I have been a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series since I was a child and have spent many years writing books about Wilder, either compiling her works or writing about her life. Recently I completed my tenth book, A Prairie Girl’s Faith. Even if you are a fan like myself, you probably live with a number of misconceptions about Laura and her family. Oftentimes, Laura had to make up specific details as she tried to make a connected story of her family’s pioneer wanderings. After all, they went south, north, and west, and the family had a busy life — Laura simply couldn’t remember everything. Many of her early books were based on the memories of Pa and Ma as they told her of the family’s adventures in Wisconsin and Kansas. To fill in the gaps, she had to get creative.
With that in mind, here are six things you might not know about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life:
1. Jack, the famous brindle bulldog who traveled with them from Wisconsin to Kansas to Minnesota, was a made-up character. Oh, they had dogs all right, but Jack actually only made it as far as Kansas, where he was left behind with another settler who needed a trusty protector. The tender story of Jack’s death in By the Shores of Silver Lake simply stands as a memorial to the many dogs the family had.
Of course, Laura really did love animals. One story says that Laura and Almanzo set a place at the table for their beloved dog Nero. He dined from his own plate. She was also known to feed the box turtles that would come up from a nearby stream to eat at her back door! Somehow they knew she was good for a handout.
2. Laura spent most of her life in Missouri and is considered a Missouri author — at least by fellow Missourians. Although six of her books about plains life are set in or near De Smet, South Dakota, her move to Missouri in 1894 is recorded in her diary published as the book On the Way Home. Another book, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist, records all of the columns she wrote to fellow Missourians about life in the Ozarks. Her and Almanzo’s home, Rocky Ridge Farm, overlooks some of the prettiest hills in southern Missouri and the town of Mansfield. (It’s also now a museum you can visit!)
3. Essentially a shy person, Mrs. Wilder became so popular an author that total strangers would show up at her door with children wanting to meet her. Neighborhood boys Sheldon and Roscoe Jones had to tell some visitors — especially after Almanzo died — that she just didn’t feel comfortable meeting people she didn’t know, even though they were her fans. She was also getting on into her 80s, and that made her lifelong privacy even harder to break.
4. Surprisingly, Mrs. Wilder didn’t talk a lot about her past. Her own daughter Rose, a famous writer and political theorist, did not know until late in life that she had once had a brother. The young boy only lived some 12 days before he passed away, unnamed. Why Mrs. Wilder had not told Rose about this heart-wrenching experience nobody knows, though she once explained in another context that people raised as pioneers did not like to dwell on tragedies but looked toward the future. After all, it was not unusual for children to die at an early age in pioneer days.
5. Laura never graduated from any school she ever attended. Of course, fans of Laura read about this in the last chapter of Little Town on the Prairie, but what they don’t know is that the practice of granting teacher’s licenses to people who merely passed an exam went on for many years because there was such a great shortage of qualified educators for country schools, which would only have 10 or 20 students at the most.
I know from my 87-year-old mother that some of our own school teachers in rural eastern Kansas had certificates rather than degrees from either colleges or even high schools. But as a student I never questioned my teacher’s ability to teach me. I just assumed that she had mysterious resources of knowledge I didn’t have.
6. Lastly, many people don’t know how important memorization was to the educational process. In Laura’s day, memorization of lessons was a key feature of what made a person “educated.” Knowing the names of all the presidents and even the vice presidents was thought to be important, along with knowing the names and capitals of all the states. You were certainly expected to know which states made up the original 13 colonies, and you were also expected to find many of these places on a map. Even doing a certain amount of math in your head was thought to be important.
In her book Little Town on the Prairie, Laura divides 347,264 by 16 in her head! My book, A Prairie Girl’s Faith, tells of a young Laura memorizing, word-perfectly, exactly 100 verses from the King James Bible to win a Sunday School prize — but she only tied for the prize because someone else had also memorized the 100 verses perfectly!
One thing that has remained true throughout my research of her life? Laura has been a remarkable person to get to know over the course of many, many years.
Learn more about the fascinating life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Stephen Hines’s A Prairie Girl’s Faith: The Spiritual Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder.