Maintenance Outages: our website is experiencing some issues with pages loading as we undergo maintenance, please check back soon

Laura Ingalls Wilder | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Wilder, Laura Ingalls (1867-1957)

Laura Ingalls Wilder | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeBlack and white portrait of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder

A black and white portrait of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Starting with only a modest plan to write a single volume about her life called "When Grandma was a Little Girl", Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) went on to write eight books based on her pioneer childhood in the late 19th century. Despite publishing her first book at age 65, Wilder's ability to communicate her story from the perspective of a child brought her tremendous success that continues to appeal to children and adults.

Born in Pepin, Wisconsin, in February of 1867, Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was the second daughter of Caroline Quiner and Charles Philip Ingalls. Wilder spent her early years constantly on the move. Her father dreamed of going further west to explore and settle unknown territory. The Ingalls left Pepin for Kansas in 1869 but returned two years later. Laura's home in Pepin became the setting for her first book, "Little House in the Big Woods", where she lived in an attic loft with her sister Mary and attended the Barry Corner School.

The Ingalls were on the move again in 1874, relocating to Minnesota, to Iowa and back to Minnesota before settling in De Smet, South Dakota, in 1879, where Laura's father finally claimed a homestead. Laura grew up in De Smet with her three sisters, attending school for the first time with any regularity. Financial difficulties frequently disrupted her schooling, though, as everyone in the family was expected to contribute to expenses. She worked as a seamstress until she received her teaching certificate in December 1882.

Laura's first teaching job was in a small settlement 12 miles from De Smet. Her future husband, Almanzo James Wilder, drove her home through Dakota blizzards to her family on the weekends. Laura and Almanzo married on August 25, 1885.

Like the Ingalls family, the Wilders moved several times before settling on a small farm in Mansfield, Missouri, where they raised a daughter, Rose, born in 1886. Laura worked primarily on the farm until after World War I when she became secretary-treasurer of the Mansfield Farm Loan Association. The job brought her connections with other farmers. She used these connections and her own experience as a farmer to begin writing columns for the Missouri Ruralist, the St. Louis Star, "McCall's Magazine" and "The Country Gentleman".

Laura did not begin her first book until 1931. Her daughter Rose had become an accomplished journalist and writer in California, so Laura, quite logically, turned to Rose, a more experienced writer, for assistance. When Laura submitted her proposal to Harper Brothers for a single-volume story about her life, the editors suggested instead that she write a series of books about her life in frontier communities across the Midwest. Working together, Laura and Rose shaped the stories to appeal to young readers. The books met with instant success and all except "Farmer Boy" (1933) were Newberry Honor books. In 1954 the American Library Association established the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award of which Laura was the first recipient.

Laura died on February 10, 1957, at her home, Rocky Ridge Farm, in Mansfield, Missouri.