Pa’s sister Docia asked Pa to move west with her to Dakota Territory (in what is now South Dakota) to help with the building of the railroad. He decided to go. Many of the locations mentioned in On the Banks of Plum Creek are open to visitors and a museum has been welcoming tourists since the 1970s, when the TV show “Little House on the Prairie” made the town of Walnut Grove a household name (although Laura never mentioned the name of the town in her books).
Ma and the girls followed Pa west to De Smet, South Dakota in the summer of 1879. This would become the final home for Pa, Ma, and Mary, and their first year here is depicted in By the Shores of Silver Lake. Laura spent her teen years in De Smet as it grew into a thriving town on the Dakota prairie. She went to school, made friends, and enjoyed the beautiful open countryside of the new unsettled land. The winter of 1880-1881 was difficult. Blizzards arrived in late fall and continued to assault the area until May. As told in The Long Winter, the Ingalls family, along with their fellow townsfolk, nearly starved to death. Once spring arrived the family moved back to their claim south of town. Mary was able to leave De Smet to attend college at the Iowa School for the Blind. Laura continued to work at a variety of jobs to help support the family. At the age of 16 she earned her teaching certificate and began teaching in township schools near De Smet. She also began to court with her future husband, Almanzo Wilder, who was in actuality ten years older than her but depicted as a few years younger for the books. Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years describe Laura’s life during these years in De Smet.
Laura married Almanzo when she was eighteen, on August 25, 1885. Their first few years of marriage were filled with hardship and happiness coupled together. Their daughter, Rose, was born on December 5, 1886. In 1887 both Laura and Almanzo fell ill with diphtheria. Almanzo suffered a stroke, which paralyzed one side of his body and left him with a lifelong limp. A second child, a son, was born in 1889 and died unnamed twelve days later. Two weeks after that Laura and Almanzo’s home burned to the ground, destroying many of their possessions and any dreams they had of making a go of it in De Smet. Laura wrote of these times in The First Four Years, but never published the manuscript; it was published posthumously in 1971.
De Smet, South Dakota and its Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society have embraced and preserved the legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life in South Dakota. The town is full of sites mentioned in the books and visitors pour in to the town every year.
Laura and Almanzo left De Smet looking for brighter horizons. They went east to Spring Valley, Minnesota and south to Westville, Florida. Finally, in 1894 after a brief return to De Smet, they traveled to Mansfield, Missouri, where they would spend the rest of their lives—and where Laura would later write what would become the Little House series. Laura and Almanzo built a beautiful farm together and named it “Rocky Ridge.” Laura was an active member of the Mansfield community and became a master farmwoman. In 1911 she began writing about farming activities, starting with chicken farming, for the Missouri Ruralist. In 1932, when Laura was in her sixties, Little House in the Big Woods was published; the rest of the series followed over the next 11 years. Rocky Ridge is now the home to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum.
Almanzo Wilder died on October 23, 1949 at the age of ninety. Laura died at Rocky Ridge farm on February 10, 1957, three days past her ninetieth birthday. Rose Wilder Lane, Laura and Almanzo’s daughter, herself a popular author, died on October 30, 1968. All three are buried in the cemetery in Mansfield, Missouri. Laura’s home and museum are located at Rocky Ridge farm just a mile east outside of Mansfield.