The Amazing Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder

There are few books people love more than The Little House on the Prairie series, and Im sure everybody has always been curious about the real people behind the characters.  

Heres the story of the ‘real’ Laura Ingalls….


1860: "Ma" and "Pa" Start Their Family

Charles and Caroline Ingalls, the original "Ma" and "Pa" from Little House on the Prairie, on their wedding day on February 1, 1860.  


Charles was born in 1836 and spent the majority of his youth in the tallgrass prairie of Campton Township, just west of Elgin, Illinois.   He met and quickly married a 21-year old Caroline Lake Quiner, who was working as a schoolteacher at the time, and they made a home in Pepin County, Wisconsin. 

They had their first daughter, Mary Amelia, in January, 1865, followed by the birth of Laura in February, 1867.  Despite being a high-spirited, outgoing man, Charles wasn't much for people, and he had an insatiable wanderlust.  In 1869, before Laura was two years old, he packed up the family and moved to Missouri, then to a town near what is now Independence, Kansas, where their third daughter, Carrie, would be born in 1870.  


A Family on the Move

The young family would soon realize that the Kansas land wasn't open to settlers, so over the next few years, they spent time in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.  Grace Pearl was born in May, 1877, and the family was struggling to make ends meet.  In 1879, Charles accepted a job as a clerk and bookkeeper with the railroad in Dakota Territory, which sparked the move to the town of De Smet in 1880.  The following winter's terrible storms and conditions would be the basis for the novel, The Long Winter.





From left to right:  Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls around 1882.  

Mary had lost her sight three years earlier.  




Laura Comes of Age in De Smet, Marries Almanzo


Laura quickly got involved with life in the newly-formed (and growing) town of De Smet.  She attended school, made friends, and obtained her teaching certificate, which enabled her to begin teaching in 1882, a full two months before her 16th birthday!


At the same time, she began courting Almanzo Wilder, a young homesteader whom she called "Manly".  Though 10 years her senior, Almanzo fell deeply in love with Laura and would drive her back and forth between De Smet and the town where she was teaching 12 miles away.  They married in 1885 and settled on the Wilder's claim and began their life as farmers.


Laura in 1884 at age 17

Laura and Almanzo in the first year of their marriage (1885 or 1886).



The Troubled Years Before Settling in Missouri

The newlyweds had a rough few years following their wedding.  Despite the happy occurrence of the birth of their daughter Rose in 1886, they were otherwise plagued by bad weather, drought, and illness that pushed them to the brink of poverty.  Almanzo, who was a vigorous worker, became partially paralyzed following complications from diphtheria -- this rendered him unable to perform the labor associated with wheat farming.  

Everything got worse in August, 1889 when they had a son who died two weeks after birth.  In the same month, the family lost their house to a fire and all of their crops to drought.  They were penniless, fed up, and unsure about their future prospects, so they moved to the Wilder family farm in Spring Valley, Minnesota in 1890.



The family took 1890 and 1891 to rest and recover, and the photos above and below from a studio session in 1891 shows that Laura was of good health and vitality at the end of her rest.














Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1891


Settling Down and Starting a Life on Rocky Ridge Farm

After a somewhat disastrous move east to Florida, the family returned West to De Smet and quickly made way to Mansfield, Missouri by covered wagon.  Almanzo put a $100 down payment to buy 40 acres of hilly, rocky land that Laura would name "Rocky Ridge Farm".  This farm would eventually be expanded and serve as the couple's home for the rest of their lives.















Laura and Almanzo quickly planted 400 apple trees on the farm, but they took seven years to bear fruit.  The family sustained itself by hauling wagon loads and selling firewood in Mansfield.  Almanzo's parents also chipped in by renting a home in Mansfield and then buying and giving their son the deed.  They would live in this small house until 1910, when they moved to Rocky Ridge and built their farmhouse.

The family worked the land and turned Rocky Ridge in to a prosperous enterprise.  In addition to wheat and apples, the Wilder's added poultry and dairy.  Laura became a bit of an expert on farming and was invited to speak to groups all around the state.  




Laura's first daughter Rose was thriving in Kansas City, and we are lucky to have this picture from her 1906 visit to see her.  It is such a stark contrast to the photos from Laura's youth.


A Writing Career and Good, Long Life


Laura was invited to write for the Missouri Ruralist in 1911, and her early success as a writer ultimately led to her becoming a permanent columnist and editor.  She built up a loyal audience and her writing combined with the income from the farm afforded their family a stable living.  

The Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped the Wilder's out, however, and this event prompted Laura to explore writing a series of memoirs to save the family from ruin.  She had the basics of Pioneer Girl already written, and on advice of her publisher and successful daughter, Laura sat down and wrote Little House in the Big Woods.  

The book was a success, and so Wilder continued with her Little House series.  From 1935 on, the Wilders thus lived on Rocky Ridge Farm independently and without financial worries.



 A portrait of Laura around 1918













Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder on a return visit to De Smet, South Dakota in the late 1930s. (Rose Wilder Lane Collection, Hoover Archives)



The couple would live a long and prosperous life together.  While they sold some parts of the farm in their later years, they kept some farm animals and tended to their flower and vegetable gardens. 

 Almanzo would pass on in 1949 at 92 years of age.  Laura would spend the next eight years living alone on the farm, but looked after by a close circle of friends and neighbors.  She passed away in her sleep on February 10, 1957, three days after her 90th birthday. 

We're grateful for her life and work!  


I found some more great photos!

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Morgan Horse, Govenor of Orleans

Laura with her favorite Morgan horse ‘Governor of Orleans'

left-dog Nero

Out with friends… they are on the left with their dog NERO

Almanzo called her Bessie

This is Laura in her garden…. altho Almanzo called her ‘Bessie'

1929-rocky ridge house

Again, with friends in 1929

47th anniversary

47th Anniversary

Ok. everybody be honest it wasnt just the book you read………….

                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012