“Little House on the Prairie” was written on tablets
Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in the woods of Western Wisconsin on February 7, 1867. She was the second of five children, and the daughter of Charles and Caroline. Her childhood would serve as the basis for her impressive and highly influential series of books, “Little House on the Prairie.”
While “Little House” inspired a generation of readers and went on to become one of the most successful television shows of the ’70s and ’80s, the stories told by Wilder were anything but fiction. When she first penned her experiences in “Pioneer Girl” in 1930, she filled six Big Chief tablets and her story spanned from ages two through 18. This is the true story of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Homesteading on illegal land
Wilder’s first fiction based book was “Little House in the Big Woods,” published in 1932. The book takes place between 1873–1874. Though Wilder was only two years old when her family moved to land on an Indian Reservation in Kansas, her books depicted her as a six or seven year old.
The book quite correctly depicts Wilder and her family on the Osage Reservation, and while they initially believed they were Homesteading — taking advantage of land granted by the government— instead, they were actually squatting. The Osage Indians soon became hostile, and they weren’t the only thing that threatened all of their lives.
Wolves at the door
“One night, Pa picked me up out of bed,” Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl, “…and carried me to the window so I could see the wolves.” There they were, sitting in a “…ring around the house, with their noses pointed up at the big, bright moon, howling as loud and long as they could.”
If that sounds scary, that’s because it was…especially considering this passage fails to mention that their home had no windows. Their dog Jack growled and paced the floor while they kept him inside. The next day, Pa went to town (forty miles away) and came back with glass for a window and lumber to construct a proper door.
Wilder saved by the Doctor
In “Little House on the Prairie,” the entire family is hit with malaria, and that was a depiction of a truly terrifying event in Wilder’s life. Even Pa, Wilder’s tireless father, was struck with the disease and was in such bad shape he could barely bring her a glass of water.
But one time, she woke from her sleep to find a “black man looking at me.” It was the first time she ever saw an African American, and while it alarmed her at first, her fears were soon put to bed. The doctor raised her head and poured medicine in her mouth. Within days of his visit, their entire family was on the mend.
A dark menace in the trees
While the family was still in Kansas, a great many events took place. The doctor Wilder had initially been startled by returned to their home. This time, he helped her mother deliver a baby, which they named Carrie. Shortly after, a thick smoke appeared like fog…and then it got thicker.
Through the smoke, Pa thought he heard someone call for help, so he went out into the night. He walked toward the creek where the trees were thick, and then heard the terrifying scream of a panther. He came back on the run as he commented: “I should say I did run!” After, he ordered his girls to never go down by the creek alone again.
Hostile natives approach
The Wilder family was not in a good situation in Kansas, as they were on land that belonged to the Osage tribe. The Native Americans visited frequently and seemed to take a liking to the family’s horses. When they came around Wilder’s parents, they usually gave them things to keep them happy, but soon they turned hostile.
First, they started “stealing Pa’s tobacco,” then his pipe, and later, the family’s meat. Then they came closer and camped next to a nearby creek. Wilder remembered that, “…in the night we would hear the most frightful shouting and screaming.” Fortunately, Wilder wrote that they were afraid of the family dog, Jack. But it wasn’t Jack that got them to leave.
One thing that scared Wilder more than the wolves or the panther were the natives who were camping close by. Often times, she would see her Pa fully clothed at night, ready to move, and even carrying a gun. But they never attacked and ran away after a terrifying event.
A brush fire caught near the Wilder home, and Pa rushed to save them. He got his horses together and had them plow to “break a furrow in the sod.” He worked so hard and so fast that the entire prairie went up in flames — but his home and barn was saved. After that, the natives never returned.
“On the Banks of Plum Creek”
It appears that the Wilder family was on the banks of the creek in Kansas illegally, though they didn’t know it. Evidently, the person who sold the land didn’t actually own it, and before they got kicked out by the army, they decided to move. This also moves us on to the next book — “On the Banks of Plum Creek.”
A more lighthearted story emerged when Pa told Wilder about the time her grandfather, his father, when he got a new sled. He sneaked out in the snow with his brothers after his parents told them not to use it. In their first run they were quiet, until they ran into a pig, who flopped onto the sled and squealed all the way home.
