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February 2017

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U.S. Census Bureau History: Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867. Between 1932
and 1943, she published eight books in the beloved Little House on the Prairie series.

Photo courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

Little House on the Prairie fans celebrate Laura Ingalls Wilder's birthday on February 7, 2017. The Little House on the Prairie author was born in the "Big Woods" region of Wisconsin north of Pepin, to Charles and Caroline Ingalls. Laura and her family moved frequently, as Charles farmed and homesteaded land near Independence, KS (on Osage Indian land); Walnut Grove, MN; Lake City, MN; South Troy, MN; and Burr Oak, IA. During the winter of 1879–1880, Charles Ingalls filed a formal homestead application for land in De Smet, SD. Laura attended school in De Smet where she met many of the friends featured in her books. At age 15, Laura began teaching school in De Smet, leaving 3 years later to marry Almanzo Wilder in 1885.

The early years of Laura and Almanzo's lives together were often beset with hardship. They welcomed daughter Rose on December 5, 1886, but an unnamed son born in 1889 died at 12 days of age. Sickness, drought, and fire nearly ruined the family and forced them to live with family and later relocate to Florida in the hope that the state's warmer climate would help Almanzo recuperate from illness. In 1894, the Wilders returned to the midwestern United States, purchasing property outside of Mansfield, MO. Naming the property "Rocky Ridge Farm," the couple built a prosperous poultry, dairy, and fruit business.

Ingalls Wilder's writing career began in 1911, after publishing an article in the Missouri Ruralist. The newspaper encouraged the budding author to accept a permanent position as a columnist and editor. Hit hard by the 1929 Stock Market Crash, Wilder began recording her childhood memories and published the first of the Little House books—Little House in the Big Woods—in 1932. She published seven more books during her lifetime: Farmer Boy (about Almanzo's childhood, in 1933), Little House on the Prairie (1935), On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), By the Shore of Silver Lake (1939), The Long Winter (1940), Little Town on the Prairie (1941), and These Happy Golden Years (1943). Although Wilder concluded the eighth book with the note, "The end of the Little house books," her estate published a ninth book—The First Four Years—in 1971, chronicling the hardships of the couple's newlywed years.

You can learn more about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the places featured in the Little House on the Prairie books using data and records collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies. For example:

  • The Ingalls family settled on land belonging to the Osage Indians Link to a non-federal Web site in 1869, wrongly believing the U.S. government would soon open it to White homesteaders. In 2010, the population of the Osage Reservation (headquartered in Pawhuska, OK) numbered 47,472, making it the second largest American Indian reservation in the United States behind the Navajo Nation Reservation and Off-Reservation Trust Land, in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.
  • Soon after Charles Ingalls settled his family on the homestead in De Smet, the 1880 Census counted the Dakota Territory's population at 135,177. Following statehood on November 2, 1889, the 1890 Census found South Dakota's population was 328,808. In 2016, the Census Bureau estimated the state's population was 865,454.
  • In 1888, Laura and Almanzo Wilder were stricken by diphtheria. They survived, but the illness left Almanzo's legs temporarily paralyzed. Two years later, the 1890 Census found that diphtheria claimed the lives of 27,815. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccination against diphtheria reduced deaths from the disease in the United States from 15,520 in 1921, to just 2 cases between 2004 and 2015. In 2015, the World Health Organization reported that 86 percent of infants worldwide (116 million) received diphtheria vaccinations, averting an estimated 2–3 million deaths annually.
  • The popular NBC television drama, Little House on the Prairie aired from September 1974 to March 1983, and was based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. The series starred Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Michael Landon and Karen Grassle as her parents Charles and Caroline Ingalls. Other cast members included: Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary Ingalls), Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush (Carrie Ingalls), Wendi and Brenda Turnbaugh (Grace Ingalls), Victor French (Isaiah Edwards), Dabbs Greer (Rev. Robert Alden), Merlin Olsen (Jonathan Garvey), and Karl Swenson (Lars Hanson).
  • Did the landscape from the Little House on the Prairie television series look familiar? The series shared studios and filming locations with many movies and television series. For example, Big Sky Ranch, in Simi Valley, CA, doubled as Walnut Grove, MN, and also served as a filming location for the series Rawhide and Gunsmoke. Little House filming also shared space and studios at Red Hills Ranch (Bonanza and Back to the Future III) in Sonora, CA; Apacheland Studio (Death Valley Days and Have Gun Will Travel) in Apache Junction, AZ; San Rafael Ranch State Park (Oklahoma!) in Lochiel, AZ; and the area around Lake Sherwood, CA (Tarzan and Bridesmaids).
  • Almanzo and Laura lived at Rocky Ridge Farm until their deaths in 1949 and 1957, respectively. Daughter Rose Wilder Lane—also a prominent writer—died in 1968. Rocky Ridge Farm and Rock Cottage (where Ingalls Wilder began writing the Little House books) in Mansfield, MO, are preserved today by the The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum and The Wilder Home Association Link to a non-federal Web site.
  • Are you interested in using Laura Ingalls Wilder's books and primary documents—like census records—in the classroom? Visit the The National Parks Service, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives and Records Administration, South Dakota State Historical Society, and National Endowment for the Humanities to learn more about some of the Little House on the Prairie-themed lesson plans available.

Ingalls Family Photo

An 1870s family portrait of the Ingalls family. From left to right, Caroline, Grace, Laura, Charles, Carrie, and Mary.

Photo courtesy of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society.

Roy Victor Peel
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This Month in Census History

On February 3, 1950, President Harry S. Truman nominated Roy Victor Peel as director of the Census Bureau.

Peel filled the position vacated by James Clyde Capt in 1949, arriving just weeks before the start of the 1950 Census. In addition to supervising the 1950 Census, Peel also oversaw the agency's installation of
UNIVAC I—the first electronic computer designed for civilian use.

Sod House
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Frontier Line

The frontier drew homesteaders, like the Ingalls family, who tried to settle land that was part of the Osage Indian Reservation in Kansas.

In the 1800s, the U.S. Census Bureau designated areas with a population density less than two people per square mile (excluding "Indians not taxed") as the "American frontier."

Superintendent of the Census Robert Porter declared the end of the American frontier following the 1890 Census. The 1890 data showed that the western part of the United States had so many pockets of settled area that a frontier line no longer existed. The 100-year westward advance of the frontier line was complete.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Did You Know?

Funding cuts nearly ended the economic census in the 1950s. Public outcry led Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks to direct the Watkins Commission to study the value of collecting business data.

In February 1954, the commission's report strongly urged Congress to resume funding the economic census. Congress enacted Public Law 83-411 on June 18, 1954, authorizing the collection of manufacturing, mineral industries, and other businesses data for 1954 in 1955.

Visit https://www.census.gov/history every month for the latest Census History Home Page!

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 08, 2021