Born on Feb. 7, 1867, in a little house in the "Big Woods" region of Wisconsin, Laura Ingalls Wilder began a life story that would be studied and celebrated for generations.
The American writer and real-life pioneer girl is best known for her eight children's novels — the "Little House on the Prairie" series — that chronicle Wilder's family's frontier life and westward trek, from a log cabin in Wisconsin to the Great Plains of Kansas to a small town in South Dakota.
While Wilder enjoyed significant financial success and acclaim as an author in her later years, the popularity of her books have endured long after her death. In her 2017 biography, "Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder," historian Caroline Fraser reports that Wilder's stories have gone on to sell over 60 million copies in 45 languages.
Many adults enjoy Wilder's books, but her novels seem to have particular resonance with children. Each "Little House" book made Publishers Weekly's "All-Time Bestselling Children's Books" list. And Fraser notes textbooks used to teach reading have often included "Little House" excerpts for decades, inspiring generations of children to don bonnets and homestead in their backyards.
While Wilder's well-known pioneer story may have reached the status of American myth, many details of her long and fascinating life aren't included in her novels. With that in mind, here are six facts you may not know about Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Wilder didn’t publish her first novel until age 66.
Wilder's career as a novelist started later in life, with the publication of "Little House in the Big Woods" in April of 1932.
Yet by that point, she had written professionally for over two decades, primarily in a biweekly column for a local publication called The Missouri Ruralist. Wilder’s column, titled "As A Farm Woman Thinks," offered musings and practical advice on country living. Wilder shared poems, recipes, money-saving tips and frequently reflected on lessons she learned in childhood.
According to Fraser, "turning out a column every two weeks" taught Wilder to "tell stories, introduce characters and craft dialogue." While these columns don't reflect the maturity of her later writing, they gave Wilder the training she needed to embark on more ambitious storytelling projects.
Scholars debate how much of her books Wilder actually wrote.
Historians agree that the "Little House" series was a product of collaboration between Wilder and her only daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.
As a fairly successful tabloid journalist and celebrity autobiographer herself, Lane encouraged her mother to write and publish her own life story as a means of supplementing the meager income Laura and her husband, Almanzo Wilder, earned from farming.
Wilder agreed, and after assistance from Lane and some rejection, she finally landed a publishing deal. But how much Lane helped is a topic of heated debate.
In 1993, Wilder historian William Holtz argued the "Little House" series was ghostwritten by Lane, saying she "substantially rewrote it, excising parts, writing dramatic themes, changing dialogue."
Yet other Wilder biographers, including Pamela Smith Hill, suggest Lane's contributions and revisions fall completely within the "norm of editors" in that era.
Fraser also concludes that Lane was merely a contributing editor, though she was at times overbearing — as a yellow journalist, Wilder's daughter favored hyperbole and often encouraged her mother to heighten the truth when it would improve the narrative. Yet Fraser describes Wilder’s writing as a product "uniquely her own."
Wilder’s books were historical fiction, not autobiographies.
While Wilder favored historical fact more than her editorial assistant, her novels still don't tell the whole truth.
In comparing the "Little House" novels to Wilder's letters and journals, Fraser points out how Wilder omitted some of the darker chapters of her life. Wilder's series presents a "gilded portrait" of young Laura's life on the prairie.
Wilder describes her older sister Mary losing her her eyesight, her family contracting malaria ("fever 'n' ague") and their scraping by with little food during a bitter Dakota winter.
Yet, according to Fraser, Wilder doesn't mention her younger brother Charles Frederick, who died in infancy, or describe the extent of her family’s financial instability and her Pa's frequent debt. And in her narrative of her early marriage, she also glosses over the stroke that left her husband permanently crippled, a fire that destroyed the young couple's home and the death of her own infant son.
Wilder wanted to convey the hardships of pioneer life, but she kept her novels focused on uplifting lessons for the sake of her young readers, Fraser concludes.
Despite being remembered as frontier settler, Wilder lived most of her life in the American South.
Though Wilder is remembered as a pioneer, she never traveled on the overland trails to Oregon or California.
In her twenties, she moved to Rocky Ridge, a farm in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri, and lived there until her death in 1957 at age 90. At Rocky Ridge, Wilder raised chickens, grew apples, wrote her newspaper column, met with her embroidery circle, founded a women's study group and wrote her novels.
Four of Wilder's novels outside of the "Little House" series were published after her death, compiled from her manuscripts, diaries and letters.
Wilder’s series launched a “Little House” industry, including an anime series.
The success of Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" books launched a host of other media and products.
Perhaps most famously, the series was adapted as one of the longest-running TV series in the 1970s and 80s starring Michael Landon as Pa and Melissa Gilbert as Laura. The program has remained on television for over 40 years and is still in syndication.
Rose Wilder Lane's adopted heir, Roger MacBride, inherited the rights to Wilder's literary estate after Lane's death and wrote his own continuation of the "Little House" series that chronicled Lane's life in the Ozarks.
"Little House" fans who want to further immerse themselves in the settings of Wilder's childhood can visit a network of "Little House" museums and memorials in the sites made famous by her books, including Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.
Or they can attend LauraPalooza, a biennial conference celebrating the legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Wilder traveled the country by wagon train and airplane.
Over the course of her lifetime, Wilder traveled the country by wagon, automobile, train and airplane.
In her 90 years, she observed an astounding breadth of technological progress while also witnessing the Great Depression and the first and second world wars.
As Fraser notes, Laura Ingalls Wilder was a real person who immortalized "the story of an era."