On February 7, 1867, Laura Elizabeth Ingalls, the author of the beloved semiautobiographical Little House series, was born in Wisconsin, the second daughter of Charles and Caroline Ingalls. The basic facts of her life correspond to those related in her books about her family’s experiences on the American frontier during the 1870s and 1880s.
On every side now the prairie stretched away empty to a far, clear skyline. The wind never stopped blowing, waving the tall prairie grasses…And all the afternoon, while Pa kept driving onward, he was merrily whistling or singing. The song he sang oftenest was:
Laura Ingalls Wilder, By the Shores of Silver Lake
The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920: Photographs from the Fred Hultstrand and F. A. Pazandak Photographs Collections External contains many images of families similar to the Ingalls who pioneered the settlement of the Dakota Territory. The image below is reminiscent of Pa Ingalls and his four girls, Mary, Laura, Carrie, and baby Grace. Laura’s three sisters, her parents, “Ma” and “Pa,” their good dog Jack, her school friends in the little town on the prairie, and her courtship and marriage to Almanzo Wilder are all well known to her readers.
“This country’s going to be covered with trees,” Pa said. “Don’t forget that Uncle Sam’s tending to that. There’s a tree claim on every section, and settlers have got to plant ten acres of trees on every tree claim. In four or five years you’ll see trees every way you look.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder, By the Shores of Silver Lake
As they traveled further west by covered wagon and by the newly-laid Great Northern Railroad, the Ingalls family was enlivened by Pa’s sense of fun, his twinkling blue eyes, and his cheerful fiddle music while they were steadied by Ma’s gentle counsel, ladylike ways, and her provision of simple comforts.
Mr. Edwards rose up on one elbow, then he sat up, then he jumped up and he danced. He danced like a jumping-jack in the moonlight, while Pa’s fiddle kept on rollicking…Pa didn’t stop playing. He played…“Arkansas Traveler” [and] “Irish Washerwoman”…Pa and Mr. Edwards and Laura sang with all their might.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie
Pa and Ma always managed to create a happy, secure wherever they lived–whether in the little log cabin in the woods near Lake Pepin, Wisconsin, on the prairie near the Verdigris River in Indian Territory, the sod dugout by Plum Creek in Minnesota, the surveyor’s house on Silver Lake, the homestead shanty on the claim, or in Pa’s house in the brand-new town of De Smet in Dakota Territory.
The family endured many hardships. In Minnesota their farm was devastated by a plague of grasshoppers. Like many other pioneer families, the Ingalls experienced the tragic death of a young child, Laura’s only brother. They survived the hard winters of frequent heavy blizzards in the Dakota Territory, including a storm which snowed-in freight trains and cut off De Smet’s food supply. Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland braved the heavy snows to bring back a supply of wheat for the town.
After several years of regular education, Laura became a schoolteacher. During her first winter teaching, Almanzo Wilder began calling for Laura to take her home each weekend so that she could be with her family, and he could spend time in her company. Almanzo’s and Laura’s sedate and happy courtship took place, for the most part, in a sleigh or a buggy behind his beautiful matched horses, Lady and Prince.
Almanzo’s and Laura’s sedate and happy courtship took place, for the most part, in a sleigh or a buggy behind his beautiful matched horses, Lady and Prince. Laura’s longtime rival, Nellie Oleson, wished that she could occupy Laura’s place in the buggy, but Almanzo preferred Laura.
Almanzo’s mother’s threat to come out West to arrange a big church wedding prompted the young couple to marry in haste in a simple manner. Following their wedding, that same evening, they moved into the little house on the tree claim that Almanzo had built for Laura.
After several difficult years, marked by illness, the death of an infant, and the loss of their home to fire and their crops to drought, the Wilders migrated to a new home near Mansfield, Missouri. At Rocky Ridge Farm, they were able to live comfortably and to raise their one surviving child.
When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”
“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”
But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods,…
She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.
Laura Ingalls Wilder,
Little House in the Big Woods
In 1930, with the encouragement and editorial assistance of her daughter, journalist Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing down her memories of her earlier life on the American frontier. She had previously written columns about farmers’ interests for the Missouri Ruralist, and a few articles for McCall’s and Country Gentleman. Wilder published her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, at the age of sixty-five. It received immediate popular and critical acclaim, and she followed that first book with a succession of novels about the days of long ago.
For a special birthday treat, Pa played “Pop Goes the Weasel” for her. He sat with Laura and Mary close against his knees while he played. “Now watch,” he said. “Watch, and maybe you can see the weasel pop out this time”…Laura and Mary bent close, watching, for they knew now was the time. “Pop! (said Pa’s finger on the string) Goes the weasel! (sang the fiddle, plain as plain.)” But Laura and Mary hadn’t seen Pa’s finger make the string pop. “Oh, please, please, do it again!” they begged him.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods
“Pop Goes the Weasel”, Henry Reed, fiddler, June 18, 1966. Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection
- Search the collections Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection and California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell on fiddle to find more audio recordings of fiddlers playing the same songs Pa played.
- Search on keywords such as sod house, homestead, buggy, wheat, and blizzard in The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920: Photographs from the Fred Hultstrand and F. A. Pazandak Photographs Collections External, or browse the subject index of the collection.
- Search American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 on similar keywords to find more stories of pioneers. The collection includes an interview with Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.
- These collections also contain narratives of settlers of the West:
- Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910
- “California as I Saw It”: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900
- The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.
- Prairie Settlement 1862-1912: Nebraska Settlement and Family Letters
- Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian External
- Search on the keyword grasshopper in the collection America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI , ca. 1935-1945 to find more pictures of the crop damage done by this pest. Search on North Dakota to see various images including a sod post office and a general store.
- Read the Today in History pages on the Homestead Act and the Erie Canal, both instrumental in the settlement of the West, or search the Today in History on the names of states such as Minnesota, Kansas, or the Dakotas.