Authors: Laura Ingalls Wilder

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Author

February 7, 1867

Pepin, Wisconsin

February 10, 1957

Mansfield, Missouri

Biography

Best known for her award-winning and much-beloved “Little House” series, Laura Ingalls Wilder did not start writing these autobiographical stories based on her childhood until she was in her sixties. Born Laura Elizabeth Ingalls, Wilder spent the first twelve years of her life on the move with her family via covered wagon as the American frontier expanded westward. Her books are noted for their vivid and detailed descriptions of the spartan pioneer lifestyle as well as their depiction of a close-knit family subsisting on the American frontier of the late nineteenth century.

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When Wilder was only a year old, she moved with her parents and older sister Mary from Wisconsin to Missouri. They stayed there a year before moving on to Kansas, in Indian Territory, where Wilder’s sister Carrie was born. This area was the site of Wilder’s third book, Little House on the Prairie. In 1871, the family returned to their former homestead in Wisconsin. Wilder combined her two stays in Wisconsin for her first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods. From the very first book, Laura emerges as a spunky, energetic, bright child, her beloved Pa’s “little half-pint,” who, over the course of the series, matures into a very capable young woman.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

American author Laura Wilder (1867-1957) and her husband Almanzo.

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See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Ingalls family again sold their homestead and headed west in 1874 to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, the setting of On the Banks of Plum Creek. There, in 1875, their fourth child, Charles, was born, only to die the next year. Unfortunately, a grasshopper plague spoiled their crops. In 1876, the family “back-trailed” to Burr Oak, Iowa, where they helped run a hotel. In 1877, Wilder’s youngest sister, Grace, was born. Later that year, her family returned to Walnut Grove, where, in 1879, Mary became ill and was rendered blind. Wilder would later credit her descriptive powers as a writer to her duty to Mary to serve as her “eyes.”

In 1879, the family made their final move—to the Dakota Territory. By the Shores of Silver Lake covers this move to the town of De Smet, South Dakota, of which the Ingallses were a founding family. The Long Winter tells of the devastating winter of 1880-1881, when the family, and the rest of the town, nearly starved to death; Little Town on the Prairie describes Wilder’s adolescence. These Happy Golden Years chronicles her first teaching job at age fifteen and her courtship by and marriage to Almanzo Wilder, whose childhood she recounted in Farmer Boy. Throughout, although these stories describe numerous battles with diseases such as malaria and scarlet fever, countless crop failures, and near-poverty, they also bring to life Wilder’s cherished memories of her happy family life with her kind and hard-working parents, and her close kinship with her sister Mary.

The final book in the series, The First Four Years, was published posthumously and is significantly bleaker in tone. It tells of the Wilders’ first four years of marriage. In 1886, they had a baby girl, Rose. In 1888, both Laura and Almanzo contracted diphtheria, as a result of which Almanzo became partially paralyzed. The next year, they had a son who died when twelve days old. Then their house burned down. Although this is the point at which Wilder’s series ends, the family’s adventures continued. After a failed attempt to settle in Florida, the Wilders set out for Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894. This trip is described in Wilder’s diary, which was published posthumously. There they purchased Rocky Ridge Farm, where the Wilders lived for the rest of their lives.

Wilder began her writing career in 1911 with articles on farm life for the Missouri Ruralist. Nevertheless, it was the Wilders’ daughter who was the first to make her mark as a writer, and by 1915 was a journalist with the San Francisco Bulletin. Wilder was coached in her writing by Rose, who encouraged her to write for higher-paying magazines. In 1930, when Wilder sat down to write her autobiography, her desire was to record for posterity her childhood growing up on the American frontier. Yet the books are not strictly autobiographical, as Wilder omitted certain events that she believed were not suitable for children and refashioned others. With Rose’s help as editor and her connections with publishers, Wilder saw her first book published in 1932, when she was sixty-five years old. She spent the next eleven years completing her multivolume work.

Wilder’s Little House books became immediately popular, winning numerous awards. Among them, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years were named Newbery Honor Books, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was created in her honor in 1954 to be presented to outstanding authors of children’s books. The series found renewed popularity in the 1970s when it was adapted for the successful television series Little House on the Prairie (1974-1982).

In 2014, Wilder’s autobiography, which she had started writing in 1930 and which was originally rejected by publishers, was published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. The book, Pioneer Girl: An Annotated Autobiography, covers the author’s childhood and includes many details that she deemed unsuitable for children and therefore left out of the Little House books.

Author Works Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Little House in the Big Woods, 1932 Farmer Boy, 1933 Little House on the Prairie, 1935 On the Banks of Plum Creek, 1937 By the Shores of Silver Lake, 1939 The Long Winter, 1940 Little Town on the Prairie, 1941 These Happy Golden Years, 1943 The First Four Years, 1971 Nonfiction: On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894, 1962 West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco, 1915, 1974 A Little House Sampler, 1988 (with Rose Wilder Lane) Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings, 1991 Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Family Collection, 1993 The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook, 1995 Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, 2014 The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, 2016 Poetry: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Fairy Poems, 1998

Bibliography Anderson, William. Laura Ingalls Wilder Country. New York: Harper, 1990. A photographic essay, this attractive book illustrates the lives of the Ingalls and Wilder families and people they knew. Included are pictures of the places where the Ingalls lived during Wilder’s childhood, including markers and replicas of some of their cabins. Also contains a map and a chronology. Anderson, William. Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. A comprehensive biography by a noted Wilder historian. Holtz, William. The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. This 425-page biography of Wilder’s daughter contains extensive discussions on the relationship between the mother and daughter, including the collaborative effort involved in publishing the Little House books. Miller, Dwight M. Laura Ingalls Wilder and the American Frontier: Five Perspectives. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2002. A collection of essays resulting from a symposium on Wilder. Miller, John E. Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998. A thorough biography that looks at Wilder’s life between the years captured in her novels and her apotheosis as a beloved children’s writer. Miller, John E. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town: Where History and Literature Meet. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994. A literary analysis of Wilder’s books as history, focusing on life in De Smet. The author examines themes such as place and community in De Smet and love and affection in the writing and life of Wilder, and compares the prairie depicted by Wilder and artist Harvey Dunn. Ode, Jeanne Kilen. South Dakota History, vol. 45, no. 1, 2015, pp. 68–92. America: History and Life with Full Text, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=102886322&site=eds-live. Accessed 6 Apr. 2017. Provides information about the researching, writing, and editing of Wilder’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl (2014). Romines, Ann. Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. A feminist analysis of Wilder’s works. Spaeth, Janet. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Spaeth’s book identifies themes in the Little House books such as family folklore, the woman’s role in the family, and the representation of Wilder’s growth through languages. Wolf, Virginia L. Little House on the Prairie: A Reader’s Companion. New York: Twayne, 1996. Examines the Little House books thematically. Zochert, Donald. Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1976. A full-length biography.

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