On February 7, 1867, Laura Ingalls Wilder was born near Pepin, WI. She grew up to chronicle her pioneer life in the hit “Little House” series, that has, to date, sold close to 60 million copies in 33 languages. Her children’s books later inspired the popular TV show, “Little House on the Prairie.” Wilder’s success as an author was the product of the same grit that allowed her to create a life for herself, and her family, on the harsh American frontier.
Wilder’s family moved multiple times before settling in Desmet, SD in 1879. Living in everything from log cabins and sod houses to frame houses, the family traveled via covered wagon in search of a better life and the American Dream. Their time in Walnut Grove, MN became the inspiration for the setting of Wilder’s novels.
At 15 years old, Wilder started working as a teacher 12 miles away from the family home. She worked as a teacher for three years, and during that period, she fell in love with her future husband, Almanzo Wilder, who often drove her. The couple waited until 1885, when she turned the respectable age of 18, to marry. They had their daughter, Rose, a year later.
During the first decade of marriage, Laura and Almanzo endured much tragedy. Their infant son died. Then, their crops were destroyed by drought and hail. Their house burned down and then Almanzo had a stroke, brought on by diphtheria, which left him paralyzed. For four years, the family lived like refugees, drifting from makeshift homes in the Midwest and they briefly lived in the Florida panhandle. They finally settled on a 200-acre farm in the Ozark Mountains, near Mansfield, MO.
In the 1910s, Wilder was encouraged by Rose, who had become a successful journalist in San Francisco, to write about her experiences growing up on the frontier. Her first attempt, an autobiography called “The Pioneer Girl,” was rejected by publishers. She revised the book by changing it from first to third person and gave it a new title. Her first book, “Little House in the Big Woods” was published in 1932 and was both a critical and commercial success. The third installment in the eight-book series, “Little House on the Prairie,” is the most well-known. Chronicling the Ingalls’ migration from Wisconsin to Kansas, it also became the title of the TV series that aired from 1974 to 1982, starring Melissa Gilbert.
Wilder died in 1957 at 90 years old. We can thank her for immortalizing the late-19th-century homesteader experience. Much like the Wilders and the Ingalls, many other pioneers endured countless physical and emotional hardships to achieve the American Dream. These hardscrabble frontier experiences helped shape the American identity.