Girls and boys, and snowball fights
Most of the events on the prairie were not just Pa playing the fiddle and sledding with pigs. The family lived in an untamed land with the prospect of danger all around the open land. But there were moments of levity, including Wilder’s interactions with her fellow classmates.
In the second book of the “Little House” series (“Farmer Boy”), Wilder wrote about her husband’s upbringing. But he wasn’t her first interest in boys. When she was still very young, she got into a snowball fight with some of her classmates. A boy named Gus got her in a headlock and rubbed snow on her face, so when she got her chance, she bit his thumb so hard it bled.
Trampling bees and crying wolf
Nowadays, there are plenty of dangers for children. But in the time of open country on the prairie, simple mistakes could turn catastrophic. You can bet that her brother found plenty of trouble, as Wilder explains that “Charley was a bad boy.” When the men were tilling the wheat fields, Charley had the job of providing water to them.
But he wanted more attention, and because they were hard at work, so he didn’t get it. Instead, he ran off, and the next thing they knew, Charley was trampling a bees nest. As he jumped up and down from the pain, he only made it worse…and the men didn’t come running because he had cried wolf before.
“By the Shores of Silver Lake”
At the beginning of “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” tragedy strikes the family. In 1874, the family was not in a good place. Extremely harsh winters did damage to their abilities to grow wheat, and money was running out. Pa even had to go away to find work and wages.
They knew they had to move, but before they did, the family was struck by scarlet fever. Scarlet fever was a big deal in those days — death and blindness from the disease were common. It’s thought that Helen Keller lost her sight from it, and while Wilder did recover from the fever, her sister Mary went blind.
Hearing Pa’s fiddle
The family moved from plum creek and settled by Silver Lake in Minnesota, which is about 50 miles west of Minneapolis. Upon arrival, Wilder was afflicted with an ear infection that caused her severe discomfort, and her mom used an old country remedy to cure it. They pulled wool from a black sheep and dipped it in her ear.
She didn’t mention that the remedy also required salt water to extract fluid, but she may not have known that at her young age. It’s a good thing her ear was healed, because when she got better, “[Pa’s] fiddle was singing again as I went to sleep.”
The Wilder’s had many old remedies to solve problems, but not all of them were successful. When the family reached Minnesota, Pa hit the fields again and grew wheat. He did a great job, and “…was so well grown, he felt sure we would have a wonderful crop.”
Then: “The grasshoppers are coming!” A cloud that blacked out the sun descended on Pa’s wheat like an ants on a pile of sugar. Pa did everything he could to save the crop, including an old trick where he spread straw in the rows and topped it with manure. He then lit it on fire, but nothing could stop the insatiable appetite of the grasshoppers.
The next summer, Pa again tried his hand at planting a crop of wheat. It went better this time…until the grasshoppers returned. This time, they didn’t come from above, but actually came from below. Suddenly, grasshoppers were emerging from the earth. A little at first, but then they grew bigger…and hungrier.
The girls did their best to stomp on as many as they could, but they would fly up their dresses and stain them with “tobacco juice” [sic]. Before long, the grasshoppers could not be stopped and the entire crop was destroyed. “Blasted country!” father yelled. It was time for the Wilder’s to move again.
Freddy gets sick
The grasshoppers were so relentless that they also ate all the wild flowers, leaving Pa’s honey bees with nothing to eat. But before they moved again, the Wilder family endured another hardship. The fall brought horrible rains. They did their best to make the most of it, building small fires and roasting bread and meat.
But then: “Freddy was not well and the Dr. came. I thought that would cure him, as it had Ma when the Dr. came to see her. But little brother got worse instead of better, and one awful day he straightened out his little body and was dead.”
From Minnesota to the Dakotas
The family was awfully sad to have to leave Freddy behind, but nothing good came from their time in Minnesota. Life was rough on the prairie in those days, and families were forced to mostly fend for themselves. But they loved each other very much and were close. They were about to get even closer.
