10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie

Jennifer Johnson - December 16, 2017

Laura Ingalls Wilder is known as the author of the “Little House” children’s book series. She is also widely known as one of the main characters from the 1970s and 1980s television show Little House on the Prairie, where she was portrayed by Melissa Gilbert. Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867, outside of Pepin, Wisconsin. She joined her parents, Charles and Caroline, along with her older sister, Mary. Later, the family would be joined by two other daughters, Carrie and Grace, and a son, Charles Jr., who would die at the age of 9 months.

As the books and television series show, Laura lived the life of a pioneer girl. As a child, Laura and her family moved throughout the Midwest several times. Besides Walnut Grove, Minnesota, which is the location of the television series, they lived in Iowa, Kansas, and the Dakotas. While Laura said the books spoke the complete truth of her life, there is a lot of speculation that she fabricated some of her stories. Furthermore, the Little House on the Prairie television series, which is still popular today, left out a lot of facts about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Here are ten real-life facts about Laura and her Prairie.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder and Melissa Gilbert, littlehouseontheprairie.com
10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie
The real Caroline “Ma” and Charles “Pa” Ingalls, littlehouseontheprairie.com

Pioneer Girl

Laura’s first attempt at publishing was her autobiography titled Pioneer Girl, and while the book was rejected by publishers, there is no better title to explain the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. While she was growing up, the Ingalls family moved throughout the Midwest. They first moved from Wisconsin to Chariton County, Missouri in 1869 but by 1870, they were living near Independence, Kansas, where they spent a year. According to the Federal Census of 1870, “the Lands belonged to the Osage Indians and the settlers had no title for said lands.”

After Laura’s younger sister, Carrie, was born the family was evicted from their land in Kansas. They headed back to Wisconsin, where they stayed for about three years. This is one of the first fictional areas in a couple of Laura’s “Little House” books. In reality, Laura lived in Kansas from the ages of two to four and in Wisconsin from the ages of four to seven. However, in her book, Little House in the Big Woods, she was aged four to five and six to seven in Little House on the Prairie.

Another difference between the books and Laura’s pioneer life is moving to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. In the book, On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura writes they moved to Minnesota from Kansas. However, they moved there from Wisconsin. It was in Walnut Grove where they lived in a dugout through the first winter. In the Little House on the Prairie television series, Laura grows up in Walnut Grove. But in real life, the family only lived there through two failed crops before they relocated to Burr Oak, Iowa.

It was on their way to Iowa when Laura’s only brother, Charles Jr., was born on November 1, 1875, and died on August 27, 1876. Instead of farming, Charles and his family helped run a hotel in Iowa. The family also welcomed the youngest member of the Ingalls clan, Grace, who came into this world on May 23, 1877. Once again, the family would move back to Walnut Grove, where Charles became the justice of the peace and worked as a butcher. However, their second time here would be shorter than the first time.

In 1879, Laura and her family would move to De Smet, which was at the time located in Dakota Territory. Laura, who married Almanzo in 1885, would stay in the De Smet area until between 1890 and 1891. It was then they moved to Minnesota and then to Florida to seek help for Almanzo’s health. They would return to De Smet in 1892, but only for a couple of years. In July of 1894, Laura and her family would move to their final home. Rocky Ridge Farm was purchased by the family in August of 1894 and this is where Laura and Almanzo lived out their lives.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder, mprnews.org

A Young Teacher

Education was always an important topic for the Ingalls family, whether it was on-screen or written, or in real life. Laura’s mother, Caroline, was a school teacher when she met Charles. Caroline was also known to teach her own daughters at home. Usually, this occurred because the family moved around so much but not always. According to Laura’s autobiography, which was finally published in 2014, Caroline would pull the girls out of school if necessary. For example, Laura wrote about not being able to memorize her multiplication tables so Caroline pulled her out of school and she learned them at home.

When it came to Laura’s father, Charles, he supported education in and outside of the home. Both the television series and Laura’s memoirs show Charles telling Laura that she is lucky she knows how to read and write as not everyone gets that privilege. Outside of the home, Charles served on the school board in De Smet. The support from Laura’s parents was not a waste and Laura took the exam to become a school teacher at 15 years old. While all “Little House” sources show Laura becoming a young school teacher, the reason why differ.

In the Little House on the Prairie television series, Laura falls in love with a visiting Almanzo Wilder and wants to marry him. However, both Charles and Almanzo feel Laura is too young, so in an effort to prove that she is not too young, she takes the teacher’s exam. She passes the exam and becomes the next Walnut Grove school teacher. In real life, falling in love had nothing to do with Laura taking the teacher’s examination before high school graduation.

