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Almanzo Wilder

Son of Angeline and James Wilder and husband of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Mr. and Mrs. Wilder were early settlers of this county, coming here some 60 years ago, leaving here 45 years ago for Mansfield, Mo., where they now make their home. Mr. Wilder, although 80 years of age, made the trip from southern Missouri driving his own car. This was their first Old Settler’s Day in years. – De Smet News, June 13, 1939.

     
Almanzo James Wilder was born near Malone (Franklin County) New York on February 13, 1857 (or was he? Read below), the second son of Angeline Albina (Day) Wilder and James Mason Wilder. Almanzo had older siblings Laura (born 1844) and Royal (born 1847), and younger siblings. Alice (born 1853), Almanzo (born 1857) and Perley (born 1869). Almanzo attended a local township school (referred to as the school on Hardscrabble Hill in Farmer Boy, but historically this name applied to a school north of the Wilders in Spring Valley, Minnesota), and he may have been enrolled in Malone Academy prior to his family’s 1871 move to Spring Valley, Minnesota.

Farmer Boy. Laura Ingalls Wilder told the story of Almanzo’s childhood in her second book, Farmer Boy, published in 1933. From a young age, Almanzo wanted nothing more than to work the land and to raise the horses he loved. The Wilders owned a prosperous farm of about 120 acres in Burke Township (valued at $4000 in 1879), failure of one of their cash crops, hops, prompted James Wilder to follow relatives to Fillmore County, Minnesota, when Almanzo was a teenager. Almanzo worked on his father’s farm and hired out as a laborer while also attending school. His sister Alice married in September 1879 and moved to Marshall, Minnesota, where Angeline Wilder purchased 160 acres, and Almanzo farmed this land during the 1879 and 1880 growing seasons (see The Long Winter, Chapter 17, “Seed Wheat”).

     


     

“As near as I can figure, E.J. was right.” In a letter to Rose written March 22, 1937, Laura wrote: “Manly was supposed to be 21 years old. To enter a homestead a man must be 21 or the head of a household (married). E.J. told later (she would) that he was only 18. Manly has never admitted it but as near as I can figure E.J. was right.”

It always seemed funny to me that Laura wouldn’t know when her own husband was born. Or did she know, and we don’t? I’m not talking about book Almanzo at all, but the real one. The real one whose birthday was February 13… but what year?

The James Wilder family Bible burned, so that’s no help. Almanzo’s birth wasn’t recorded in Franklin County NY birth records, so no help there either. No baptism record. He’s not on church records in Franklin County or in Fillmore County, Minnesota. He never joined the Methodist church in Mansfield.

Looking at censuses (which aren’t always correct), even they aren’t consistent as to Almanzo’s age. Other known recorded ages are also included in this list, as are items from certain years that pertain to Almanzo. Number in parentheses refers to how many years “off” the record is if Almanzo’s birthday is February 13, 1857.

  • 1860 census, Almanzo is listed as 1 year old (as of June 1, 1860). If he was born in 1857, he should have been 3. Royal’s and E.J.’s ages agree with their birth years. [-2]
  • 1870 census, Almanzo is listed as 11 (but both Royal and E.J. are two years off). [-2]
  • 1872, January 11-12 letter from James Wilder mentions that Almanzo is going to school. No age given. Almanzo would be 14, as this is the month prior to his birthday.
  • 1874, April 19 letter from Angeline Wilder to E.J, Royal, and Alice mentions that Almanzo is working out at $1 per day. Almanzo would be 17.
  • 1875 Minnesota State census, Almanzo is listed as 14 as of May 1; Perley (the only other child at home) is listed as 6 (correct for Perley, who was born in 1869). [-4]
  • 1875 New York state census from June, Almanzo is listed as 16, with no occupation but not in school. [-2]
  • 1879 homestead first filing submitted August 21, Almanzo stated that he was “over the age of 21 years.” Almanzo was 22. [+1]
  • 1880 Dakota Territory census, Almanzo is listed as 22 (Royal 32, E.J. 29). Laura is 13. He’s enumerated in both Kingsbury and Beadle Counties with the same age given. [+1]
  • 1884 homestead proof submitted September 12, Almanzo gave his age as 26 years old. [+1]
  • 1890 preemption testimony of April 9, Almanzo gave his age as 31 years old. [-2]
  • 1900 census, Almanzo is listed as 39, born February 1861. Laura age 32, born February 1868. [+4]
  • 1910 census, Almanzo is listed as 51. Laura is 41. Rose is 22. [+3]
  • 1920 census, Almanzo is listed as 61. Laura is 54. [+3]
  • 1930, Almanzo is listed as 73. Laura is 63. Age at marriage: Almanzo 27, Laura 17. [0]
  • 1939, Almanzo and Laura were in De Smet in June for Old Settler’s Day. The newspaper reported that Almanzo was 80. [+2]
  • 1940 census, Almanzo is listed as 83. [-1]
  • 1949 death certificate, birth date given is February 13, 1857; died October 23 at age 92. Information provided by Laura. [0]

