Known to millions of readers of Little House on the Prairie books and the 1970s TV show, Laura Ingalls Wilder was the real-life pioneer girl who survived wildfires, tornadoes, malaria, blizzards and near starvation on the Great Plains in the late 1800s.
Her books have sold more than 60 million copies in 45 languages and are still selling, with the popular TV show created by Michael Landon still in syndication.
But the tales told in the beloved books are pure folk art, mythologized, embellished and edited by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s only daughter, according to a new book.
The true story is that Laura endured a brutally hard childhood on the frontier during the late 19th century when her family continually moved across the plains trying to escape the Indian Wars, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression of 1873.
She also survived an invasion of 3.5 trillion locusts that ate the clothing off her back, rigid poverty and homelessness in tales that are stranger and darker than what her fictionalized books told.
The books portray the pioneer spirit as triumphant against all odds, but that was pure fiction, claims new book Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane were the women behind the popular book series Little House on the Prairie. But contrary to her novels, Laura’s childhood in the books are pure fiction, a new book claims. Pictured: Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1917
Laura wrote her story of being a real-life pioneer girl who survived wildfires, tornadoes, malaria, blizzards and near starvation on the Great Plains in the late 1800s. Pictured (l-r): Sisters Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls around 1879 to 1880
Laura’s books have sold more than 60 million copies and the TV show is still in syndication. But the tales told in the beloved books are pure folk art, mythologized and embellished by Laura’s daughter Rose, new book Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder claims
Author Caroline Fraser writes: ‘Wilder’s autobiographical novels were not only fictionalized but brilliantly edited, in a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation.
‘Critical or adoring scholars and readers might agree about one thing: the Little House books are not history. They are not as Wilder and her daughter had claimed, true in every particular. Yet the truth about our history is in them.
‘The truth about settlement, about homesteading, about farming is there, if we look for it – embedded in the novels’ conflicted, nostalgic portrayal of transient joys and satisfactions, astonishing feats of survival and jarring acts of dispossession, their deep yearning for security’.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s only daughter, Rose, edited her mother’s simple and rather bland writing when Laura started to write children’s books at age 60.
Rose had escaped her family’s poverty in the Missouri Ozarks and ended up in San Francisco with a new husband who got her a job at a local newspaper, the Call, that once had Mark Twain on staff.
Rose had no interest in school but did have a talent for yellow journalism, using hyped up, eye-catching headlines for sensationalized and exaggerated stories with no attributed sources.
She put her embellishment talent to work editing her mother’s tepid writing style, inventing characters and fictionalizing episodes.
All of Laura’s writing went through Rose — and Rose’s contacts with editors and publishers secured book deals for her mother, which eventually made her very rich.
But a rancorous rivalry existed between mother and daughter for years despite it being Rose who was responsible for the success of Laura’s books.
Rose often stole sequences from her mother’s writing for her own and undermined her mother when a publication requested more of her mother’s work.
Wilder’s series of novels published between 1932 and 1943 were adapted for TV in the 1970s. The show ran for nine seasons and still is being syndicated. Pictured: The TV cast
Laura Ingalls Wilder on the porch of her house in town, Mansfield, Missouri, circa early 1900s. On the back of the photo, she has written: ‘Just as I am without one plea’
Rose worked during a time of yellow or ‘sensational’ journalism and helped her mother edit her writing. The duo created ‘fictionalized but brilliantly edited’ books that were ‘a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation’. Pictured: Rose aged 19 in 1906
Resulting in one big question: ‘Who wrote it first and who was borrowing from whom’, writes Fraser.
Manuscripts in Laura’s handwriting survive and revealed that she ‘crafted the bulk of the book, laying out complete scenes and descriptions of the farm and barns of her husband’s childhood’ and Laura’s contribution was to cut extraneous passages as well as ‘adding memorable dialogue and details’.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life in the wilderness started when she was born in a little house just across the Mississippi in Wisconsin when the Civil War was ending and the country was moving into a postwar recession.
Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, had made his way west from Puritan New England in search of a better future in the rolling western grasslands, believed to be ‘packed with game and hopping with prairie chickens’.
The open plains were said to be full of ‘rich productive soil, perfect for corn or wheat, and groves of oaks offering up raw material for cabins or fence rails’.
Her mother, Caroline, was born in a rustic cabin in Wisconsin 30 miles away, and like all the other frontier settlers, living conditions were primitive with bears and mountain lions roaming the woods outside and Indians camping nearby.
Charles worked hard as a laborer and eventually was ready to move on to try and find his fortune in another state with promised riches for early settlers.
The failing banks had cost the Ingalls their small savings but Charles manged to sell his land and buy a piece of property in Missouri where slave owners were breaking up their land after slavery had been abolished.
Pictured: The Ingalls family in 1894, shortly before the Wilders left for Missouri. Seated, left to right: Caroline, Charles, and Mary Ingalls. Standing: Carrie Ingalls, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Grace Ingalls
Pictured: Laura’s parents Charles and Caroline Ingalls, late 1870s or early 1880s. Caroline is wearing a comb in her hair, perhaps the gift from her daughters described in Pioneer Girl
It marked the beginning of a migration that Charles and his family made through Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota and a dozen homes that Laura had lived in by the time she turned 18 years old.
Lives were devastated by the Western drive that seemed to promise a new life in the late 1800s. The truth was that conditions were harsh and hazards were grave on the plains.
Work was endless drudgery and farmers tended to be lonely. For many, it was ‘helpless and sterile poverty’.
President Lincoln had signed the Homestead Act into law in May 1862, promising 160 acres of land to any citizen hearty enough to claim them.
Pictured: The first book by Laura, Little House in the Big Woods in 1932
A $10 filing fee paid for a deed once proof of cultivating the land and building a structure on it was proffered.
Busy with the Civil War, President Lincoln had never set foot in Minnesota and failed to recognize that there were Native American tribes already living on the lands that America had bought from the French.
The U.S.-Dakota War between those risking settlement on what was hyped to be the new frontier, took the lives of some 650-800 settlers and the largest mass execution in American history of 303 Dakota Indians.
While the Homestead Act had lured settlers with seductive incentives, ‘it was the massacre that cleared the way for thousands of white families to seek their fortunes on the Great Plains’, writes Fraser.
Now settlers pushed further West than they had ever gone before. The less than habitable prairies became flooded with farms, towns and grain elevators.
A severe outbreak of diphtheria, a bacterial infection, broke out in 1888 leaving 77 children dead in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where the Ingalls had lived.
The Ingalls had already pushed on to De Smet, South Dakota, where they met more dark days with little food and blizzard conditions that had stalled trains on the tracks from getting into town with food supplies.
Laura met her husband Almanzo Wilder when her family moved to South Dakota. She married him after he braved a blizzard and crossed the prairie to buy a crop of wheat from a local farmer. He saved the town from starving. Pictured: Laura and Almanzo in 1885
After a particularity hard season, Laura and Almanzo sold the small plot of land they owned and moved to Spring Valley, Minnesota, where they stayed with Almanzo’s parents. Pictured: Almanzo circa 1880s (left) and Laura aged 17 in 1884 (right)
Once again, they were living life on the edge where hard work and little food were the daily drudge.
It was here that Laura met Almanzo Wilder who braved the raging blizzard and crossed the prairie to buy a crop of wheat from a local farmer. He saved the town from starving.
Laura married Almanzo, the town hero, in August 1885.
Now she had a house and home of her own and she hoped their hardships were over. It wasn’t to be.
Laura came down with diphtheria and Almanzo also fell ill and was left with a lameness.
The following spring, a dust storm blew through, knocking sheep off their feet and filtering dust through closed doors and windows.