One of the main reasons Laura decided to become a school teacher was due to finances. Laura’s family had always been the poor, struggling pioneers and their time in De Smet was no exception. Because of Laura’s enthusiasm for education, she knew her family would benefit from her teacher’s salary. A teenage Laura received her first teaching job at the Bouchie School, which was about 12 miles from her home. Laura was able to come home on weekends, thanks to Almanzo Wilder.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie
Charles Ingalls Family, minnesotasnewscounty.com

Brutal Winter

One of the books in the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” book series is called The Long Winter. This book details one of the most brutal winters Laura and her family ever faced. In fact, it was one of the most brutal winters in the history of the Dakotas. It was the winter of 1880-1881 and there are several sources that support Laura’s description of this harsh winter. Letters are one type of source, specifically a letter written by Eliza Jane Wilder, one of Laura’s school teachers and sister-in-law, to the land commissioner.

Eliza’s letter discusses how many families had frozen to death during the first blizzard. Laura’s memoirs also describe this brutal winter with the start of the first blizzard, which lasted three days. This blizzard occurred during October of 1880 and kept the trains with supplies away from the area. While the trains were able to run off and on between October to December, blizzards continue to follow. It was in December that the railroad decided to halt supplies to De Smet. By this point, the snow piles were up to 12 feet and too high for trains to get through.

Because of the lack of supplies, nearly continuous snowstorms, and the bitter cold starvation set in quickly. Laura remembered the grocery store ran out of food by the end of December. Laura and her family ran out of supplies for a fire so they started to twist straw and used axle grease for warmth and cooking. Over time, the Ingalls ran out of flour to make bread and their supply of food kept diminishing. Laura remembered cutting down to two meals a day. She also wrote about how Charles was growing thin and his eyes looked funny.

In February, the family started looking forward to March as that meant Spring. This also meant the train would be able to bring supplies. However, the blizzards continued through March. Laura wrote about how there was even snowing in April. To Laura, her family, and other settlers, it felt like winter would never end. Thankfully, the snow did end and the warmth came. At the beginning of May, Laura and everyone else rejoiced with the sight of the first train since December. The supply train was packed full of ingredients to make food and Caroline couldn’t wait to give her family a belated Christmas meal.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie
Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls, littlehouseonetheprairie.com

Laura’s Sister, Mary

Whether you read Laura’s memoirs or watched the television series, you know that Laura’s older sister, Mary, went blind. In her book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura states Mary had Scarlet Fever. It was that year, in Mary’s early teens, that she went blind. In real life, while Mary did endure Scarlet Fever, it was not in 1879 when she lost her eyesight. Mary was actually much younger when she became ill with Scarlet Fever. While Mary did become ill the same year she lost her eyesight, Laura’s autobiography does not state the cause was Scarlet Fever.

While no one is 100 percent sure what happened to cause Mary to lose her eyesight, we do know it was some sort of illness, but not Scarlet Fever. The year the book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, was published, Laura wrote a letter to her daughter, Rose, discussing the incident. While Laura did not specifically state the reason, she did tell Rose it had to do with some type of spinal illness. Laura further wrote to Rose that Mary saw a specialist in Chicago, who informed the family there was no hope as the nerves in the eyes were paralyzed.

Some sources claim that Mary suffered a stroke, which caused her to lose her eyesight. Whatever the cause is, today doctors have looked into the reason why Mary lost her eyesight and claim that Scarlet Fever could not be the reason. One doctor states that in Laura’s autobiography, Prairie Girl, she does not say that Mary got a rash the year she lost her eyesight. One sure sign of Scarlet Fever is a rash, which means if Mary did not have a rash, she did not have Scarlet Fever. No matter the reasoning, one thing the books, television series, and Laura’s real-life agree on is that Mary did go to blind school.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie
Laura and Almanzo, mprnews.org

Laura and Almanzo

Almanzo Wilder was the reason Laura Ingalls was able to go home from her job as a teacher every weekend. While Laura, at first, thought Almanzo was just doing Charles a favor by driving her back and forth, within three years the two married. Laura was 18 years old when she became Laura Ingalls Wilder on August 25, 1885. A little over a year later, on December 5, 1886, their daughter Rose was born. Unfortunately, for the Wilder’s their first decade of marriage was filled with struggles and heartache.

Because Almanzo was the son of a successful farmer, he felt more pressure to succeed on his own as a farmer. However, with every turn the Wilder’s made with farming in De Smet, defeat followed. Laura had quit her teaching job so she could focus on raising a family and helping Almanzo farm. The couple had little money coming in as their crops kept failing. In the summer of 1889, Laura gave birth to a son, who passed away just one month later.

Not too long after the couple lost their son, tragedy struck the home of the Wilder’s again as Almanzo became partially paralyzed. Sources do not 100 percent agree on how he became paralyzed. Some say he suffered a stroke while others say he contracted diphtheria. Whatever the case is, we do know that Almanzo limped and was not as strong as he once had been, which affected the farming. Unfortunately, this was not the end of the troubles for the young pioneer family.

The family also suffered through a drought, financial hardship, and ended up losing their home to a fire in 1890. After four years of moving from state to state, including Minnesota, Florida, and back to South Dakota, they settled on Missouri for a fresh start. In 1894, Laura and Almanzo Wilder, with their daughter Rose, settled in Mansfield, Missouri, after giving a down payment of $100 for a 200-acre farm. It was here that Almanzo became the farmer he wanted to be as they built their own farmhouse, did all their own farm work, and raised livestock.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie
Rose Wilder Lane as a child, fanpop.com

Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder was the only living child of Laura and Almanzo Wilder. Rose was known to be an independent child. The story goes that in the picture above, the photographer wanted Rose to hide her ring so he placed her one hand on top of the ring. However, Rose loved the ring and wanted people to see it so she switched her hands. When the photographer saw this, he went back and replaced Rose’s other hand over the ring. The story goes that this went on for a while until, at the last minute, Rose switched her hands so the ring was showing in the picture.

Like her mother Rose loved school. She went to grade school in Mansfield, Missouri. For her high school years, Rose went to California where she lived with her aunt, Eliza Jane Wilder Thayer. Once she graduated, she briefly went back to Mansfield, Missouri in 1904, but did not stay long. Soon after, Rose ended up moving to Kansas City where she became a telegrapher until 1909 when she moved to San Francisco. Following in her mother’s footsteps, she obtained a writing position for the San Francisco Call.

It was in San Francisco that Rose married Gillette Lane and started a family. Unfortunately, Rose and Gillette would walk the same steps Rose’s parents did and their only child, a son, did not live. Throughout their marriage, Rose continued to write for the newspaper, the San Francisco Bulletin. She would write articles about people like Charlie Chaplin with some of her stories being published into books. She also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, titled Diverging Roads. Marriage for the Lanes would not last as in 1918, Rose and Gillette divorced. Rose continued to live and write in California until she became concerned about her parents’ failing health, and moved back to Rocky Ridge in 1928.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie
Laura and a group of people at Rocky Ridge Farm, oldphotoarchive.com

Life on Rocky Ridge Farm

Today, you can go see the Wilder home, Rocky Ridge Farm, as it remains the same it did when Laura Ingalls Wilder passed away in 1957. When you visit today, you cannot see the trails, joys, and struggles the family faced while they were building their home. You also cannot see the time it took for the Wilder family to build their beloved farm. Total, it took Laura and Almanzo about 20 years to get their Rocky Ridge home the way they always dreamed it would be. While you cannot see all these parts of the past, you can see what Laura and Almanzo Wilder built through these struggles and joys.

As stated before, the Wilder’s moved to Mansfield, Missouri for a fresh start in 1894. They purchased land outside of the city to build their new home. While the house was being built, the family lived in the town of Mansfield and Almanzo traveled to and from the farm every day. Eventually, a small one-bedroom log cabin was built on the land and the family moved out to the farm and stayed in the log cabin until the farmhouse was completed in 1913.

Along with the farmhouse, the family planted several apple orchard trees and a place for Almanzo’s horses. Once the house was built, it became the center of Laura’s life. Laura excelled at her life at Rocky Ridge farm, inside and outside the home. She loved being a wife and mom, who cooked and took care of the household duties. She also loved being outside of the home, not only working on the farm but also as an activist and serving on community boards, such as the Mansfield Farmers Loan Association, which processed more than a million dollars in government loans.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder, time.com

An Author is Born

Contrary to what many people believe, Laura did not start writing her “Little House” book series until later in life. That is if you believe Laura herself wrote it. Many people believe, and some speculate, that Rose had a big hand in writing the “Little House” books. While it is certain that Rose was an editor for her mother’s books, it is not certain that she wrote the series. No matter who it was, we do know is the “Little House” series is still popular and that while there were some revisions, Laura took most of the book from her memory and the memories of her relatives.

