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Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder (; February 7, 1867 – February 10, 1957) was an American writer known for the Little House on the Prairie series of children's books, published between 1932 and 1943, which were based on her childhood in a settler and pioneer family.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, the television series Little House on the Prairie was loosely based on the Little House books, and starred Melissa Gilbert as Laura and Michael Landon as her father, Charles Ingalls.
Birth and ancestry
Laura was born on February 7, 1867, 7 miles (11 km) north of the village of Pepin in the Big Woods region of Wisconsin, to Charles Phillip Ingalls and Caroline Lake (née Quiner) Ingalls. She was the second of five children, following Mary Amelia. Their three younger siblings were Caroline Celestia (Carrie), Charles Frederick (who died in infancy), and Grace Pearl. Wilder's birth site is commemorated by a replica log cabin, the Little House Wayside. Life there formed the basis for her first book, Little House in the Big Woods (1932). Laura was a descendant of the Delano family, an ancestral family of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A progenitor of the Delano family emigrated to the Plymouth Colony in the early 1620s; another family ancestor, Edmund Rice, emigrated in 1638 to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. One paternal ancestor, Edmund Ingalls, was born on June 27, 1586, in Skirbeck, Lincolnshire, England, and emigrated to America, where he died in Lynn, Massachusetts, on September 16, 1648.
Family on the move
Laura moved with her family from Wisconsin in 1869, when she was two years old. They stopped in Rothville, Missouri, and settled in Kansas, in Indian country near what is now Independence. Her younger sister Carrie (1870–1946) was born there in August 1870, not long before they moved again. According to her in later years, her father had been told that the location would soon be open to white settlers but that was incorrect; their homestead was actually on the Osage Indian reservation and they had no legal right to occupy it. They had just begun to farm when they heard rumors that the settlers would be evicted, and they left in spring 1871. Although Wilder portrayed the departure and that of other settlers as prompted by rumors of eviction in both her novel and in her Pioneer Girl memoirs, in the memoirs she also noted that her parents needed to recover their Wisconsin land because the buyer had not paid the entire mortgage. Several Kansas neighbors apparently were allowed to buy the land they had settled on, so the rumors may have been untrue.
From Kansas, the Ingalls family returned to Wisconsin, where they lived for the next three years. Those experiences formed the basis for the novels Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and Little House on the Prairie (1935). The fictional chronology of Wilder's books in this regard does not match fact: she was two to four years old in Kansas and four to seven in Wisconsin; in the novels she is four to five in Wisconsin (Big Woods) and six to seven in Kansas (Prairie). According to a letter from her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, to biographer William Anderson, the publisher had her change her age in the second book because it seemed unrealistic for a three-year-old to have memories so specific about her story of life in Kansas. To be consistent with her already established chronology, she portrayed herself six to seven years old in it and seven to nine years old in On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), the third volume of her fictionalized history, which takes place around 1874.
On the Banks of Plum Creek shows the family moving from Kansas to an area near Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and settling in a dugout "on the banks of Plum Creek". They really moved there from Wisconsin when Wilder was about seven years old, after briefly living with the family of her Uncle Peter Ingalls, first in their house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin and then on rented land near Lake City, Minnesota. In Walnut Grove, the family lived in a dugout on a preemption claim first; after wintering in it, they moved into a new house built on the same land. Two summers of ruined crops led them to move to Iowa. On the way they stayed again with Wilder's Uncle Peter Ingalls, this time on his own farm near South Troy, Minnesota. Her younger and only brother, Charles Frederick Ingalls ("Freddie"), was born there on November 1, 1875, and died nine months later on August 27, 1876. In Burr Oak, Iowa, the family helped run a hotel. Wilder's youngest sibling, Grace, was born there on May 23, 1877.
The family moved from Burr Oak back to Walnut Grove where Wilder's father served as the town butcher and justice of the peace. He accepted a railroad job in spring 1879, one which took him to eastern Dakota Territory, where they joined him that fall. Wilder did not write about the period in 1876–1877 when they lived near Burr Oak, but skipped directly to Dakota Territory, portrayed in By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939). Thus the fictional timeline caught up with her real life.
Wilder's father filed for a formal homestead over winter 1879–1880. De Smet, South Dakota, became her parents' and sister Mary's home for the remainder of their lives. After spending the mild winter of 1879–1880 in the surveyor's house, they watched the town of De Smet rise up from the prairie in 1880. The following winter, 1880–1881, one of the most severe on record in the Dakotas, was later described by Wilder in her novel, The Long Winter (1940). Once the family was settled in De Smet, Wilder attended school, worked several part-time jobs, and made friends. Among them was bachelor homesteader Almanzo Wilder. This time in her life is documented in the books Little Town on the Prairie (1941) and These Happy Golden Years (1943).
