Laura Ingalls Wilder (February 7, 1867 – February 10, 1957) was an American author, who wrote the Little House series of children's books based on her childhood in a pioneer family. Her best-known book is Little House on the Prairie.
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born near the village of Pepin, Wisconsin, in what was then known as the "Big Woods" of Wisconsin. Her real birth site is commemorated by a period log cabin, the Little House Wayside. She was born to parents Charles Phillip Ingalls and Caroline Lake (Quiner) Ingalls. Charles' paternal grandmother was Margaret Delano, of the famed Delano family, and was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Richard Warren. Laura was the second of their five children: Mary Amelia, who went blind; Caroline Celestia, whom they called Carrie; Charles Frederick, who died at nine months old, and Grace Pearl.
When Laura was still very young, her father settled on land not yet open for homesteading in what was then known as Indian Territory. After less than two years living near Independence, Kansas, the family returned to the Big Woods. Before long, her father's restless spirit led them on various moves to a preemption claim in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, living with relatives near South Troy, Minnesota, and helping to run a hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa. The family eventually established a homestead claim near De Smet, Dakota Territory, where in the spring of 1879 Charles Ingalls accepted a railroad job. After staying the winter of 1879–1880 in the Surveyor's house, the Ingalls family watched the town of DeSmet rise up from the prairie in 1880. The following winter, 1880–1881, became known as one of the most severe winters on record in the Dakotas, which Laura later described in her book, The Long Winter. Once the family was settled in DeSmet, Laura attended school, made many friends, and met homesteader Almanzo Wilder (1857–1949). This time in her life is well documented in the Little House Books. Many fans tend to mistakenly accept the material in the books as completely factual, forgetting they are really fictional autobiography. Pioneer Girl, Laura's unpublished original autobiographical manuscript shows the subtle differences between reality and fiction when compared to the published books. Like many writers, she sometimes compressed characters, changed names, and juxtaposed incidents in the interest of better story telling.
The best example of this is "Nellie Oleson", who first appears in On the Banks of Plum Creek, and makes her final appearance in These Happy Golden Years. Nellie Oleson was actually a composite of three actual people from Laura's life during those years: Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert.
At the age of 15, Laura accepted her first teaching session, teaching three terms in one-room schools when not attending school herself in DeSmet. Laura later admitted that she did not particularly enjoy teaching, but felt the responsibility from a young age to help her family financially, and wage earning opportunities for females were limited. Laura stopped teaching when she married Almanzo on August 25, 1885. Almanzo had achieved a degree of prosperity on his homestead claim, due to favorable weather in the early 1880s, and the couple's prospects seemed bright. She joined Almanzo in a new home on his tree claim north of DeSmet and agreed to help him make the claim succeed. On December 5, 1886, she gave birth to Rose Wilder (1886–1968) and later, an unnamed son, who died soon after birth in 1889.
The first few years of marriage held many trials. Complications from a life-threatening bout of diphtheria left Almanzo partially paralyzed. While he eventually regained nearly full use of his legs, he needed a cane to walk for the remainder of his life. This setback, among many others, began a series of disastrous events that included the death of their unnamed newborn son, the destruction of their home and barn by fire, and several years of severe drought that left them in debt, physically ill, and unable to earn a living from their of prairie land. The tales of their trials farming can be found in The First Four Years, a manuscript that was discovered after Rose Wilder Lane's death. It was published in 1971, and detailed the hard-fought first four years of marriage on the Dakota prairies.
In about 1890, the Wilders left South Dakota and spent about a year resting at Almanzo's parents' prosperous Minnesota farm, before moving briefly to Westville, Florida. They sought Florida's climate to improve Almanzo's health, but Laura, who was used to living on the dry plains, wilted in the heat and southern humidity. In 1892, they soon returned to DeSmet and bought a small house (although later accounts by Rose mistakenly indicated it was rented). The Wilders received special permission to start precocious Rose in school early and took jobs (Almanzo as a day laborer, Laura as a seamstress at a dressmaker's shop) to save enough money to once again start a farm.
In 1894, the hard-pressed young couple moved a final time to Mansfield, Missouri, using their savings to make a partial down payment on a piece of undeveloped property just outside of town. They named the place Rocky Ridge Farm. What began as about of thickly-wooded stone-covered hillside with a windowless log cabin, over the next twenty years evolved into a , relatively prosperous poultry, dairy, and fruit farm. The ramshackle log cabin was eventually replaced with an impressive and unique ten-room farmhouse and outbuildings.
The couple's climb to financial security was a slow process. Initially, the only income the farm produced was from wagon loads of firewood Almanzo sold for fifty cents in town, the result of the backbreaking work of clearing the trees and stones from land that slowly evolved into fertile fields and pastures. The apple trees would not begin to bear fruit for seven years. Barely able to eke out more than a subsistence living on the new farm, the Wilders decided to move into nearby Mansfield in the late 1890s and rent a small house. Almanzo found work as an oil salesman and general delivery man, while Laura took in boarders and served meals to local railroad workers. Any spare time was spent improving the farm and planning for a better future.
