Pa Ingalls—Fact or Fiction

After visiting De Smet, a follower of the Pioneer Girl Project posed the following questions:

“Was he [Pa] different than the one portrayed on Little House? Laura does say in a biographical piece that it was the Pa she wanted. What are your thoughts?”

The Pa of the Little House novels was the father Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered and sought to immortalize.  As she wrote her daughter Rose Wilder Lane in 1937: “Pa was no business man.  He was a hunter and trapper, a musician and poet.” His stories, Wilder said, inspired her to write the Little House books.  Even before her first novel was published, she noted that Pa’s stories “impressed me very much as a child and I still have a great affection for them.”

The essence of Pa’s character in the Little House books is consistent with Wilder’s portrait of her father in Pioneer Girl.  He was affectionate, warm, playful, musical, and restless.  But based on the historical record and Wilder’s recollections, it is clear that the fictional character in her novels is romanticized and idealized.  In Pioneer Girl, for example, Pa sneaked his family out of town in the middle of the night after failing to negotiate the rent with the landlord. Wilder suggested that Charles Ingalls justified it to his family by calling the man a “rich old skinflint.” Wilder’s fictional Pa would never have done such a thing.   Quite simply, the fictional Pa is more heroic, more noble, and more mythic than the real Charles Ingalls or the one who emerges from the pages of Pioneer Girl.

Wilder had much to draw upon in creating her character. The real Charles Ingalls made significant contributions to the communities in which he lived, serving as justice of the peace, school-board member, church officer, and civic-minded leader.  At his death in 1902, the De Smet News and Leader wrote of him: “As a citizen he was held in high esteem, being honest and upright in his dealings and associations with his fellows.  As a friend and neighbor he was always kind and courteous and as a husband and father he was faithful and loving.  And what better can be said of any man?”

Pamela Smith Hill

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21 thoughts on “Pa Ingalls—Fact or Fiction

  1. Laura saw Pa as a child as a lot of us see our parents. As we get older the facade begins to crack but young Laura viewed him idealistically and it is the view of this Laura the books portray.

  2. I like to think he was real – just a little bit tweaked! I always thought my Dad was a superhero growing up but the truth is as parents we hide things from our children to protect them and we also make mistakes as we go along – I think she wrote about him through the eyes of the young Laura – I guess we will never know the real truth as she isn’t here to ask 😦

  3. Although Laura’s Pa seems like a loving, caring father, I’ve often wondered if he was one of those people who think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. He did move his family around quite a bit, often with not so good results. I’ve wondered too what would have happened if Ma hadn’t put her foot down and refused to leave DeSmet when Pa wanted to go further west. Laura might have lived a completely different life. Perhaps there wouldn’t have been an Almanzo, a Rose, and the series of books that have charmed me, as well as countless others over the years.

  4. Wow, that was really interesting. I did kinda figure, through the TV series and the books, that the real Charles Ingalls wasn’t perfect but still a good man, husband and father. I’m really looking forward to reading the book even more now. Is there any news as to when we can expect a release date?

  5. I guess I don’t see the point in this. OK, So Charles Ingalls wasn’t perfect, no one is. Laura wrote him well, and it’s his goodness, as well as the goodness on her mother and sisters, that carries the family through their adventures. And I think Laura would naturally want to put her best foot forward in presenting her family and herself. That’s a nice change from today’s world of too much information about people and their lives! Kerry M.

    • Okay, but the point of reading an annotated autobiography is to reach the complete truth, not the fictionalized version of events from The Little House series. If you are not interested in what made Laura the person she is (rather than the fictional Laura in the series), then this book is not for you. And that’s okay.

  6. Pingback: Pa sold Jack with the ponies, and other Laura Ingalls revelations: an interview with Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill | Alaina Mabaso's Blog

  7. I often wonder what Ma Ingalls really thought!!! Was she really as good as Laura says she was – did she ever turn round to Pa and give him a piece of her mind lol she seems to be a long suffering wife who finally had enough once they reached De Smet

  8. It’s fiction… I’m SURE that Laura or Mary or any of the kids NEVER had a temper tantrum or was a brat on all those long days of dusty traveling… 🙂

  9. I interpreted the question as meaning how Pa was portrayed on the TV series. I loved the books, read them over and over, but hated the TV series and after a few episodes would not watch it with my daughters. They also were disappointed in the TV series. I thought Pa as portrayed by Michael Landon was not like Pa in the books.

    • Oh, Judith, I soooo agree. I remember when the TV series first came out…I was elated! Finally, SOMEONE else saw the value! But then, I was bitterly disappointed in how sanitized the whole thing was, and what creative license was taken.

    • I can see your point, but I loved both the books and tv series when I was growing up. But books are nearly always better than tv and movie versions anyway.

  10. Did anyone ponder the fact that if Pa had stayed and made a home in the Big Woods, Mary may not have gone blind and Freddie may have lived.

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