There’s a fairly repetitive 2-year difference in Almanzo’s age through the years. For the 5 times where he is reported as younger than his birth year suggests, the average is 2.6 years less; for the 6 times he’s recorded as older than his birth year suggests, the average is 2.3 years over. Not exactly proof one way or the other, but on top of Laura’s apparent belief that Almanzo was too young to homestead in 1879, enough to make one wonder. What other records could be checked? (1) Driver’s license: Missouri began requiring one in 1903. Did it record birth date? Is Almanzo’s license in the museum in Mansfield? (2) Hospital / doctor’s records: Perhaps some are at the museum? (3) Marriage record: Age at marriage is usually recorded. Kingsbury County didn’t require these when Laura and Almanzo got married. (4) Rose’s birth record: Birth records often included age of parents, but Kingsbury County didn’t require registration of live birth in 1886. There is a record of Rose writing to the newspaper office to obtain mention of her birth in the local paper as a confirmation of her birth date/location. (5) Almanzo didn’t serve in the military, nor was he ever required to register for the draft, so that’s out. (6) Life insurance policy/policies. Any at the museum? (7) School records: I haven’t been able to locate any from Burke, Malone, or Spring Valley so far.

Almanzo needed to be 21 in order to homestead. If he was actually born in February 1857, there would have been no question about his age when he filed in August 1879. But even before publication of By the Shores of Silver Lake (in which Almanzo is introduced again, but not his age), Laura is writing that “as near as she can figure out,” Almanzo was too young to homestead. Remember too, that Almanzo filed on his claim in 1879, not 1880 (the year Charles Ingalls filed on his homestead). An 1857 birth year makes him old enough to file; an 1859 birth year does not. I looked at marriage, death, and divorce records in Minnesota (Fillmore and Lyon Co.) and Dakota Territory (Kingsbury, Brookings, and Yankton Co.), thinking that perhaps there was a first wife who died circa 1879. If Almanzo had been married prior to his 21st birthday, he could have filed on a claim, no matter what his age.

A couple of other things: Almanzo was supposedly great friends with Richard Sears in Spring Valley. Sears was born December 7, 1863. He was also said to be friends with Cap Garland, and Laura writes in The Long Winter (fictional) that Cap and Almanzo are the same age. Cap Garland was born December 27, 1864.

Sometimes you take things on faith. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you dig and dig and you still aren’t satisfied. I’m still not satisfied. If you have any other documents that record an age or birth year for Almanzo, please let me know. – from my old blog, originally posted February 13, 2005. 1940 census info added when it became available.

     
Homesteading in Dakota Territory. In August 1879, Almanzo, Royal, and Eliza Jane Wilder each filed on a homestead and a tree claim in Kingsbury County, near the proposed De Smet townsite. On August 21, Almanzo first filed on his homestead (the NE 21-111-56) and a tree claim (the SE 9-111-56). He established residency on his homestead on September 30, digging a well and cellar, and building a frame house twelve feet square, with two doors and one window. He also built two stables and planted some trees on his homestead and began breaking land for planting on his tree claim. To help pay for his claims, Almanzo worked on the Dakota Central branch of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad during the summers of 1879 and 1880. Final proof was made on his homestead on September 12, 1884. Although he purchased a town lot in De Smet, there is no evidence that Almanzo ever built on this property or lived there prior to his marriage. Click HERE to read more about Almanzo’s claims.

Almanzo Wilder married Laura Ingalls on August 25, 1885, and they moved into a house on Almanzo’s tree claim. They moved back to the homestead prior to daughter Rose’s birth in December 1886. Successful farming on the Dakota prairie eluded the Wilders, as illness, dust storms, hail, blizzards, fire, and crop failures plagued the young family. Laura and Almanzo both suffered from diphtheria in the spring of 1888, with Almanzo’s case particularly severe. The following year, a son was born and only live for a few weeks.

Laura and Almanzo lived in Spring Valley with his parents for about a year in 1890-1891 before moving briefly to the Florida panhandle. Almanzo had sold his homestead in 1888 and preemption in 1890, but he was saddled with a mortgage on the preemption that took several more years to pay off. Not finding Florida suitable, the Wilders returned to De Smet during the summer of 1892, purchasing a house on Fourth Street for $200. They lived here for two years while working to save enough money to move again, this time in search of a better life in the Missouri Ozarks.