On December 10, 1882, two months before her 16th birthday, Wilder accepted her first teaching position. She taught three terms in one-room schools when she was not attending school in De Smet. (In Little Town on the Prairie she receives her first teaching certificate on December 24, 1882, but that was an enhancement for dramatic effect.) Her original "Third Grade" teaching certificate can be seen on page 25 of William Anderson's book Laura's Album (1998). She later admitted she did not particularly enjoy it but felt the responsibility from a young age to help her family financially, and wage-earning opportunities for women were limited. Between 1883 and 1885, she taught three terms of school, worked for the local dressmaker, and attended high school, although she did not graduate.
Wilder's teaching career and studies ended when she married Almanzo Wilder, whom she called "Manly", on August 25, 1885. As he had a sister named Laura, his nickname for Wilder became "Beth", from her middle name, Elizabeth. She was 18 and he was 28. He had achieved a degree of prosperity on his homestead claim, and their prospects seemed bright. She joined him in a new home, north of De Smet.
On December 5, 1886, Wilder gave birth to her daughter, Rose. In 1889, she gave birth to a son who died at 12 days of age before being named. He was buried at De Smet, Kingsbury County, in South Dakota. On the grave marker, he is remembered as "Baby Son of A. J. Wilder".
Their first few years of marriage for the Wilders were frequently difficult. 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 unfortunate events that included the death of their newborn son; the destruction of their barn along with its hay and grain by a mysterious fire; the total loss of their home from a fire accidentally set by Rose; and several years of severe drought that left them in debt, physically ill, and unable to earn a living from their 320 acres (129.5 hectares) of prairie land. These trials were documented in Wilder's book The First Four Years (published in 1971). Around 1890, they left De Smet and spent about a year resting at the home of Almanzo's parents on their Spring Valley, Minnesota, farm before moving briefly to Westville, Florida, in search of a climate to improve Almanzo's health. They found, however, that the dry plains they were used to were very different from the humidity they encountered in Westville. The weather, along with feeling out of place among the locals, encouraged their return to De Smet in 1892, where they purchased a small home.
Move to Mansfield, Missouri
In 1894, the Wilders moved to Mansfield, Missouri, and used their savings to make the down payment on an undeveloped property just outside town. They named the place Rocky Ridge Farm and moved into a ramshackle log cabin. At first, they earned income only from wagon loads of fire wood they would sell in town for 50 cents. Financial security came slowly. Apple trees they planted did not bear fruit for seven years. Almanzo's parents visited around that time and gave them the deed to the house they had been renting in Mansfield, which was the economic boost Wilder's family needed. They then added to the property outside town, and eventually accrued nearly 200 acres (80.9 hectares). Around 1910, they sold the house in town, moved back to the farm, and completed the farmhouse with the proceeds. What began as about 40 acres (16.2 hectares) of thickly wooded, stone-covered hillside with a windowless log cabin became in 20 years a relatively prosperous poultry, dairy, and fruit farm, and a 10-room farmhouse.
The Wilders had learned from cultivating wheat as their sole crop in De Smet. They diversified Rocky Ridge Farm with poultry, a dairy farm, and a large apple orchard. Wilder became active in various clubs and was an advocate for several regional farm associations. She was recognized as an authority in poultry farming and rural living, which led to invitations to speak to groups around the region.
An invitation to submit an article to the Missouri Ruralist in 1911 led to Wilder's permanent position as a columnist and editor with that publication, which she held until the mid-1920s. She also took a paid position with the local Farm Loan Association, dispensing small loans to local farmers.
Wilder's column in the Ruralist, "As a Farm Woman Thinks", introduced her to a loyal audience of rural Ozarkians, who enjoyed her regular columns. Her topics ranged from home and family, including her 1915 trip to San Francisco, California, to visit Rose Lane and the Pan-Pacific exhibition, to World War I and other world events, and to the fascinating world travels of Lane as well as her own thoughts on the increasing options offered to women during this era. While the couple was never wealthy until the "Little House" books began to achieve popularity, the farming operation and Wilder's income from writing and the Farm Loan Association provided them with a stable living.
"[By] 1924", according to the Professor John E. Miller, "[a]fter more than a decade of writing for farm papers, Wilder had become a disciplined writer, able to produce thoughtful, readable prose for a general audience." At this time, her now-married daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, helped her publish two articles describing the interior of the farmhouse, in Country Gentleman magazine.
