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This lesson will examine the life and books of American author Laura Ingalls Wilder, most famous for the ”Little House on the Prairie” series of books.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Biography, Books & Facts

Laura Ingalls Wilder was an American author, best known for her Little House on the Prairie series.

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These books were based on her childhood as her pioneer family traveled from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to Indian Territory in Kansas, to Minnesota, and finally to Dakota Territory.

Portrait of Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1894
Laura Ingalls Wilder

Early Life

Laura was born February 7, 1867, the second child and second daughter of Charles Ingalls and his wife, Caroline Quiner. Her older sister, Mary, appears in all of the Little House novels, at first as Laura’s rival, and later as her dearest friend and confidant. When Laura was two years old, her family left Wisconsin and moved to Indian Territory in Kansas, mistakenly settling on the Osage Indian Reservation. There, Laura’s little sister Carrie was born. When the government asked them to leave in 1871, they returned to Wisconsin.

Laura chronicled life in Wisconsin in her book Little House in the Big Woods, and the family’s move to Kansas is related in her most famous book, Little House on the Prairie, though Laura made herself older in the book, perhaps to make her vivid memories more believable.After leaving Wisconsin, the Ingalls family settled in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, which Laura wrote about in By the Banks of Plum Creek. Laura’s only brother, Charles Frederick , called ‘Freddie’, was born in November 1875. Sadly, he died nine months later.

The family ended up in Burr Oak, Iowa, where they helped run a hotel. Neither Burr Oak nor Freddie appeared in Wilder’s books. However, the TV Show Little House on the Prairie, starring Michael Landon, showed Freddie’s birth and death and fictionalized their adventures in Burr Oak. Laura’s narrative picked up again in By the Shores of Silver Lake, which chronicled the family’s move to Dakota Territory. Here, her readers learn of her youngest sister Grace’s birth and the devastating case of scarlet fever that stole Mary’s eyesight.

Settling in Dakota Territory

The last four books in the series–The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years–all took place in Dakota Territory, where Pa Ingalls filed for a claim, and the family finally put down roots.

The Ingalls Family in De Smet
The Ingalls Family in De Smet

Laura and her sisters settled into life in the town of De Smet. During the brutal winter of 1880-81, shown in Laura’s book The Long Winter, Laura and her family barely survived. Many in the town were on the brink of starvation when Cap Garland and Almanzo Wilder went on a dangerous quest for wheat for the town. Between blizzards, Laura and Carrie attended school in De Smet.

Laura knew that she must get an education so she could become a teacher and earn money, to send Mary to a college for the blind. This ambition both drove and terrified Laura, but she was willing to make personal sacrifices to help her sister. In Little Town on the Prairie, Mary realized her dream and went away to college. Laura sorely missed her sister, but was determined to earn money to keep her sister in school.

Because the law said a teacher must be at least sixteen years old, Laura took a job sewing in the growing town of De Smet and continued her studies. Shortly before she turned sixteen, Laura received a teacher’s certificate and began teaching school. She wrote about her teaching career in These Happy Golden Years.

Laura taught three terms of school before she got married at age eighteen to Almanzo Wilder. The book Farmer Boy is the story of Almanzo’s childhood in New York.

Laura and Almanzo Wilder, shortly after their marriage
Laura and Almanzo Wilder, shortly after their marriage

Laura and Almanzo moved onto his tree claim not far away from the Ingalls family. The early years of their marriage were chronicled in The First Four Years. Laura and Almanzo had a daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in 1886 and a son who died before he could be named in 1889. Among other trials, the young couple suffered from a dangerous bout with diphtheria and a house fire that destroyed most of their possessions.

The Move to Missouri and Laura’s Career as an Author

Laura, Almanzo, and Rose moved from De Smet to Mansfield, Missouri in 1894. There, they purchased land and founded Rocky Ridge Farm, where they would live for the rest of their lives. Laura raised Rose, and then turned her interests to writing.

She wrote for the Missouri Ruralist. Rose, who was already an accomplished writer, urged her mother to write her memories of childhood down. Laura agreed and the first Little House book was published in 1932. In addition to the listed Little House books, Laura published many columns in newspapers and magazines, and much of her work was collected and published posthumously. After Laura’s death in 1957, Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield was turned into a museum celebrating her life and work.

Lesson Summary

Though her life was not easy by any means, Laura Ingalls Wilder never gave up. Her books show us what the country was like in the late 1800s, on the frontier of America.

The Little House books are still in publication today, and remain favorites of many readers, years after they first journey to the prairie with Laura and the Ingalls family.

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