We know and love her as the spunky, little “half-pint” who feels deeply, gets into mischief and often butts heads with nasty Nellie Oleson. But how different was the real Laura Ingalls from her fictional counterpart? Was the family truly as wholesome, loving and supportive as depicted on TV? Was life on the frontier as idyllic as portrayed? Was there a real Nellie who tormented young Laura? (Actually, Laura combined three girls she knew to create the Nellie character).
Let’s take a look at the real life and times of Laura Ingalls Wilder, writer of the books on which the beloved television series is based.
Indeed, the real Laura endured many more hardships, witnessed much more brutality and went through many more upheavals than her television character. She was tough, stoic because she had to be. Settling the frontier meant making life and death, often heartbreaking, decisions every day. Her beloved Pa moved the family around a lot, as he searched for a permanent place to settle his family, and there were times when they were so destitute, he moved the family out of their lodgings in the middle of the night to avoid paying the rent. And, during other desperate times, Charles and Caroline sent Laura to work as a caretaker or babysitter to help their family survive.
In her memoir, Laura tells tales of violence, drunkenness and abuse, and a situation in which she was put in a compromising position by the husband of a woman she was caring for. There were scandals: a doctor caught in a lurid love triangle, an abusive husband who dragged his wife by the hair, knocking over a lamp that set the house on fire. It was Charles who came to the rescue, saving the woman’s life.
Laura Ingalls came into the world in Pepin, Wisconsin, on February 7, 1867. She was the second daughter of four children born to Charles and Caroline Ingalls. In her young years she was constantly uprooted to fulfill her father’s frontier dream, and she was no stranger to tragedy and heartbreak. She’d described her father as “jolly” and “reckless,” and her mother as “educated” and “proud.”
In 1874, the family traveled from Wisconsin to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where Charles constructed a tiny dugout home, meant to be a temporary dwelling until he could buy lumber for a proper, above-ground home. The day came when he bought the planks of wood on credit, intending to repay the debt with the proceeds from the sale of his first wheat crop. However, swarms of grasshoppers invaded and destroyed the wheat, and two years later, with little left, the family moved to Burr Oak, a bustling town in Iowa, where Charles ran a hotel, and took odd jobs. In spite of his efforts, he could not support his family, so in the fall of 1877, they returned to Walnut Grove. Their stint there was not to last, however. In 1879, the family pulled up roots, once more, and made their way to the Dakota Territory to try their luck at homesteading. There, they finally settled in what would eventually become the town of De Smet, South Dakota.
The family’s second year in Dakota challenged their very existence. Several blizzards blew through, bringing frigid temperatures. Trains could not get to the town to bring essential supplies. De Smet was completely cut off, and Laura, then a young teen, and her family had to endure hunger as food was scarce, unbearable cold as they lacked firewood, plus imagine the tension of being cooped up with your family under those conditions for five months until the weather broke in May. Still after suffering through such dire conditions in De Smet and throughout her life, Laura has written, “Suffering passes, while love is eternal. That’s a gift that you have received from God. Don’t waste it.” She’d stated, as well, that one must make the most of the things you have, to be content with the simple things in life, to be cheerful and courageous even at the worst times.
Because the family moved around so much, Laura, had little opportunity to attend school regularly, but she was motivated to learn, so she pursued education mostly on her own. At the age of 15, she obtained a teaching certificate, took a job at a one-room country schoolhouse over ten miles from home, and lived with a family near the school.
Meanwhile, in De Smet, Charles and Caroline befriended a pair of newcomers in town, Almanzo Wilder, a farmer, and his brother, Royal. It was Almanzo who traveled by sleigh to pick up the young teacher for weekend visits with her family. Over the course of a little more than two years the couple courted and fell in love. On August 25, 1885, at the age of 18, Laura married Almanzo, a man ten years her senior. Laura quit her teaching job to work beside her new husband on the farm, and in December of 1886, they welcomed a baby girl, Rose.
In a fairy tale, the story would end here; they would live happily ever after, but in the harsh reality of pioneer life, hardships and tragedy were never far away. In 1889, Laura had a baby boy, who died from convulsions just 12 days after his birth. The family’s wheat crops and orchards were destroyed, over the years, by drought, pest infestations, and hail. Their house and barn burned to the ground, a fire accidentally started by five-year-old Rose while in the kitchen. Laura and Almanzo both were struck with life-threatening diphtheria. Laura recovered, but Almanzo was left partially paralyzed. Over time, he regained use of his legs, but needed a cane to walk. This disability hit the family hard, as it was painful and difficult to maintain a farm in his condition. Devastated, they headed to Minnesota to visit Almanzo’s family. From there they wandered in search of a place to settle that would be conducive to Almanzo’s debilitated health. They returned to De Smet for a time, where Rose attended school, and Laura and Almanzo took a variety of jobs to make ends meet. In 1894, the small family packed up once more, and moved to a small, dark log cabin on a farm in Mansfield, Missouri, where the couple would live out their lives. They called the farm Rocky Ridge.
Finally, fortune smiled on the Wilders. They were able to sell firewood and eggs, plant crops and sell potatoes, buy a cow, and sell homemade butter. They built a bigger, nicer house. They raised hogs, hens, cows, sheep, goats and Morgan horses. Laura always loved writing, and kept a journal, chronicling the family’s trials and travels. She started contributing articles to area newspapers, sharing tales of her journeys, offering common sense advice on housekeeping, marriage, poultry and life in the country. At times, she wrote about politics and patriotism. During World War I, she became a columnist expressing her thoughts as a farm wife.
With the encouragement of Rose, now grown and a reporter in San Francisco, Laura started writing her memoir, but publishers were not interested in the manuscript. She spent the next few years reworking the stories as fiction with the help of Rose as her editor. In 1932, at the age of 65, Laura Ingalls Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in her famous and beloved series of children’s books based on her life. She died in 1957, at the age of 90, eight years after Almanzo’s death.
In 1972, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy was carried on with the debut of the TV series, Little House on the Prairie.