Caroline Lake Quiner Ingalls is known to Laura fans around the world simply as Ma. Her comforting presence was spread far beyond her own family circle by her featured place in the Little House books and the “Little House on the Prairie” TV show. In a way she has become everyone’s Ma; a comforting and cozy presence of reassurance in all our lives. That’s a wonderful gift and fairly ironic considering her own life was filled with turmoil until she came to a safe harbor in De Smet, South Dakota.
The Fashionable East
“Ma’s delaine dress was beautiful…A dressmaker had made it in the East, in the place where Ma came from when she married Pa and moved out west to the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Ma had been very fashionable, before she married Pa, and a dressmaker had made her clothes.” – Little House in the Big Woods, Yellow Paperback p.128
When reading that passage about Ma, one imagines Ma’s stylish “East” being some place like Boston, New York City, or at least Cleveland, but instead Ma’s “East” was pretty far west. It was in fact in eastern Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Michigan.
A Difficult Childhood
“Ma” was born to Henry N. Quiner and Charlotte W. Tucker Quiner on December 12, 1839 in Brookfield, Wisconsin, which is now a Milwaukee suburb. Caroline was one of the first Caucasian babies born in this area. Henry Quiner was a trader who frequently dealt with local Native Americans. He traded both over land routes and through voyages on Lake Michigan.
In 1844, Henry was on a trading voyage when the ship was lost. This left Charlotte alone with five children under the age of 10 and another one on the way. Without the income from Henry’s trading, the family was left destitute and if it were not for help from Henry’s former trading partners among the local Native American tribes and charity from neighbors, the family may not have survived. Caroline remembered this dark time in her family’s history and learned from it. She learned that you have to make do with what you have and can’t take for granted that there will be food on the table or that someone who leaves will ever come back.
A Fresh Start
A few years later in 1848, Charlotte sold her farm and moved to a forty-acre tract of government land near Concord, Wisconsin. Charlotte married a farmer named Frederick Holbrook. Charlotte and Frederick had one child and he was a good step-father to Charlotte’s older children. Caroline grew up in this large and now stable family.
“We were living on the farm on the banks of the Oconomowoc River…One day, a wagon came up the road and somebody hailed us, we ran outside to see who it was.”
— Little House on the Prairie, Season 4, Episode 16
Four years older than Ma, Charles P. Ingalls (“Pa”) had been born in Cuba, New York. Both the Quiner-Holbrook and Ingalls families came from New England, and then through a series of moves slowly progressed farther west seeking new opportunities. Charles moved West with his family, first to Illinois and later to Concord, Wisconsin where his family ended up becoming neighbors with the Quiner-Holbrooks. The families became very close, frequently socializing together. Eventually there would be three separate marriages that took place uniting the families.
As Caroline approached her late teens she taught school for a couple of terms. Caroline married Charles on February 1, 1860 in Concord, Wisconsin and happily took up her new role as farm wife. The newlyweds soon chose to follow Charles’ family to Pepin, Wisconsin. Their first child Mary Amelia was born there in 1865 and they had four more children, one of whom did not live past 12 months.
Searching for Home
Having faced such upheaval in her early life, Ma valued security and family connections, but unfortunately she’d fallen in love with a man who had a terrible case of wanderlust. In a surviving childhood essay Ma wrote:
“Who would wish to leave home, and wander forth, in the world, to meet its tempests and its storms. Without a mother’s watchful care and a sister’s tender love? Not one.”
– “Home” by Caroline Quiner
Despite her trepidation, Ma spent the early years of her marriage following wherever Pa went. However, as her girls grew older she was insistent that they couldn’t keep moving farther into the wilderness, away from a community, schools, and doctors. It was because of Ma’s influence that the family remained in De Smet, South Dakota.
The Ingalls won their bet with the government and “proved up” on their South Dakota homestead claim, but Pa’s failing health meant that they soon moved into town. Pa built them a new house addition by addition on Third Street and Ma tended a huge garden to keep the family provisioned. As part of the founding members of the town and of the Congregational Church in De Smet, the Ingalls family was a valued and active part of the community.
And Into Legend
When Laura and Almanzo returned to De Smet to prepare for their move to Mansfield, Missouri, Ma watched Rose (Laura’s daughter, the future writer Rose Wilder Lane) while Laura worked as a seamstress. Rose described Ma in a manuscript known as “Grandpa’s Fiddle.”
— “Grandpa’s Fiddle” by Rose Wilder Lane
After Charles’ death in 1902, Caroline and her eldest daughter Mary continued to live in the Third Street house. They rented out part of the house for income and in the process became very close to their renters, the Green family. Ma died unexpectedly on April 20, 1924 after a brief illness and is buried in De Smet, South Dakota surrounded by her family.
References and Additional Sources:
- The Story of the Ingalls by William Anderson.
- “Grandpa’s Fiddle” is found in The Little House Sampler edited by William T. Anderson.
- Find early photos of Caroline and related artifacts in Laura’s Album: A Remembrance Scrapbook of Laura Ingalls Wilder compiled by William Anderson.
- Find Ma’s essay in her own handwriting and her teaching certificate in The Ingalls Family Album edited by William T. Anderson and produced by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society in De Smet, South Dakota.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally-known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest.
Love to read about the good old days.
Why didn’t Laura’s parents attend her wedding?
The answer to that is at the end of These Happy Golden Years– Laura’s bossy sister-in-law was coming with A.’s parents and trying to arrange a big, costly wedding that L. and A. couldn’t afford, and L. felt it would be rude to have one set of parents without the other. So they went to the minister’s house and had a simple ceremony.
I grew up on the books and the show. Of course, the books are my preference and Caroline Ingalls is my favorite. Her Godliness, positivity, resourcefulness, and reverence ring throughout the stories.
I know there are some less than ideal emotions regarding the American Indian settler strife but we must analyze this through the lens of the time in which it was set. Additionally, this is balanced by many of the viewpoints and statements by Charles Ingalls. I find them an indispensable read.
I am from Wauwatosa in Milwaukee county I also lived on a farm in Burlington, Wis. says Judy Corrette in Wildwood, Fl.
I absolutely love the ingalls family I watch the tv series every day and read her books
I have read all the books I can find and bought them. I c a few more I need to get. Love this period in our past. Thank you so much.
When I was growing up in Encarnacion, Paraguay years ago, I saw The Little House on the Prairie episodes on tv, where the characters would speak in Spanish. Fast forward, I continued seeing the same program in the US in English. But I would never imagine, I would live so close to DeSmet, SD, where the Ingalls family would reside for a few years. I currently live in Watertown, SD. One day, when I have time, I will check DeSmet, SD.
I’ve been watching little house ever since I was a kid one of my favorite shows I hope they don’t take it off tv ever I like every single show there is!
I love her books and I still watch the TV series time after time I also came from a small town and went to a small school house
I grew up in Concord Wi. After they closed the one room school I attended I went to the new big two room school that was built in Concord. I fished the Oconomowoc river [we called it Cooney] as a kid. There were many nights I sat with my younger brother and grandma catching bullheads. I always heard stories of Laura as a kid but thought they were pulling my leg. I asked my mom and she played with kids that lived in the Ingalls house as a child. What a wonderful history of a small, tiny burg. It sure has grown over the years. What a shame!
How many books has she wrote? I would love to have them all. THANK YOU
I just found out that Laura Ingalls is a cousin. My grand aunt was her mother Caroline.
Wow that’s awsome ????strong family there.
This is fantastic I still watch LH every day it’s on at 5 and 6 pm. I relish in the true story history of the entire family…I collect primitives and this time period seems to be in my blood…I get laughed at by family when I have a box set on the DVD…I have it on in the background when I am cleaning.????