Almanzo's parents visited around this time, and presented to Laura and Almanzo, as a gift, the deed to the house they had been renting in Mansfield. This was the economic jump start they needed, and they eventually sold the house in town and were able to move back to the farm permanently, using the proceeds to complete Rocky Ridge Farmhouse and expand their acreage.
By 1910, Rocky Ridge Farm was established to the point where Laura and Almanzo returned there to focus their efforts on increasing the farm's productivity and output. The impressive 10 room farmhouse completed in 1912 stands as a testament to their labors and determination to carve a comfortable and attractive home from the land. Having learned a hard lesson from focusing solely on wheat farming in South Dakota, the Wilders' Rocky Ridge Farm became a diversified poultry and dairy farm, as well as boasting an abundant apple orchard. Laura, always active in various clubs and an advocate for several regional farm associations, was recognized as an authority in poultry farming and rural living, which led to invitations to speak to groups around the region. Following Rose's developing writing career also inspired her to do some writing of her own. An invitation to submit an article to the Missouri Ruralist in 1911 led to a permanent position as a columnist and editor with that publication — a position she held until the mid-1920s. She also took a paid position with a Farm Loan Association, dispensing small loans to local farmers from her office in the farmhouse. Her column in the Ruralist, "As a Farm Woman Thinks", introduced Mrs. A.J. Wilder to a loyal audience of rural Ozarkians, who enjoyed her regular columns, which ranged in topic from home and family, World War I and other world events, to the fascinating world travels of her daughter and her own thoughts on the increasing options being offered to women during this era. While the Wilders were never wealthy until the "Little House" series of books began to achieve popularity, the farming operation and Laura's income from writing and the Farm Loan Association provided a stable enough living for the Wilders to finally place themselves in Mansfield middle-class society. Laura's fellow clubwomen were mostly the wives of business owners, doctors and lawyers, and her club activities took up much of the time that Rose was encouraging her to use to develop a writing career for national magazines, as Rose had done. Laura seemed unable or unwilling to make the leap from writing for the Missouri Ruralist to these higher-paying national markets. The few articles she was able to sell to national magazines were heavily edited by Rose and placed solely through Rose's established publishing connections.
For much of the 1920s and 1930s, between long stints living abroad (including in her beloved adopted country of Albania), Rose lived with Laura and Almanzo at Rocky Ridge Farm. As her free-lance writing career flourished, Rose successfully invested in the booming stock market. Her newfound financial freedom led her to increasingly assume responsibility for her aging parents' support, as well as providing for the college educations of several young people she "adopted" both in Albania and Mansfield. Rose also took over the farmhouse her parents had built and had a beautiful, modern stone cottage constructed for them as a gift. However, when Rose left the farm for good a few years later, Laura and Almanzo, homesick for the house they had built with their own hands, moved back to it, and finished their lives there. By the late 1920s, Laura and Almanzo had scaled back the farming operation considerably and Laura had resigned from her positions with the Missouri Ruralist and the Farm Loan Association. Hired help was installed in the caretaker's house Rose had built on the property, to take care of the remaining farm work that Almanzo, now in his 70s, could no longer easily manage. A comfortable and worry-free retirement seemed possible for Laura and Almanzo until the Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped out the family's investments (Laura and Almanzo still owned the farm, but they had invested most of their hard-won savings with Rose's broker). Rose was faced with the grim prospect of selling enough of her writing in a depressed market to maintain the financial responsibilities she had assumed. Laura and Almanzo became dependent on Rose as their primary source of support.
In 1930, Laura asked her daughter's opinion about a biographical manuscript she had written about her pioneering childhood. The Great Depression, coupled with the death of her mother in 1924 and her sister Mary in 1928, seem to have prompted her to preserve her memories in a "life story" called "Pioneer Girl". She had also renewed her interest in writing in the hope of generating some income for herself and Almanzo.
Controversy surrounds Rose's exact role in what became her mother's famous "Little House" series of books. Some argue that Laura was an "untutored genius," relying on her daughter mainly for some early encouragement and her connections with publishers and literary agents. Others contend that Rose basically took each of her mother's unpolished rough drafts in hand and completely (and silently) transformed them into the series of books we know today. The truth most likely lies somewhere between these two positions — Laura's writing career as a rural journalist and credible essayist began more than two decades before the "Little House" series, and Rose's formidable skills as an editor and ghostwriter are well-documented.
