Laura Ingalls Wilder

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:

Oh, come to this country,
And don’t you feel alarm,
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give us all a farm!

By the Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York and London, Harper & Brothers, 1939.

Uncle Sam’s Farm, as performed by John Selleck on October 2, 1939. California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties. American Folklife Center.

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. The image is from the Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures CollectionExternal, which includes images of many families similar to the Ingalls who pioneered the settlement of the Dakota Territory. This collection is included in the online presentation, Digital Horizons: Life on the Northern PlainsExternal.

Building for the FutureExternal. [Ole I. Gjevre Family], Osnabrock, North Dakota, circa 190? Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures CollectionExternal. North Dakota State University Libraries, Institute for Regional Studies

“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.”

By the Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York and London, Harper & Brothers, 1939.

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 Traveller” [and] “Irish Washerwoman”…Pa and Mr. Edwards and Laura sang with all their might.

“Git out of the way for old Dan Tucker!
He’s too late to get his supper!”

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York and London, Harper & Broters, 1935.

Pa and Ma always managed to create a happy, secure home 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.

Digging Out After the Big Blizzard, Milton, North Dakota, 1893External. John McCarthy, photographer. Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures CollectionExternal. North Dakota State University Libraries, Institute for Regional Studies

The family endured many hardships. In Minnesota their farm was devastated by a plague of grasshoppers. Like many other pioneer families, the Ingalls family 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. 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 surviving child, Rose.

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.

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York, London: Harper & Brothers, 1932

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.

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York, London: Harper & Brothers, 1932

“Pop Goes the Weasel”, performed by Henry Reed at the family home in Glen Lyn, Giles County, Virginia on June 18, 1966. Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection. American Folklife Center.

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