This was so interesting. Having grown up in Wis.
and interested in history, I loved LIW books. Such a great record of that period of time. My grandparents were dairy farmers and lived in a house w a wood stove for heat and cooking and outdoor “plumbing.
Their simple life always facinated me.
All kids should read these books. Makes me appreciate what we have, but envious of all they were able to make and do and survive.
Thank you for this information. Have been to all but one of L I W places. All are so informative and you can “feel” the old ghosts of time past.
Thanks for this. Like you say until I had started reading biographies and histories about LIW rather than just the books I had thought that Ma had come directly from New England or somewhere more East than eastern Wisconsin. Her early life was very hard scrabble and her grown up life wasn’t much better. I’m intrigued that Laura says Ma’s dresses were made by a dressmaker – I’m surprised that her family had enough money for that and then we learn in the books what a good dressmaker Ma was and how she passed on her skills to Laura
Perfectly made, almost torn to pieces by those perfectly slaved, never taken away…….Let’s keep her in our memories toward years to come
I’ve always enjoyed the Little House on the Prairie from being a young girl myself to know the older lady and I still enjoy it like I just saw it for the first time hopefully one day is on my bucket list that I will visit South Dakota and see some of the things of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family
I love little house on prairie, the ingalls family, wish could have lived in them days.
I love the Little House on the Prairie sometimes in life I find myself lost and I go and put on an episode of The Little House on the Prairie and instantly I’m grateful and thankful I’m also thankful for getting to know more and more about the real family of the Ingall
I have always loved Little House On The Praire. I am now 71 and still watch 2 episodes of it every day.
I like the cabin. Hope there are photos of the interior. Great article too. It’s worth reading, very interesting.
Ma dad, Henry Newcomb Quiner died in 1845, not 1844. (Bill Anderson got this incorrect year from a letter written by Henry’s daughter, Martha. — Not double checking on this date and episode, it has created an incorrect date for his death. Apologies for this error.)
Does anyone know why Charles and Caroline didn’t have any children the first 5 years of their marriage. But once they started having them, they had 5?
Why did baby Freddie die of?
I have happily been to both south dakota & missouri. been to missouri twice!!
I live about 10 to 30 miles away from Caroline’s mother’s grave.
Thank you so much for the information about Ma Ingalls. I’m sure that she HAD to have been a patient woman to have followed Pa into the wilderness time and time again. It’s on my bucket list to visit all of the home sites. I’m especially excited to see the old dugout site on the banks of Plum Creek, since I saw a YouTube video about it. They’ve located the caved in dugout and even the big rock on which Laura and Mary used to play, although it’s now partially submerged in the creek bed. Just being where these stories took place will be thrilling!
Sheila~ I first read On the Banks of Plum Creek in 2nd grade, in ’67-’68. I went to Walnut Grove and saw the dugout site almost 30 years ago, when my children were small. In town, before we went to the site, I overheard a man who said that the dugout site was “just a hole in the ground.” When I got there I was amazed by how wrong he was. At the site I could see EVERYTHING from the book in my mind, except that it was reverse from the illustration which shows the wagon approaching from the left-hand side when they arrived. The town is on the right. I mentioned what the man said about the site to my dad, who was there with us, and he said that I could see it because I “have the eye of imagination,” which the man didn’t have. When I was talking to the guide in the museum my dad said that one of the men in charge was going to make me move on, thinking I was taking too much of the guide’s time. My dad stopped him, saying, “Don’t bother her. She’s waited a long time for this.” That still means so much to me. My dad understood.
As a girl I read all Laura Ingalls Wilder books and loved them. I also enjoyed the tv series as an adult.
Hello! My Mother is half dutch,from shis dutch farher from North Germany. Do we have dutch blood. My grandmother was Norwegian woman from North land. My Mother have never look shis father in life,don’t Mother too. Mother waa adopted of Norwegian man/woman was married in many year. She Come first time Birthday 04.03.1946. I have Norwegian father,my Sister one farher from Norway. So i am interessted to now/know about my family in Germany. My mothers half sisters there. Father was maried in Germany,when he meet my grandmother in norway, he was soldjat in this young years. Marit?