The existing evidence (including ongoing correspondence between the women concerning the development of the series, Rose's extensive personal diaries and Laura's first person draft manuscripts) tends to reveal an ongoing joint collaboration. The conclusion can be drawn that Laura's strengths as a compelling storyteller and Rose's considerable skills in dramatic pacing and literary structure contributed to an occasionally tense, but fruitful, collaboration between two talented and headstrong women. In fact, the collaboration seems to have worked both ways: two of Rose's most successful novels, Let the Hurricane Roar (1932) and Free Land (1938), were written at the same time as the "Little House" series and basically re-told Ingalls and Wilder family tales in an adult format. The collaboration also brought the two writers at Rocky Ridge Farm the money they needed to recoup the loss of their investments in the stock market. Simply stated: If Laura had not written the books, they would not exist — Rose had no interest in writing what she called "juveniles". But had Rose not edited the books, they might well have never been accepted for publication, nor become as famous as they are. Since the initial publication of "Little House in the Big Woods" in 1931, the books have been continually in print, and remain in print today around the world, and have been translated into 40 different languages.
Whatever the collaboration personally represented to Laura and Rose was never publicly discussed, however. Laura's first — and smallest — royalty check from Harper was for $500 — the equivalent of $7,300 in 2007 dollars. By the mid-1930s the royalties from the "Little House" books brought a steady and increasingly substantial income to the Wilders for the first time in their 50 years of marriage. Various honors, huge amounts of fan mail and other accolades were granted to Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the "Little House" series. Also, the novels and short stories of Rose Wilder Lane during the 1930s represented her creative and literary peak. Her name received top billing on the magazine covers where her fiction and articles appeared. The Saturday Evening Post paid her $30,000 (approximately $400,000 in 2007 dollars) to serialize her best-selling novel Free Land, while Let the Hurricane Roar saw an increasing and steady sale, augmented by a radio dramatization starring Helen Hayes, and it has steadily remained in print even today as Young Pioneers.
During these years, Laura and Almanzo were frequently alone at Rocky Ridge Farm. Most of the surrounding area (including the property with the stone cottage Rose had built for them) had been sold off, but they still kept some farm animals, and tended their flower beds and vegetable gardens. Almost daily, carloads of fans would stop by, eager to meet "Laura" of the Little House Books. They lived independently and without financial worries until Almanzo's death in 1949, at the age of 92. Laura was grieved but determined to remain independent and stay on the farm, despite Rose's requests that Laura come live with her permanently in Connecticut. For the next eight years, Laura lived alone, looked after by a circle of neighbors and friends who found it hard to believe their very own "Mrs. Wilder" was a world-famous author. She was a familiar figure in Mansfield, being brought into town regularly by her driver to do her errands, attend church or visit friends. Laura continued an active correspondence with her editors, many fans and friends during these years.
Throughout the 1950s, Rose usually came back to Missouri to spend the winter with Laura. Once, Laura returned to Connecticut for a visit to Rose's home, traveling by airplane. In the fall of 1956, Rose came to Mansfield for Thanksgiving, and found her 89 year old mother severely ill from undiagnosed diabetes and a weakening heart. Several weeks in the hospital seemed to improve the situation somewhat, and Laura was able to return home on the day after Christmas. But she was very old and very ill, and she declined rapidly after that point. Laura had an extremely competitive spirit going all the way back to the schoolyard as a child, and she had remarked to many people that she wanted to live to be 90, "because Almanzo had." She succeeded. On February 10, 1957, just three days after her 90th birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder died in her sleep in her Mansfield farmhouse.
Rose left Mansfield permanently shortly after her mother's death, but was instrumental in donating Rocky Ridge Farmhouse and most of the contents to the Laura Ingalls Wilder–Rose Wilder Lane Home Association. The rustic farmhouse and the nearby stone cottage (repurchased by the Association) continue to receive thousands of annual visitors, and carry a National Historic Landmark designation.
Rose inherited ownership of the "Little House" literary estate for her lifetime only, all rights reverting to the Mansfield library after her death, according to her mother's will. After her death in 1968, Rose's heir Roger MacBride gained control of the copyrights. MacBride was Lane's informally-adopted grandson, as well as her business agent, attorney and heir. All of MacBride's actions carried Rose's apparent approval. In fact, at Rose's request, the copyrights to each of the "Little House" Books (as well as those of Lane's own literary works) had been renewed in MacBride's name as the original copyrights expired during the decade between Laura's and Rose's deaths.
Controversy did not come until after MacBride's death in 1995, when the Laura Ingalls Wilder Branch of the Wright County Library (which Laura helped found) in Mansfield, Missouri, decided it was worth trying to recover the rights. The ensuing court case was settled in an undisclosed manner, but MacBride's heirs retained the rights. The library received enough to start work on a new building.
The popularity of the "Little House" series of books has grown phenomenally over the years, spawning a multimillion-dollar franchise of mass merchandising, additional spinoff book series (some written by MacBride and his daughter) and the long-running television show, starring Michael Landon. Laura Ingalls Wilder has been portrayed by Melissa Gilbert (1974-1984), Meredith Monroe (1997, 1998) and Kyle Chavarria (2005) in television series.
Laura once said the reason she wrote her books in the first place was to preserve the stories of her childhood for today's children, to help them to understand how much America had changed during her lifetime.
Laura was honored on the Missouri Walk of Fame in 2006. Reverend David Ingalls, an Ingalls cousin, accepted the star which is located on the walk of fame in Marshfield, Missouri.