It was also around this time that Lane began intensively encouraging Wilder to improve her writing skills with a view toward greater success as a writer than Lane had already achieved. The Wilders, according to Miller, had come to "[depend] on annual income subsidies from their increasingly famous and successful daughter." They both had concluded that the solution for improving their retirement income was for Wilder to become a successful writer, herself. However, the "project never proceeded very far."
In 1928, Lane hired out the construction of an English-style stone cottage for her parents on property adjacent to the farmhouse they had personally built and still inhabited. She remodeled and took it over.
Little House books
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped the Wilders out; Lane's investments were devastated as well. They still owned the 200 acre (81 hectare) farm, but they had invested most of their savings with Lane's broker. In 1930, Wilder requested Lane's opinion about an autobiographical manuscript she had written about her pioneering childhood. The Great Depression, coupled with the deaths of Wilder's mother in 1924 and her older sister in 1928, seem to have prompted her to preserve her memories in a life story called Pioneer Girl. She also hoped that her writing would generate some additional income. The original title of the first of the books was When Grandma Was a Little Girl. On the advice of Lane's publisher, she greatly expanded the story. As a result of Lane's publishing connections as a successful writer and after editing by her, Harper & Brothers published Wilder's book in 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods. After its success, she continued writing. The close and often rocky collaboration between her and Lane continued, in person until 1935 when Lane permanently left Rocky Ridge Farm, and afterward by correspondence.
The collaboration worked both ways: two of Lane'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 retold Ingalls and Wilder family tales in an adult format.
Some, including Lane's biographer, Professor William Holtz, have alleged that she was Wilder's ghostwriter. Some others, such as Timothy Abreu of Gush Publishing, argue that Wilder was an "untutored genius", relying on her mainly for some early encouragement and her connections with publishers and literary agents. Still others contend that she took each of Wilder's unpolished rough drafts in hand and completely, but silently, transformed them into the series of books known today. The existing evidence that includes ongoing correspondence between the women about the books' development, Lane's extensive diaries, and Wilder's handwritten manuscripts with edit notations shows an ongoing collaboration between the two women.
Miller, using this record, describes varying levels of involvement by Lane. Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and These Happy Golden Years (1943), he notes, received the least editing. "The first pages ... and other large sections of [Big Woods]", he observes, "stand largely intact, indicating ... from the start ...[Laura's] talent for narrative description." Some volumes saw heavier participation by Lane, while The First Four Years (1971) appears to be exclusively a Wilder work. Concludes Miller, "In the end, the lasting literary legacy remains that of the mother more than that of the daughter ... Lane possessed style; Wilder had substance."
The controversy over authorship is often tied to the movement to read the Little House series through an ideological lens. Lane emerged in the 1930s as an avowed conservative polemicist and critic of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and his New Deal programs. According to a 2012 article in the New Yorker, "When Roosevelt was elected, she noted in her diary, 'America has a dictator.' She prayed for his assassination, and considered doing the job herself." Whatever Lane's politics, "attacks on [Wilder's] authorship seem aimed at infusing her books with ideological passions they just don’t have."
The original Little House books, written for elementary school-age children, became an enduring, eight-volume record of pioneering life late in the 19th century based on the Ingalls family's experiences on the American frontier. The First Four Years, about the early days of the Wilder marriage, was discovered by her literary executor Roger MacBride after Lane's 1968 death and published in 1971, unedited by Lane or MacBride. It is now marketed as the ninth volume.
Since the publication of Little House in the Big Woods (1932), the books have been continuously in print and have been translated into 40 other languages. Wilder's first — and smallest — royalty check from Harper, in 1932, was for $500, equivalent to $8,970 in 2017. 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. 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. Various honors, huge amounts of fan mail, and other accolades were bestowed on Wilder.
Autobiography: Pioneer Girl
In 1929–1930, already in her early 60s, Wilder began writing her autobiography, titled Pioneer Girl. At the time, it was rejected by publishers and was never released. At Lane's urging, she rewrote most of her stories for children. The result was the Little House series of books. In 2014, the South Dakota State Historical Society published an annotated version of Wilder's autobiography, titled Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.
Pioneer Girl includes stories that Wilder felt were inappropriate for children: e.g., a man accidentally immolating himself while drunk, and an incident of extreme violence of a local shopkeeper against his wife, which ended with his setting their house on fire. She also describes previously unknown facets of her father's character. According to its publisher, "Wilder's fiction, her autobiography, and her real childhood are all distinct things, but they are closely intertwined." The book's aim was to explore the differences, including incidents with conflicting or non-existing accounts in one or another of the sources.