The wind blew away the newly planted wheat but the couple escaped a prairie fire that whipped up 65 mph winds that burned the prairie, houses, barns and livestock for miles.
Laura made little notes of all that was going on and wrote that she ‘hated the farm…the smelly lambs, the cooking of food and the dirty dishes’.
Add to that the debts, the fear of tornadoes, crop failures and drought.
When her newborn second baby died, Laura was emotionally, as well as economically, traumatized.
The Wilders sold the small plot of land they owned and moved to Spring Valley, Minnesota, where they stayed with Almanzo’s parents. Now they were landless and homeless.
Laura, Almanzo and young daughter, Rose, left the rugged life behind and headed down south to the Ozarks of southern Missouri when Laura was in her 20s. Pictured: Laura and Almanzo Wilder near Westville, Florida, circa 1891–92
A teenage Rose made personal notes in her textbooks that were ‘cranky and sardonic’. Rose grew up with a belief in her own superiority and a defiant rejection of authority. Pictured: Rose Wilder at the time of her graduation from high school in 1904
The Great Dakota Boom had imploded and many across the Dakotas faced starvation and were absolutely destitute.
‘Without knowing it, Charles Ingalls, Almanzo Wilder, and the other settlers who flooded into the Great Plains in the 1870s tore away those protective grasses and their roots, exposing bare soil to intense heat, evaporation, and drying winds.
‘They had changed the climate, the ecology and the land itself’.
The Great Plains was not the Promised Land.
All these hardships were written down in pencil in Laura’s travel diary.
Laura, Almanzo and young daughter, Rose, left the rugged life behind and headed down south to the Ozarks of southern Missouri when Laura was in her 20s.
Among the Ozarks: The Land of Big Red Apples, an illustrated book the ‘Big Red Apple’ region of Missouri in 1892. The Wilders’ daughter, Rose, recalled studying it before the family went to the Ozarks in 1894
Newspapers ran notices saying ‘Go South’ and the railroads mailed maps, timetables and an illustrated monthly newsletter to anyone interested. ‘Among the Ozarks: The Land of the Big Red Apples’.
There were vague health claims about ‘the climate is as near perfect for health as can be’.
Although Laura loved the southern climate, Almanzo was crippled from the diphtheria and she was tasked with raising seven-year-old Rose.
Life was a struggle and after her father’s death in 1902, Laura felt an urge to write that began with an essay about him.
At the same time, a teenage Rose was making personal notes in her textbooks but hers were ‘cranky and sardonic’.
Rose grew up with a belief in her own superiority and a defiant rejection of authority.
She hated the poverty around her, her ill-fitting, sack-like clothing, the donkey that carried her to school and the hardscrabble life of her parents.
She hated living on the wrong side of the railroad tracks in a rooming house that Rose called ‘Poverty Flats’ in Mansfield.
She hated sitting next to the well-dressed town girls and felt superior to the professor, a bald man with whiskers so long he didn’t need to wear a tie.
The only thing she liked was reading books written by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
When she was 18 years old, she hopped a train for Kansas City where she found work as a telegrapher.
A dugout on the South Loup River, near Virge Allen Homestead, Custer County, Nebraska. The scene resembles the cover of Laura’s book, On the Banks of Plum Creek in Minnesota
On this undated photo Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote: ‘A J Wilder making hay on Rocky Ridge farm with horses Buck & Billy’
Rose’s writings were now starting to get published in Cosmopolitan magazine and she followed a boyfriend out to San Francisco who worked for the San Francisco Call, a Bay area newspaper, she started writing for the paper herself.
Rose Wilder married Clair Gillette Lane but they weren’t happy as a couple.
Rose was pregnant but a premature delivery and stillbirth sent her back home to the Ozarks briefly to be with her parents.
Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser was released on Tuesday
Laura loved the countryside back in Mansfield, Missouri, ‘the Gem of the Ozarks’ that had once been a ‘whites-only sundown town, where blacks were not welcome after dark’.