Very interesting. I knew alot about Laura’s life, but not as much as this. Great information. Glad I was raised watching her life unfold.
Thank you for this interesting website. I have been a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, her books and her family since I was a young girl.
I have always loved this story and still watch Little House .. and I am 72. Thanks for sharing the history behind this, enjoyed it very much!
TO JAMES BRUMMET AUGUST 3 2016 AT 1148 AM IF YOU CAN FIND A BOK CALLED LAURAS ALBUM YOU WILL FIND NELLIE OLSONS PHOTO AND A LETTER FROM MARY INGALLS TO A GIRL NAMED MINNIE ALSO IN THE BOOK IS A PHOTO OF REVEREND ALDEN GOOD LUCK HOPE THIS HELPED
We have been to the Ingalls homestead in DeSmet, South Dakota. Very interesting place!
Thank you for this. I have been a fan of Laura’s since I was a little girl. Love all the information. One day I would love to travel to South Dakota and Missouri to see their homes and grave sites.
I have happily been to both south dakota & missouri. been to missouri twice!!
I live about 10 to 30 miles away from Caroline’s mother’s grave.
Thank you so much. I love the show Little house on the prairie. I was so thrilled to find out that I share the same birthday as the real Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am always researching and love reading and learning about all of them. I was thrilled when my mother in law gave me an old book she had for years. She told me when she finally found it (packed away) she knew it should be mine. The name of the book is ” Farmer Boy” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is filled with stories about Almanzo growing up. I love it. Tank you again and I can’t wait for more.
I like all the Little House on the Prairie shows. Do you any photos of the Olsons or Mr. Edwards?
Any photos of The Olsons or Mr.Edward’s?
James – we would invite you to explore the Season Guides to see some exclusive clips of the Olesons and Mr. Edwards. https://littlehouseontheprairie.com/tag/episode-guide/
I AM IN AWE LEARNING ABOUT THE WILDERS. THE INFORMATION YOU GAVE ABOUT MA (CAROLINE) JUST TOOK MY BREATH AWAY. I NEVER KNEW THAT LAURA’S SISTERS WERE CHILDLESS. I AM ASSUMING THEY ALL MARRIED. IT IS QUITE INTERESTING TO LEARN THAT MA INGALLS LIVED TO THE AGE OF 85? WITHOUT THE MEDICAL ADVANCEMENT AND TECHNOLOGY THAT WE HAVE TODAY, SHE LIVED A VERY LONG LIFE . THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR ALLOWING US TO SHARE IN THE HISTORY OF THIS PIONEER FAMILY.
Carrie Ingalls married and had step children because she married a widower. Mary Ingalls was blind and always lived with her mother. Im not sure if Grace ever married
Yes, Grace did marry, but had no children. She married Nathan Dow. Carrie married David Swanzey. In fact, the famous painter, Harvey Dunn, is Nathan Dow nephew. ( He painted pics of the pioneer life.)
I live in the Milwaukee area, so I disagree w/ the statement that Caroline was born “on the shore of Lake Michigan.” Today the town of Brookfield is a Milwaukee suburb, but hardly on the lakeshore. Brookfield (as well as the Elmbrook Historical Society listed on historical marker) is about 10 miles west of Lake Michigan.
Hello, i want ot know if there is some heir of the family now.. and who is it , the name and more information or if Rose was the last one. Thanks
sabrina – Rose was the last of the family. None of Laura’s sisters gave birth to any children.
Rose was the last one, she became a writer and never had children.
Rose did have a son, but he was born prematurely and died.
it was very interesting reading this story would like to know more
J aime le feuilletons de la petite maison dans la prairies
I LOVE THIS ANNE. JOHNSON
VERY INTERESTING READING THIS THANK YOU
This was very interesting I love watching the show and read some of the books
Our children loved the Little House Books and we took
Our children when they were young to see a few of the homestead sites.