Later life and death
Upon Lane's departure from Rocky Ridge Farm, her parents moved back into the farmhouse they had built, which had most recently been occupied by friends. From 1935 on, they were alone at Rocky Ridge Farm. Most of the surrounding area (including the property with the stone cottage Lane had built for them) was sold, but they still kept some farm animals, and tended their flower beds and vegetable gardens. Almost daily, carloads of fans stopped by, eager to meet "Laura" of the Little House books.
The Wilders lived independently and without financial worries until Almanzo's death at the farm in 1949 at age 92. Wilder remained on the farm. For the next eight years, she lived alone, looked after by a circle of neighbors and friends. She continued an active correspondence with her editors, fans, and friends during these years.
In autumn 1956, 89-year-old Wilder was severely ill from undiagnosed diabetes and cardiac issues. She was hospitalized by Lane, who had arrived for Thanksgiving. She was able to return home on the day after Christmas. However, her health declined after her release from the hospital, and she died in her sleep, at home, on February 10, 1957, three days after her 90th birthday. She was buried beside Almanzo at Mansfield Cemetery in Mansfield. Lane was buried next to them upon her death in 1968.
Following Wilder's death, possession of Rocky Ridge Farm passed to the farmer who had earlier bought the property under a life lease arrangement. The local population put together a non-profit corporation to purchase the house and its grounds for use as a museum. After some wariness at the notion of seeing the house rather than the books be a shrine to Wilder, Lane came to believe that making a museum of it would draw long-lasting attention to the books. She donated the money needed to purchase the house and make it a museum, agreed to make significant contributions each year for its upkeep, and gave many of her parents' belongings.
In compliance with Wilder's will, Lane inherited ownership of the Little House literary estate with the stipulation that it be for only her lifetime, with all rights reverting to the Mansfield library after her death. Following that in 1968, her will beneficiary, Roger MacBride, gained control of the books' copyrights. He was like an informally adopted son or grandson to her (one of several younger men with whom she had such a relationship), as well as her business agent and lawyer. All of his actions before Lane's death carried her apparent approval; at her request, the copyrights to each of Wilder's "Little House" books, as well as those of Lane's own literary works, had been renewed in his name when the original copyrights expired, during the decade between Wilder's and Lane's deaths. Nonetheless, many scholars and other readers consider his means of gaining control of the literary estate to have been shady at best, as well as going against Wilder's wishes. His commercialization of the books is also widely considered to have cheapened their literary merit.
Controversy arose following MacBride's death in 1995, when the Laura Ingalls Wilder Branch of the Wright County Library in Mansfield — the library founded in part by Wilder — 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 to Wilder's books. From the settlement, the library received enough to start work on a new building.
The popularity of the Little House books has grown over the years following Wilder's death, spawning a multimillion-dollar franchise of mass merchandising under MacBride's impetus. Results of the franchise have included additional spinoff book series — some written by MacBride and his daughter, Abigail — and the long-running television series, starring Melissa Gilbert as Wilder and Michael Landon as her father.
Because she died in 1957, Wilder's works are now public domain in countries where the term of copyright lasts 50 years after the author's death, or less; generally this does not include works first published posthumously. Works first published before 1923 or where copyright was not renewed, primarily her newspaper columns, are also public domain in the United States.
Little House books
The eight "original" Little House books were published by Harper & Brothers with illustrations by Helen Sewell (the first three) or by Sewell and Mildred Boyle.
Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder (February, 2015) is a one-hour documentary film that looks at the life of Wilder. Wilder's story as a writer, wife, and mother is explored through interviews with scholars and historians, archival photography, paintings by frontier artists, and dramatic reenactments.
Historic sites and museums
Portrayals on screen and stage
Multiple adaptations of Wilder's Little House on the Prairie book series have been produced for screen and stage. In them, the following actresses have portrayed Wilder:
Wilder was five times a runner-up for the annual Newbery Medal, the premier American Library Association (ALA) book award for children's literature. In 1954, the ALA inaugurated a lifetime achievement award for children's writers and illustrators, named for Wilder, of which she was the first recipient. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal recognizes a living author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made "a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children". As of 2013, it has been conferred nineteen times, biennially starting in 2001. In 2018, the award was renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award in light of alleged racist language in Wilder's works which the Association perceived as biased against Native Americans and African Americans.