The Real People Behind ‘Little House On The Prairie’
Little House on the Prairie has a special place in the hearts of Americans and many others around the world. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories, based on her real-life experience of growing up amid the hardships of the Midwest during the late 19th century, have struck a chord with generations of readers and viewers around the world.
Though the book series and the popular TV show based on it are fictional, they draw heavily on author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s real life and family.
Take a look at these photos of the people behind the timeless stories…
Charles and Caroline Ingalls, the original “Ma” and “Pa” from Little House on the Prairie, on their wedding day on February 1, 1860.
Charles was born in 1836 and spent the majority of his youth in the tallgrass prairie of Campton Township, just west of Elgin, Illinois. He met and quickly married a 21-year old Caroline Lake Quiner, who was working as a schoolteacher at the time, and they made a home in Pepin County, Wisconsin. They had their first daughter, Mary Amelia, in January, 1865, followed by the birth of Laura in February, 1867. Despite being a high-spirited, outgoing man, Charles wasn’t much for people, and he had an insatiable wanderlust. In 1869, before Laura was two years old, he packed up the family and moved to Missouri, then to a town near what is now Independence, Kansas, where their third daughter, Carrie, would be born in 1870.
From left to right: Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls around 1882. Mary had lost her sight three years earlier.
The young family would soon realize that the Kansas land wasn’t open to settlers, so over the next few years, they spent time in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. Grace Pearl was born in May, 1877, and the family was struggling to make ends meet. In 1879, Charles accepted a job as a clerk and bookkeeper with the railroad in Dakota Territory, which sparked the move to the town of De Smet in 1880. The following winter’s terrible storms and conditions would be the basis for the novel, The Long Winter.
Laura in 1884 at age 17
Laura quickly got involved with life in the newly-formed (and growing) town of De Smet. She attended school, made friends, and obtained her teaching certificate, which enabled her to begin teaching in 1882, a full two months before her 16th birthday!
At the same time, she began courting Almanzo Wilder, a young homesteader whom she called “Manly”. Though 10 years her senior, Almanzo fell deeply in love with Laura and would drive her back and forth between De Smet and the town where se was teaching 12 miles away. They married in 1885 and settled on the Wilder’s claim and began their life as farmers.
Laura and Almanzo in their first year of marriage, likely 1885 or 1886.
From left to right: Caroline (“Ma”), Carrie, Laura, Charles (“Pa”), Grace, and Mary.
The family took 1890 and 1891 to rest and recover, and the photos from a studio session in 1891 shows that Laura was of good health and vitality at the end of her rest.
This early 1891 portrait of Laura captures that she had returned to good health. Almanzo still was struggling, but Laura helped them continue work, and they kept their ears to the ground for new opportunities.
Portrait of Laura and Almanzo, 1891
In October, 1891, Laura, Almanzo, and a young Rose traveled to Florida in hopes that the warm weather would be better for Almanzo’s health and farming. You can tell from the photo above that Laura certainly didn’t love it; indeed, she could barely tolerate the humidity and weather, and the family moved back to De Smet, South Dakota in August 1892.
A young Laura Ingalls Wilder on the porch of her rented home in Mansfield, Missouri around 1898.
After a short time back in De Smet after the disastrous trip to Florida, the family quickly made way to Mansfield, Missouri by covered wagon. Almanzo put a $100 down payment to buy 40 acres of hilly, rocky land that Laura would name “Rocky Ridge Farm”. This farm would eventually be expanded and serve as the couple’s home for the rest of their lives.
Laura Ingalls Wilder in the ravine at Rocky Ridge Farm in 1900 at the age of 33.
Laura and Almanzo quickly planted 400 apple trees on the farm, but they took seven years to bear fruit. The family sustained itself by hauling wagon loads and selling firewood in Mansfield. Almanzo’s parents also chipped in by renting a home in Mansfield and then buying and giving their son the deed. They would live in this small house until 1910, when they moved to Rocky Ridge and built their farmhouse.
An Early View of Their Rocky Ridge Home