Laura Ingalls Wilder: Fiction to Fact
You may have read the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and/or watched the television series based on the books. Yet not everyone really realizes that Laura Ingalls, Almanzo Wilder, and their families were not merely characters. They were real people who appear in the census and other genealogical records many times. Not everything found in the records mirrors the tales told in the books (the books are, after all, classified as fiction), but you can still find many glimpses into the lives of the people so lovingly portrayed by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her tales.
Write Down What You Know
Basic biographical information on Laura Ingalls is easy to find, so the quest begins by assuming that you already know the basic facts — much as you would if this was your own family and you had already learned some background from your relatives.
She was born on 7 February 1867 in Pepin County, Wisconsin.
She died on 10 February 1957 in Mansfield, Wright County, Missouri.
Her parents were Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner.
She married Almanzo James Wilder on 25 August 1885 in De Smet, Dakota Territory.
She had a daughter, Rose Wilder, and an unnamed son who died when he was just a few days old.
Identify the Family in the Census
With these facts, the 1880 U.S. census is a good place to begin the search because (1) Laura at age thirteen is still young enough to likely be found with her parents and (2) it is available for free searching at Family-Search. A search for laura ingalls with head of household charles ingalls returns only one result — the family you are looking for. There is Charles P. Ingalls, farmer, age forty-four, born in New York; wife Caroline L. Ingalls, keeping house, age forty, born in Wisconsin; and the four girls you might remember from the Little House stories, Mary (listed as “blind”), Laura, Caroline (Carrie), and Grace.
A search of the 1870 census at
So why isn't the family found living in Walnut Grove, the location made famous by the television series Little House on the Prairie?
Question Unexpected Results and Discrepancies
Interestingly, going back to the 1880 U.S. census, Grace was listed as having been born in Iowa. Is this a mistake, or did the family really spend some time in Iowa around 1877 when Grace was born? The true story is that the Ingalls family left Walnut Grove in July 1876 to spend the summer with Charles's older brother Peter and his family near South Troy, Minnesota. While there, little Charles Frederick Ingalls, Jr. (baby Freddy), who was born after the 1875 Minnesota state census on 1 November 1875, became very ill and died on 27 August 1876 at the age of nine months. His tombstone in Pleasant Prairie Cemetery in South Troy, Wabasha County, Minnesota, can be found in the online cemetery transcriptions through a search of the Wabasha County USGenWebsite (
Don't Overlook Land Records
With all of this westward movement and settlement, it is worth considering that Charles Ingalls might have applied for a homestead or purchased some land. Going to the Land Patent Search (
Track Down the Parents
Ready to reach back a generation in the family tree, it makes sense to search for Charles Ingalls in the 1860 census in order to find him living with his parents. Because “Ingalls” was commonly misspelled in the previously found records, you might want to do a wildcard search of the 1860 U.S. census for charles ing* born in new york in 1836 +/− 2 years. A likely candidate shows up at the end of the results, Charles P. Ingles living in Concord, Jefferson County, Wisconsin, with his parents Lansford and Laura Ingles. If you remember these names from the television series, you'll know that you have the correct family. But even if you didn't know the names of his parents, other facts help to identify this as the correct Charles Ingalls — the use of the middle initial “P,” the older brother Peter, and his wife, Caroline, snuck in among all of the children of Lansford and Laura Ingles. The name of his mother, Laura, being the same as his daughter, Laura, could be a coincidence, but it also provides a measure of further corroboration.
Confirm, Don't Assume
So how do you know that Caroline Ingles is Charles's wife and not just one of the daughters? Her birthplace of Wisconsin appears to predate the time that the Lansford Ingles family moved from New York to Wisconsin as evidenced by the birthplace and ages of the other Ingalls children. Because family relationships are not listed in the 1860 census, the census record cannot stand as proof on its own (actually no single record ever constitutes “proof”), but further research can help to confirm the assumption that this Caroline Ingalls is indeed the wife of Charles Ingalls.
According to “Important Dates in the Ingalls Family Bible” (
Search a Wide Variety of Sources
The online journey into the history and family of Laura Ingalls Wilder could continue for pages. There are still more census records to search for the family. The 1850 census finds Lansford and Laura Ingalls in Kane County, Illinois, and the Quiner/Holbrook family in Concord, Jefferson County, Wisconsin (with Caroline Quiner listed as Caroline Holbrook). The 1930 census finds Almanzo (age seventy-three) and Laura (age sixty-three) on their farm in Pleasant Valley, Wright County, Missouri. A search in the Google News Archive (
To conduct thorough family history research on the Internet, you need to search out every last name and detail, and search a wide variety of sources — vital records, census records, land records, obituary and cemetery records, mailing lists and forums, historical newspapers, photos, and the websites of state archives, local historical societies, and libraries. Don't just type in your name and expect to turn up your family history, and don't stop when you don't find anything on your first, second, third, fourth, or even fifth search. Family history research online can take quite a bit of time and patience, but information on just about any family is out there if you keep on trying.