Once upon a time, eighty years ago, there was an old woman who should have been a grandmother several times over, but wasn’t. Having no grandchildren of her own to whom she might tell the stories of her childhood sixty years prior to that, she wrote them down and had them published for children around the country and, soon enough, the world.
For those who haven’t read the series (and yes, there are a few who haven’t!): the books about Laura’s own life are, in order of publication, Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, On the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and Those Happy Golden Years, with an additional book, Farmer Boy, describing her husband Almanzo’s childhood in Malone, New York. The books begin with Laura, approximately five, living with her family near Pepin, Wisconsin. They move to what was then called Indian Territory briefly, but returned home when the government decided against opening the land to white settlers. In the books’ sequence, the family next moved to Minnesota, in On the Banks of Plum Creek, where they stayed between Laura’s seventh year and her twelfth, then moved on to what would become the town of De Smet in South Dakota. As On the Shores of Silver Lake begins, they did not have a permanent home; they spent that winter in the surveyors’ cabin; house sitters if you will, and Pa filed on his homestead the following spring, as the town burgeoned with the spring thaw. Life was spartan for the first few years, as the farm had not yet begun to produce enough to support the family, and they had only one cow; Pa got work where he could as a carpenter, though this meant leaving his family behind for long stretches of time.
The Long Winter, not surprisingly, is about the harsh winter of 1880-1881; Laura embroidered a bit here, but this was an unusually hard winter, exacerbated by the family’s as yet inadequate housing. Little Town on the Prairie and Those Happy Golden Years cover Laura’s adolescence and the development of De Smet in approximately equal parts; she matures from the carefree child she was in On the Shores of Silver Lake, riding wild on her cousin’s pony, to a young woman concerned with contributing to the family finances in order to keep Mary at the College for the Blind in Vinton, Iowa. Employment for women was decidedly limited: Laura had the choice of being a seamstress or teaching school. The latter won by a nose, as Laura loathed the hand sewing of the day–sewing machines were available in more developed parts of the country, but were too heavy to be commonplace in a place and time when everything had to be brought in by train then wagon from the industrial centers hundreds of miles to the east. Those Happy Golden Years ends on a hopeful note with Laura’s marriage to Almanzo, as she sets up a household of her own on Almanzo’s tree claim.
While the books were fictionalized to an extent, the facts are in essence true as presented. Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 outside of Pepin, Wisconsin. The family moved to “Indian Territory”, near what is now Independence, Kansas when Laura was a toddler–too young to remember the move–but returned to Pepin when the government ejected them as the land was not yet open for homesteading. Pa led the family on a series of moves, largely following the emigrant migrations of the late nineteenth century, finally settling in the then-new town of De Smet, where Laura spent her adolescence. In the books, Pa is a farmer for the most part, although in the later books after they moved away from Pepin, he got occasional work as a carpenter for the cash necessary to buy what the family could not raise, and what they needed while the De Smet homestead developed into a proper farm.
Laura and her daughter Rose collaborated on the books; Laura wrote them and Rose edited them for publication. (It’s not clear how much influence Rose had on the final product.) The series is ‘fictionalized autobiography’: based on fact, but a number of details, some large and some minor, were omitted, especially in the earlier books. I went into a bit more detail in a blog post I made last September, but basically Laura altered or omitted facts and compressed or rearranged what remained for smoother reading. Just as an example, based strictly on Laura’s age, Little House in the Big Woods would have been set during the family’s second stay in Pepin, but she reversed the dates of that second stay with the family’s time in Indian Territory in her third book, Little House on the Prairie, when she would have been old enough to remember events. Perhaps most notably, Laura left out the three years between the events of On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake; this was when her brother, Charles Frederick, was born and died, and when Mary contracted the illness that rendered her blind. It’s also when the family moved several times between Walnut Creek and Burr Oak, both in Minnesota, while Pa worked at a variety of short jobs, from hotel keeper to butcher.
In essence, the books were true. I suspect, though I have no real proof, that many of the changes were simply to bolster her general theme of “self-sufficient pioneers colonizing the New West”; I’d like to think that Laura was not concealing facts to deceive her readers but rather to make better reading. Pa did what was necessary to feed and house his family, but was not always a farmer and hunter as he was portrayed in the books. He worked as a hotelier, a butcher, a Justice of the Peace, a shopkeeper and several other things. Indeed, he and Caroline Ingalls gave up their homestead outside De Smet shortly after Laura married, and the couple moved into town permanently. Laura was trying to write uplifting books about pioneer life, a time which was all but gone when she began to write the books