The author’s cherished books tell of her homesteading days.
The public lands that opened in the West thanks to the Homestead Act of 1862 offered thousands of Americans a fresh start. In 1868 Charles Phillip Ingalls sold his Wisconsin farm and took his family 600 miles by covered wagon to southeastern Kansas Territory (near Independence). Only trouble was, the little house Charles and wife Caroline built on the prairie a year later happened to be on Osage Indian land not yet legally open to homesteading. Within a couple of years the family moved on, but daughter Laura Ingalls Wilder later preserved that frontier experience in her 1935 classic Little House on the Prairie, published three years after Little House in the Big Woods (about their time in Wisconsin). Their homesteading journey would continue until Charles and Caroline settled in De Smet, Dakota Territory, in 1880.
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls, the second of five siblings, was born in a tiny log cabin near Pepin, Wis., on February 7, 1867. The adventurous little girl in long braids and homemade prairie dress never wore a bonnet despite her Ma’s pleas and answered to her Pa’s playful nickname “Half Pint.” Older sister Mary Amelia was born in 1865, and little sister Caroline (“Carrie”) Celestia in 1870 during a short family stay near Independence.
In 1871 the Ingalls family returned briefly to their old farmhouse near Pepin, the buyer having defaulted. Two years later the Ingalls sold the farm a second time and headed due west across frozen Lake Pepin. By the spring of 1874 they had settled in a dugout near Walnut Grove, Minn., an experience preserved in Wilder’s 1937 book On the Banks of Plum Creek. Blizzards, grasshoppers, drought and financial difficulties drove the family back east in 1876. “This was called back-trailing,” Laura wrote in her diary. “How I wish we were going west!”
Instead, their destination was Burr Oak, Iowa, where the Ingalls managed (and lived in) a hotel—the Burr Oak House (previously the Masters Hotel). Charles and Caroline hated the whiskey-drinking environment (not mentioned in Laura’s books), so in 1879 they went by train to Dakota Territory. Charles worked as a bookkeeper, and they spent that first winter in the surveyor’s house at a railroad camp near Silver Creek (captured in Wilder’s 1939 book By the Shores of Silver Lake).
In February 1880 Charles filed on a homestead near the new railroad town of De Smet. The winter of 1880–81 was severe, and Laura later wrote about it in her 1940 book The Long Winter. In 1885 she wed Almanzo “Manly” Wilder, a homesteader 10 years her senior, and the next year gave birth to daughter Rose. She wrote about those years in her 1941 book Little Town on the Prairie.
The family moved in 1894 to Mansfield, Mo. (Laura’s diary of the trip was published posthumously in 1962 as On the Way Home). With money Laura had saved, they built “Rocky Ridge Farm,” where they spent the rest of their lives (Almanzo died in 1949 at 92, and Laura died in 1957 at 90). Laura began writing her books there when in her late 50s.
Her beloved Little House books inspired the NBC-TV series Little House on the Prairie (1974–1982), which starred Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert. Today, through Historic Preservation Inc. and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society [www.discoverlaura.org], the actual “Little Houses” along the family’s homesteading route are open to the public as museums, featuring relics of Laura’s prairie life. Locations include:
- Pepin,Wis.: Seven miles north of town is the restored cabin of Laura’s birthplace; in town is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (www.laura ingallspepin.com, 715-442-2142).
- Independence, Kan.: A replica of the Ingalls’ family cabin lies 13 miles southwest of town on Highway 75 (www.littlehouseontheprairie museum.com, 620-289-4238).
- Walnut Grove,Minn.:The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum holds many heirlooms; the family home site and dugout remain along Plum Creek (www.walnutgrove.org, 800-528-7280).
- Burr Oak, Iowa: The restored Masters Hotel showcases family artifacts (www.lauraingalls wilder.us, 563-735-5916).
- De Smet, S.D.: Boasts 17 Ingalls-related sites, including the family home, the railroad surveyors’ house and a museum (www.liwms.com, 800-880-3383).
- Mansfield, Mo.: Rocky Ridge Farm, at 3068 Highway A, was Laura and Almanzo Wilder’s final home. A present-day museum has Laura’s diary, Pa’s fiddle, Ma’s Bible and much more. Home tours are available (www.lauraingalls wilderhome.com, 877-924-7126).
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.