When they moved to Dakota Territory in 1879 (North and South Dakota didn’t even become a state until 10 years later) they moved into a one-room shanty. That’s right — one room for the entire family. Fortunately, Ma got some cloth and cut curtains to partition the home.
The railroad and unruly workers
When the Wilder’s moved to Dakota, they did so with purpose. Between 1878–1887, the population in the Dakota Territory boomed, and railroad tracks came with the people. In 1878, there were only two lines between the territories. By 1887, over 2,100 miles of track would be built.
That’s where Pa found himself working for the railroad company. But just like anything on the prairie, trouble soon followed. He was a manager of sorts, and the men constantly squabbled with him over their pay. The problem was, there was no pay to be had sometimes, and Pa’s bosses sometimes neglected their own payroll. This put him in many dicey situations.
Pa handles the situation
Railroad work brought some interesting people, and Wilder remembers “…a half-drunken, big workman would throw his gun down on a clerk and tell him to hand him some of the goods and the clerk would stand leaning back against the shelf and laugh and talk him into being good natured.”
If that wasn’t odd enough, one time, when Pa’s employers were late with the payroll his employees, “…two men climbed on the roof, cut a hole through and dropped a rope down, while others of the crowd were breaking down the door.” What’s worse is this sort of behavior was typical.
Pa stops a fight
“Every man in camp except old Johnnie, Pa, and Fred were afraid of Jerry,” Wilder wrote as she witnessed a fight about to happen. Evidently, Jerry the fighter was surrounded by a bunch of Irishmen, and Johnnie, Pa and Fred were nearly killed trying to break the fight up. “That damned fool Jerry will kill him!” Fred said about Pa. Fortunately that didn’t happen.
The only thing that brought an end to the ruckus was the changing season. The snow was heavy in the Dakotas, and winter promised that the tracks would be covered in snow. With the work gone, the men left too, but the Wilder family stayed.
“Too durned thick”
The ruckus may have been over, but the wrongdoing always reared its ugly head on the prairie. Winter was coming and the family had every intention of staying in town, with all its resources, for the season. Then one day, a nearby family came home to a claim jumper in their shanty.
When the husband confronted the man the claim jumper shot him in the stomach. More unruly sorts started arriving in town, so Pa made the difficult decision to move back into their one-room shanty. The people were getting “too durned thick,” as Pa said. It was a consistent theme that shows the Manifest Destiny in his heart.
Eyes frozen shut
Pa also had another problem: Winter had arrived, and money was tight. Then it got cold — really cold. They had wood to burn, but it was burning more rapidly than they would’ve liked. Then Pa saw something he’d never seen before; it told they were in for a long winter.
One day, it got so cold, and the wind howled so fiercely, that their cattle had their eyes frozen shut. Everyone one of the family members rushed out in the snow, fiercely stinging their faces, and wiped the ice away from their eyes. Each time the cattle jumped and ran at first sight, then calmed down and endured the blizzard.
“The October Blizzard” and beyond
The cattle would soon have bigger problems than ice in their eyes. The winter of 1880-1881 brought blizzard after blizzard after blizzard. In “The October Blizzard,” as it became known, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of cattle. Wilder said that many people also froze to death.
“For three days, the blizzard raged,” Wilder wrote. Eventually, daily life ground to a halt. All people could do was bunker in and wait it out. But one time at school, the roof started to come off. A man named Mr. Holms came to help lead them to safety, and out they walked into the fray.
“We shouted at him but he disappeared”
Mr. Holms and Wilder’s teacher, Miss Garland, led the classroom full of children into the snow. “We could hardly keep our feet and [it was] awfully cold,” she wrote. All of the sudden, when things were getting really bad, Mr. Holms ran away. “We shouted at him, but he disappeared in the storm, running.”
Miss Garland continued leading the class through the frigid cold and slamming winds without any reference for direction at all. It was just open prairie in front of them — a wall of white. Then, just as hope was nearly lost and the blinding snow threatened their lives, they found the main avenue to town and shelter.
The unstoppable force meets the immovable object
The town of De Smet, North Dakota (which is close to where the Wilder’s rode out the blizzard), was completely cut off from the outside world because of the build up of snow. A train arrived in November, but it wasn’t carrying supplies, as it was a snow plow.
