January 10, 1836
On this day Charles Ingalls, (right) made famous in the “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, was born in Allegany County, New York.
It was his family’s move from New York to Illinois when he was young that set in motion the frontier saga captured in the “Little House” books. He made the good sense decision to marry Caroline Quiner, (right) a proper young school teacher from down the road, but Ingalls’ wanderlust soon got the best of him.
The couple’s five children, Mary, Laura, Carrie, Charles Frederick “Freddie” and Grace and their trek through six states fueled the eight original books. In addition, aunts, uncles and cousins populated the pages of the popular series, inadvertently earning them the posthumous asterisk, “literary figure.”
The stories of the Wilder kinfolk came to a close in 1943 with the publication of “These Happy Golden Years.” It covered the author’s teens in DeSmet, South Dakota, but what happened next to the rest of the family remained a blank. (Right, Laura, 1885)
Older sister Mary, (right) who shared her father’s birthday, got some additional attention in the book. At the time, she was attending the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton, Iowa. Losing her sight to a childhood illness, it thought at first to be scarlet fever. Doctors today believe it was rather meningoencephalitis, a viral brain inflammation.
Mary returned to DeSmet and contributed to the family income by making fly nets for horses. Following the death of Charles Ingalls in 1902, Mary and her mother rented out rooms to stretch their meager resources.
Following Caroline Ingalls’ death in 1924, Mary lived briefly with the youngest sister, Grace Ingalls Dow, a school teacher in Manchester, just down the road from DeSmet. Grace (right) never played a major role in the “Little House” stories, having been just eight when Laura married homesteader Almonzo Wilder. (Right) She died in 1941 from diabetes at age 64 and was buried in Manchester.
Mary later lived with Carrie Ingalls Swanzey in Keystone, South Dakota. She died in Keystone of pneumonia in 1928.
Portrayed in the Little House books as a bit frail, middle sister Carrie (below) married a 58-year-old Black Hills prospector, David Nevin Swanzey, at 42 after a career as a typesetter and reporter on a number of small town newspapers. Stepmother to Swanzey’s two children and step grandmother to a brood of grandchildren, she died at 75 and is buried in DeSmet. She was an enthusiastic contributor to Laura’s childhood memoirs.
Carrie’s husband, David, (below) made a name not so much for himself but for a famous American landmark. He reportedly dubbed a nearby stone outcrop Mt. Rushmore for a New York lawyer, Charles Rushmore, the first major donor to sculptor, Gutzon Borglum’s monument.
Only baby brother Freddie, who died in infancy, is omitted from the “Little House” saga. Perhaps too painful for the author, say Wilder biographers, or too somber a subject for her largely upbeat books. His brief life, however, was portrayed in a two-hankie episode of the television series entitle “The Lord Is My Shepherd.”
Mt. Rushmore before and after the monument
Wilder drew on a number of the extended Ingalls family, including Pa’s sister, Laura Ladocia “Docie” Ingalls Forbes, in several of the early books. Docie’s children by her first husband, August Waldvogel, Lena Evelyn and Augustus Eugene, appeared in “By the Shores of Silver Lake” as the cousins Lena and Jean.
Aunt Docie married Hiriam Forbes after Uncle August died and the couple moved to Nebraska, probably Holt County. She added seven more children to the list of Ingalls cousins. Following Hiriam’s death in 1906, Docia moved to Colorado to be near Augustus Eugene. She died in 1918 and is buried in Colorado. Augustus died in 1945, killed with his 27-year-old son in a tragic car accident.
Not much is written about Cousin Lena. Married to Samuel Heikes, the couple had seven children. She died in 1943 in Dakota City, Nebraska, and is buried in Sioux City, Iowa.
Hazy photo of the aunts, Ruby, left, and Docie.
Another of Charles Ingalls’ sisters, “Aunt Ruby,” Ruby Ingalls Card, was also fictionalized in “Little House in the Big Woods.” The mother of two young children, Ruby moved to Inman, Holt County, Nebraska, to be near Docie. She may have been ill at the time since she died at just 26. She is believed to be buried in Inman.
And then there was “Uncle George,” (right) Pa Ingalls’ youngest brother. He was portrayed in Wilder’s books as “a wild man.” It may not have been much of a fabrication. A runaway at 14, he was a “drummer boy” with the Union Army during the Civil War and may have actually deserted.
He was the father of three children who all died in infancy. Following their deaths, his grief-stricken wife, Julie, was committed to Dunn County Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Red Cedar Township, Wisconsin, in 1888. She died there in 1910. George predeceased his wife by nine years, dying at age 46.
The Ingalls family, Ma, Carrie, Laura, Pa, Grace and Mary
In 1894 Laura and Almonzo moved to a ramshackle cabin in Mansfield, Missouri. After a number of setbacks they established Rocky Ridge Farms, a successful orchard and dairy. Laura began her writing career in 1911 as a columnist for the “Missouri Ruralist.”
Again short of money following the stock market crash of 1929, her autobiography, “Pioneer Girl,” was written in hopes of shoring up the family finances. Rejected by a number of publishers, Wilder’s daughter, successful novelist Rose Wilder Lane, (right) encouraged her mother to preserve the memories of her pioneer childhood.
Phenomenally successful, a number of critics theorized that Lane was actually Wilder’s ghost writer and controversy continued after Laura’s death. Well-known libertarian and Rose Lane’s lawyer, Roger McBride, (right) gained control of all the Wilder copyrights. Wilder’s will bequeathed her estate to her daughter and then upon Rose’s death, to Mansfield’s Wright County Library. McBride, however, renewed the copyrights under in his own name, reportedly with Lane’s knowledge.
The eight original “Little House” books are now in the public domain but McBride’s adopted daughter, Abigail Allan, retained rights to the successful television series and its mass merchandising franchise valued at well over $100 million.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder House and Museum, 3060 Highway A in Mansfield, Missouri, is 45 minutes from Springfield. Rocky Ridge Farms home and museum, Laura’s vegetable garden and the Rose Wilder Lane Museum attract more than 30,000 visitors a year. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991. The Museum includes exhibits of many items described in the “Little House” books – handwritten manuscripts, Laura’s needlework and even Pa’s fiddle.
Laura’s house at Rocky Ridge Farm
Visitors can tour both the Rock House where the first Little House books were written and the Wilder home at Rocky Ridge Farm. Laura’s Vegetable Garden was added in recent years by the non-profit Wilder Home Association with seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, headquartered in Mansfield. The company’s fans include Oprah and Martha Stewart.
The museum is open 9 to 5, Monday through Saturday, and 12:30 to 5 Sunday from March 1 to November 15. Closed Easter. Admission is $14 for adults, $7 for children 6 to 18 and children 5 and under are free. For more information go to lauraingallswilderhome.com, call toll-free (877) 924-7126 or write Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum, 3060 Highway A, Mansfield, Missouri 65704.
© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.
*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.