The Real Story of Laura's Life

The life of Laura Ingalls as depicted on Michael Landon's popular television series Little House on the Prairie, the life of Laura Ingalls as told in her Little House books, and the life of the real Laura Ingalls are three very different stories. Although Laura's books are based on her life, she did make changes when she felt it made for easier reading or to better fit the themes she created; her books are classified as historical fiction, not autobiography. This page was designed to tell the story of the real Laura Ingalls Wilder. You can learn more about the people she knew and places she lived by clicking on the colored links in the story below. Click on this icon to see a map of Laura's "Little Houses".

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born February 7, 1867, the second daughter of Charles and Caroline Ingalls, in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, seven miles north of Pepin. In 1868, Pa and Ma (as Laura would later call her parents) took baby Laura and her sister Mary, age three, from the Big Woods to Chariton County, Missouri.

The family did not stay in Missouri long. Inspired by the Homestead Act of 1862 which offered 160 acres of "free land" to settlers who would farm and live on it for five years, Pa took his family to the prairies. The land Pa chose was about 12 miles from Independence, Kansas, within the boundaries of the Osage Diminished Reserve.

There Pa built a house and stable with the help of a neighbor, Mr Edwards. Later, the family contracted malaria and were fortunate that Dr Tann, who was actually a doctor to the Indians, was in the area. After building a house and planting crops, the Ingalls family was forced to leave in the fall of 1870, just after the birth of their third daughter, Carrie. Pa heard that the government had changed their minds about opening the land for homesteading and that soldiers were on their way to force the settlers out.

Pa did not wait for the soldiers. He took his family to their old home in the Big Woods. This enabled the girls to see more of their grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Laura and Mary attended the Barry Corner School, and spent many happy hours playing with their cousins. Ma was glad to be home, but Pa longed to go west again.

In 1874, the Ingalls journeyed west, trading for a small farm near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The family lived in a dugout in the creek bank until Pa could build a wonderful new house made of sawed boards.

In Walnut Grove, the family joined the church pastored by Rev. Alden and Laura and Mary were able to attend school again. It was here that Laura met the snobby and cruel Nellie Owens.

Pa raised a wonderful wheat crop, and the family felt that surely this was the end of their troubles. However, grasshoppers invaded the area and destroyed all the crops. The family tried again the next year to raise a crop, but the grasshopper eggs left the previous year hatched and destroyed the crops again.

On November 1, 1875, a son was born to the Ingalls family, Charles Frederic. The following summer, the family traveled to Uncle Peter's farm in eastern Minnesota, where Pa helped with the harvesting. While there, baby Freddy became ill, and died on August 27, 1876.

The family, saddened at the loss of their son, moved on to Burr Oak, Iowa, where Pa's friend Mr. Steadman had purchased a hotel. The family lived in the hotel, and Ma and Pa helped the Steadmans manage it. They did not like the work, and moved first to some rented rooms over a grocery, and then to a little brick house outside of town.

The family's last child, Grace, was born in Burr Oak on May 23, 1877. The family was homesick for their friends in Walnut Grove, so they returned in the summer of 1877 to live in town while Charles did carpentry and other odd jobs, and opened a butcher shop.

Laura and Mary were eager to find out what had happened in Walnut Grove while they were away. They found that Nellie Owens now had a rival, Genevieve Masters, the school teacher's daughter. Nellie and Genny fought for the leadership of the girls but it was Laura who became the leader, without even trying.

In 1879, Mary suffered a stroke and lost her eyesight. In that same year the Ingalls family made their final move when Aunt Docia from the Big Woods arrived and offered Pa a job as a railroad manager in Dakota Territory.

When the railway work moved on, the Ingalls family stayed. Together with their friends, the Boasts, they became the first residents of the new town of De Smet. Pa and Laura would have happily gone further west but Ma insisted that they stay put so that the girls could get an education. Pa filed a claim on 160 acres of land 3 miles southeast of De Smet.

The Hard Winter of 1880-81 resulted in almost continuous blizzards from October to the following May. The blizzards made it all but impossible to travel in or out, and trains could not run to bring in supplies.

By late 1881, the family had saved up enough money to send Mary to the blind school at Vinton, Iowa. The government supplied the money for her tuition, but Ma and Pa had to pay for transportation to and from the school, and for suitable clothes for a young college girl.

As a teenager Laura had become rather a shy girl and initially found it difficult to mix with people. She seemed quite fearful of crowds. Laura worked hard at school and showed a great interest in English, history and poetry. Unfortunately, Genevieve Masters had arrived in De Smet and along with the teacher, Eliza Jane Wilder, began to cause trouble for Laura. However Miss Wilder left the school and Laura was able to become top of her class.

At the early age of 15, Laura earned her teaching certificate. She was hired by the Bouchie School, 12 miles away, and boarded with the Bouchie family. Mrs. Bouchie was apparently going through a mental breakdown due to the isolation of the settlement, and Laura was frightened of her. She was therefore very grateful when a young man, Almanzo Wilder, a local farmer and brother of her old teacher, offered to drive his sleigh through howling gales and freezing temperatures each weekend to bring her home.

At first Laura thought Almanzo was doing it only as a favor to Pa. Over the next three years, however, she gradually allowed Almanzo into her affections and they married on August 25, 1885.

Their daughter Rose was born December 5, 1886, but the farming life was no easier for the newly married couple than it had been for Laura's father and mother. Droughts and hail storms ruined crops and kept them in debt. Diphtheria and overwork led to Almanzo being crippled. Their second child, a baby boy, died unnamed soon after his birth in August 1889. An accident in the kitchen resulted in their house burning down.

Laura around 1917.
Photo courtesy of Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.
Used with permission.
Almanzo and Laura left De Smet to live with Almanzo's parents in Spring Valley, Minnesota, but the weather did not help Almanzo's health. They moved to Westville, Florida, where Laura's cousin Peter had made his home. Almanzo's health improved, but Laura could not take the heat, and the women did not accept her socially because she was a "Yankee". In 1892, Almanzo, Laura, and little Rose returned to De Smet, where Rose began her schooling although she was young, and Laura and Almanzo worked and saved up money to make a fresh start.

On July 17, 1894, the Wilders left South Dakota again. This time, they traveled to Mansfield in the Ozarks of Missouri. They arrived on August 30, and purchased Rocky Ridge Farm. The house began as a small log cabin, but Laura and Almanzo added to it over the years, until it became the large rambling farmhouse that it is today.

Laura began to write articles for the Missouri Ruralist and other magazines. In 1930 she wrote her autobiography which she called Pioneer Girl. She could not find a publisher, but she rewrote part of it, with Rose's help, as Little House in the Big Woods. The book was an instant success, and children all over the world wrote begging Laura to tell more stories about Laura and Mary. The result was the Little House books.

Almanzo died on October 23, 1949, at the age of 92. Laura died on February 10, 1957, at Rocky Ridge Farm at the age of 90.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frontier Girl

Copyright © 1996 - 2008
Rebecca Brammer & Phil Greetham
Do not use without permission.