The snow was so thick that the train had to ram into the banks that were as tall as the engine. The engineer refused to plow it, so his supervisor decided to take the reigns. He backed up the train a full mile and went full speed ahead. The train was flying through the tracks, hit the snow and then… stopped dead in its tracks. Somehow, the supervisor walked away without injury.
“Ages long war with the elements”
“Then, in the night, more snow fell,” Wilder wrote. The unrelenting winter kept pounding the town of De Smet and the Wilder family. But Wilder captured the true spirit of the prairie when she wrote: “here in his ages-long war with the elements, Man won though it was a hard, long battle.”
The snow got so thick that when the Wilder’s returned to their shanty, Pa couldn’t even get the door open. At first, he tethered a rope between the house and the barn so as not to get lost in the blinding storms. Then, the snow became so thick that he actually dug a tunnel between the two. He much preferred that, because the tunnel protected him from the elements.
Long before winter was over, the Wilders and everyone else in town ran out of wood to burn. Fortunately, the Wilder’s had a store of hay for their cattle, but eventually, they had to burn it. The girls began making “hay twists,” which bundled the hay into a knot making it burn hotter and longer.
It took until May before the first train was able to get through to the town. When people heard the whistle, they flocked to the train and the commotion nearly turned into a riot. One man finally opened the car with food and supplies and handed them out in an orderly fashion. It was an extremely welcome gift.
A stolen baby and angry Native Americans
With the spring thaw came the ability to move around, and with that ability also came hostiles in the area. Work resumed, but then a man discovered a dead Native American baby. The body was so well preserved that he decided to send it to Chicago to be studied. Big mistake.
The natives came to camp one day, dressed in full war regale “…and rode furiously around and around the camp.” Then they stopped, and a chief emerged demanding they return the body. For 10 days, the natives did a war dance every night, until finally someone went back to Chicago and retrieved the body.
“I didn’t kick you”
One night, just as the school year was coming to a close, Wilder saw something very disturbing. Her neighbors were a married couple, and the wife woke Wilder up one night when she screamed, “You kicked me! You kicked me!”
“I didn’t kick you,” the husband responded. “I only pushed you off with my foot.” The argument itself sounds completely ridiculous, and it would’ve been completely innocuous had the wife not been standing over her husband…with a butcher knife. “Go up that butcher knife or I will!” yelled the husband. Fortunately, no one was stabbed, but Wilder was up all night frightened.
“Little town on the prairie”
In “Little Town on the Prairie,” we see that Wilder was growing up from a little girl to a young woman. She started taking an interest in boys, and they began taking an interest in her. One boy named Manly showed particular interest in Wilder, but their relationship had some challenges in the early phases.
Manly had a sleigh and would pick up Wilder almost everyday to go for a ride. But she wasn’t the only girl that he picked up and gave rides to, and when Wilder made it known to him that she wasn’t happy with that fact, he stopped giving rides to other girls in town. The two then grew a fondness for each other.
Should I stay or should I go?
Winter was coming again, and the family were not going to be caught unprepared. They anticipated the worst and started gathering for the coming storms as early as summer time. Pa was working as a carpenter in town, then would return to the prairie house to till the fields.
They stockpiled extraordinary amounts of hay for cattle and to burn. It’s evident that the pioneer spirit was very much alive in Pa, as at this point, he wanted to head all the way to Oregon because “…people had crowded in too thick for him.” But Ma didn’t want to, so for winter, they moved to town.
“These Happy Golden Years”
Well, it wasn’t all well, but the “Little House on the Prairie” series did end well. While another book in the series emerged decades later (“The First Four Years”), the series truly ends with “These Happy Golden Years.” Manly woke up when Wilder confronted him about the other girls, and the two of them got married shortly after.
As for Wilder, she accepted a teaching position that brought her and Manly away from the rest of the family. She worked as an educator for several years afterwards, until nearly 50 years later when she finally sat down and wrote about her experiences with the Wilder family in their little houses on the open prairie.