‘They were allowed to camp by day at ‘N****r Springs’ but were warned not to overstay their welcome: a sign at the public well read ‘N****r, don’t let the sun set on your a**’,” writes the author.
Laura’s racism and anti-Semitism was edited from her writing, Fraser claims.
In town, Laura helped set up the first chapter of the Eastern Star Masonic Lodge she had joined back in Dakota Territory, a foothold into local social life with meetings that required Masonic dress of aprons, swords and jewels.
Ritual ceremonies had special knocks, signs and signals adding color to otherwise drab lives.
She now could dress elegantly when going into town and she took to wearing full skirts, hats with feathers or flowers and lacy collars.
Laura was establishing herself with writing reports, speeches, as well as getting involved in Mansfield’s Methodist church.
The real Laura Ingalls Wilder ‘had a sharp temper and a dry humor noting the resemblance of a yard full of swine to their owners’.
Life was a struggle for Laura and after her father’s death in 1902, Laura felt an urge to write that began with an essay about him. Pictured: Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1937
Rose escaped her family’s poverty and ended up in San Francisco with a new husband who got her a job at a local newspaper. Rose had a talent for yellow journalism, using eye-catching headlines for exaggerated stories. Pictured: Rose Wilder Lane, newly married, in 1909
All of Laura’s writing went through Rose — and Rose’s contacts with editors and publishers secured book deals for her mother which eventually made her very rich. Pictured: Laura and Almanzo Wilder visiting neighbors near Mansfield, 1929
Rose was high flying in her own writing, which she viewed as entertainment, and San Francisco was the heart of yellow journalism with ‘little distinction between fact-based reporting and pure invention’.
Rose played fast and loose with an interview with Henry Ford and then Jack London that ran as a serial, but was totally fiction.
Writing a column for the Ruralist, a farm journal back in Missouri, Laura didn’t understand journalistic ethics and didn’t recognize anything being wrong with fictional reporting – an easy move towards the women mythologizing Laura’s tales of the prairie.
Moving to the Ozarks may have inspired Laura’s nostalgia to write about her early years from the notebooks she had always kept while her family moved to escape poverty on the Western Plains.
But her writing was as arid as the dry Plains earth.
She had never graduated from high school and was not an intellectual, but had an intellect, Fraser writes.
Rose put her embellishment talent to work editing her mother’s tepid writing style, inventing characters and fictionalizing episodes. Pictured: Rose testifying as a ‘revolutionist’ before a Congressional subcommittee hearing on the Ludlow Resolution, May 10, 1939
Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder visiting Aubrey Sherwood’s newspaper office on Old Settlers’ Day, De Smet, South Dakota, June 1939
Rose, her mother’s guide, had no journalistic ethics and with Rose’s editing and contacts, the mother-daughter team began selling off novels.
The research that the duo would later say went into their books was ‘far from rigorous’.
Serial killers operating on the Kansas prairie at the time were even included in the Wilder family history – although untrue.
The success of the books lifted Laura and Rose out of financial hardships.
Rose spent the money wildly, living in Paris where she studied language, having a house designed for her on the Adriatic but was never truly happy believing she had failed her mother.
She never escaped her teenage fears of being an old maid and divorced her husband.
Rose eventually had a breakdown and considered suicide.
‘I lived through a childhood that was a nightmare,’ Rose wrote and compared her early poverty to a ‘squirrel cage’. She knew her writing was ‘cheap popular success’.
The mother-daughter relationship fell apart when Laura discovered Rose’s husband had used her writing in a new book.
The theft ‘was yet another outbreak of the consuming fires — abandonment, blame, and disappointment that had been burning through their lives since their earliest days together’.
Rose died at age 82 in 1968, six years before the pilot of Little House on the Prairie premiered on TV.
She was about to embark on a trip across Europe with a new companion, unhappy with living in Vermont, Texas or Connecticut.