Laura’s writing career began in Mansfield, Missouri, but not with the “Little House” books. At first, she wrote articles for magazines and for the Missouri Ruralist, where she served as a columnist and Home Editor. In the 1930’s Laura wrote her first book, her autobiography, Pioneer Girl. However, she was able to find a publicist, so with the help of her daughter, she rewrote her journey. In its new form, her autobiography was titled Little House in the Big Woods, which was published in 1932 and became a success.

After the first book, people started begging Laura to write more stories about Mary and Laura, thus the “Little House” series was born. Finishing up the 1930s, Laura wrote five more books in the “Little House” series with all but one of the Little House series books published by the mid-1940s. The last one, the ninth book, to be published happened after Laura’s and Rose’s deaths. The First Four Years was published in 1971 and discusses the early years of Laura and Almanzo’s marriage. It was found after Laura’s death and published in its original form.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie
Pioneer Girl, amazon.com

The Books and the Truth

No matter how much you love the books, there is no denying that the “Little House” series tends to hide and stretch the truths in Laura’s life. While Laura Ingalls Wilder herself said that the books are complete truth, today we know this is not true. In a letter, Rose once spoke of the change Laura had to make in a book, such as her age in her first two books. The publishers felt Laura being so young at the time, she would not remember the stories, so to make the memoirs seem more believable to the readers, Laura made herself a year or so older.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. If you have read the books or watched the television series, you remember the character, Nellie Oleson. Nellie Oleson was that character who tormented nearly everyone who crossed her path, especially Laura. But in Laura’s real life, Nellie is actually made up of three different people, each who had their own unpleasant run-in with Laura. The three people who are believed to make up Nellie are Genevieve Masters, Nellie Owens, and Stella Gilbert.

And now, with the newly published autobiography, Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder fans can read for themselves the truth behind the “Little House” book series. Pioneer Girl looks to be more blunt, honest, and not completely made for the eyes and ears of children novel. The autobiography looks at horrible details of Laura witnessing domestic abuse because of her neighbors and how Charles once snuck the family out-of-town in the middle of the night due to unpaid rent.

Keep in mind, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography is not meant to portray any character in a negative light. It is meant to bring the truth of Laura’s world to the fingertips of her readers. This book is meant to bring the truth out in a history that so many people around the world have loved for decades. Finally, it is meant to make people feel closer to Laura Ingalls Wilder as no life and no one is perfect.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Real Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder, nysoclib.org

The Heir

Even though Rose Wilder Lane and her husband, Gillette Lane, of a few years did not have any living children of their own, Laura Ingalls Wilder had a heir she never met. In her later years, Rose Wilder Lane met a young man named Roger Lea MacBride, who would become an important individual in the “Little House” franchise. Professionally, MacBride would become Rose’s lawyer, literary agent, and political disciple. Personally, MacBride and Lane would become as close as family. Roger would become the “adopted grandson” of Rose Wilder Lane and go on to inherit the “Little House” fortune after the death of Rose Wilder Lane.

The childless Rose Wilder Lane passed way in 1968 of heart failure and left Roger Lea MacBride as the guardian of the “Little House” series. Roger would also inherit the rights to the hit television series Little House on the Prairie in the 1970s as he also helped develop the show. On the television show, Roger became a co-producer. Roger is also the author of additional Little House books, including These Happy Golden Years. Furthermore, Roger also wrote the Rocky Ridge Years or The Rose Years which is an eight-book series of children’s books that describe Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane’s, childhood in Missouri. All of these books were written in the 1990s.

Roger Lea MacBride was born on August 6, 1929, and grew up to become a politician, along with taking guardianship and growing the “Little House” franchise. In 1976, MacBride became a presidential nominee under the Libertarian Party. MacBride also became the first presidential elector in United States history to cast a vote for a woman, Theodora Nathan, who was running for Vice President in the 1972 election under the Libertarian Party. In the 1980s, Roger joined the Republican Party and helped establish the Republican Liberty Caucus, which he chaired from 1992 until his death.


Sources For Further Reading:

Smithsonian Magazine – ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Author’s Autobiography Published for First Time Ever

The Irish Times – Hard truths behind Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie

Publishers Weekly – 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Laura Ingalls Wilder

PBS – Until She Was An Author, Money Was A Struggle For Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder Home – Laura’s Life on Rocky Ridge Farm

Wide Open Country – ‘Little House’ Love Story of Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder

Land – Reflections on “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Wikipedia – Roger Lea MacBride

New York Time Magazine – Roger MacBride, 65, Libertarian And ‘Little House’ Heir, Is Dead