Searching for the real Laura Ingalls Wilder

Rose Wilder Lane
Rose Wilder Lane

One of the hidden gems at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum are the papers of Rose Wilder Lane, which document the extraordinary lives of Rose and her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Laura’s Little House books are a fictionalized account of her childhood, but they contain many charming and vivid descriptions of pioneer life in the 1870s and 1880s that have captivated young readers for generations.  Scholars and fans from around the world visit the Library to learn more about the “real” Laura behind the beloved children’s books.

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born February 7, 1867 to Charles and Caroline Ingalls, in a log cabin seven miles north of Pepin, Wisconsin.  In 1869, the family moved to Missouri to take possession of land Charles had sight unseen, but they stayed only a few months before moving on to Kansas.  Charles hoped to be one of the first to lay claim to land that belonged to the Osage, and he built a cabin on Osage land 12 miles from Independence, Kansas.  Negotiations between the Osage and the federal government dragged on, and Ingalls chose to leave to avoid being forced off the land for squatting.  The family stories about their brief residency in Kansas later became the basis of Laura’s second novel, Little House on the Prairie.

The Ingalls family returned to their cabin in Wisconsin (the buyer had defaulted on the mortgage) and lived there for three years.  Laura’s memories of daily life in Wisconsin became the basis of her first book, Little House in the Big Woods.  In 1874, Charles bought a small farm near Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where the family moved into a dugout in a creek bank until Charles could build a house.  Laura’s fourth novel, On the Banks of Plum Creek, recounted the hopes the family placed on harvesting a profitable wheat crop, which was destroyed by grasshoppers.

The family struggled financially and moved frequently over the next few years, episodes Laura left out of the Little House books.  Her fifth novel, By the Shores of Silver Lake, picked up in 1879, when the family followed Charles to Dakota Territory where he worked as a bookkeeper at a railroad construction camp.  Charles laid claim to land near the future town of DeSmet, South Dakota.  Laura’s next three novels, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy, Golden Years recall her teenage years, working on the claim and in town, attending and teaching school, and eventually meeting and marrying her husband, Almanzo Wilder.

Laura intended the Little House series to end with her marriage but was persuaded to draft a final novel, The First Four Years, which chronicled the first years of her adult life.  It was not published until 14 years after her death.

Laura and Almanzo Wilder in Florida, ca. 1892.
Laura and Almanzo Wilder in Florida, ca. 1892.

After years of tragedy and hardship, Laura and Almanzo moved to Mansfield, Missouri in 1894, where they bought a farm.  For forty years they struggled to make ends meet, until Laura began making handsome royalties from her Little House books.  During her lifetime, Laura insisted that her novels were entirely true, a claim that was accepted by many of her readers.  Over the last 50 years, research has uncovered the extent to which Laura, with the help of her daughter Rose, recast her memories into charming stories for children, and adapted the messy facts of her real life into compelling historical fiction.

The Rose Wilder Lane Papers contain about 8000 pages of material concerning her mother and the Little House series, primarily correspondence and drafts of Laura’s books.  You may view a complete description of the Rose Wilder Lane Papers on our website at https://hoover.archives.gov/research/collections/manuscriptfindingaids/lane.  If you would like more information, or to order scans of documents in the Rose Wilder Lane Papers, email hoover.library@nara.gov.

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