Mansfield, Missouri. Most likely at the invitation of his friend Frank Cooley, Almanzo and Laura and Rose traveled with the Cooleys from De Smet to Wright County, Missouri, in the summer of 1894. On September 21, they purchased forty acres just east of Mansfield, part of the NW-SE 22-28N-15W (36 acres) and part of the NE-SE 22 (4 acres), for $400. June 22, 1898, Almanzo purchased a house and lot on Commercial Street in Mansfield, with money given to him by his father. Upon the death of his friend Frank, Almanzo took over his draying duties, delivering coal oil and kerosene, while also working his farm.

Although the land was rocky and hilly, farming was more successful on Rocky Ridge Farm for the Wilders, especially for the land they devoted to their apple orchard, where Almanzo planted mostly Ben Davis and Missouri Pippin apples. Almanzo added parcels to their farm acreage over the years, including 40 acres in 1899, 12 in 1905, and 40 in 1918. The farmhouse built by Almanzo is now part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum complex, as is the Rock House built on 40 acres to the east, a 1929 gift to her parents by daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Almanzo was not only a farmer and horseman, but a skilled carpenter whose crafts are on display in the Wilder Museum, including wide-arm chairs, a cypress knee table, stick lamp, cabinetry, and a collection of walking sticks fashioned by him. Almanzo even hooked rugs and sofa pillows out of woolen fabric scraps, and he cobbled his own shoes!

When Farmer Boy was published, Almanzo was in his late seventies. School children wrote Laura to say how much they loved Almanzo. Once readers figured out how Almanzo of Farmer Boy was related to Mrs. Wilder, the author, “They all seem wildly interested and want to know how, where and when Laura met Almanzo and about their getting married,” as Laura wrote to Rose in 1938. Almanzo was consulted many times for information during both the writing of the Little House books and by Rose when writing Free Land. Many letters between Laura and Rose survive which mention details about Almanzo’s later life; there are also letters written by Almanzo. His later years were spent gardening, tending a herd of goats, or visiting with his friend Silas Seal in Mansfield. He and Laura were both avid readers, but Almanzo was a poor speller.

In the summer of 1939, Almanzo and Laura returned to De Smet for the 50th Old Settler’s Day in June, both as settlers from sixty years ago and as Hard Winter survivors. They were photographed while visiting at the De Smet News office, shown here.

Almanzo Wilder died October 23, 1949, at home in Mansfield. His obituary in the De Smet News reads:

A.J. Wilder Dies; Pioneer, Husband Of Noted Author. Has Frequent Mention In Wife’s “Little House” Stories of De Smet. A pioneer of this vicinity, husband and father of writers about its settlement, A.J. Wilder, died October 23d at the farm near Mansfield, Mo., where he and his wife had resided since leaving De Smet in 1894. He was 92 years of age. / Report of the death comes to The News in last week’s issue of the Mansfield Mirror. / Mr. Wilder had been seriously ill but was thought to be improved when death took him after he suffered a sudden heart attack. His wife was alone with him at the time. / Coming to this vicinity with a brother in 1879, Mr. Wilder had taken a claim north of town, as did his brother, and they had a store in De Smet. Here he came to know Laura Ingalls, and his marriage to her culminated one of the early romances of the small settlement, and eventually made him a character of her books of pioneer life. / He was the father of Rose Wilder Lane, journalist and novelist who also wrote of pioneering on the Dakota prairies. / On leaving Dakota for Missouri the family located on a farm in the Ozarks and he operated this until recent years and they continued to live there after retirement. / Almanzo J. Wilder was a son of James and Angeline Day Wilder, born February 13, 1857, at Malone, N.Y. / He and the daughter of the first family of this vicinity were married August 25, 1885. Their only child, Rose, was born here. / Mr. Wilder was a member of the Masonic lodge. / Mrs. Lane arrived at Mansfield from Danbury, Conn., her home, in time for the funeral held Friday, services being at the Methodist church at Mansfield. Mrs. Wilder’s accounts of her life here, being true stories, include mention of Mr. Wilder.

     

Almanzo Wilder (FB; SSL 28; TLW 7, 10, 17, 20, 23, 25-29, 31; LTP 8, 13, 16, 18-19, 21, 23-24; THGY 3-8, 10-14, 16-17, 19-33; PG)
     Almanzos first pair of boots (FB 23)
     Almanzo’s pumpkin wins blue ribbon (FB 21)
     El Manzoor (LTP 16) – Used in explanation of Almanzo’s name as a variation of El Manzoor, a family story being that a person by that name saved a Wilder ancestor’s life during the Crusades, and the name honored him. Mansour is a common Arabic name; el is the common article the.
     Almanzo and Laura become engaged (THGY 23)
     exploding potato burns Almanzo (FB 20)
     gift of gold bar pinfrom Almanzo to Laura (THGY 25)
     lives in house near schoolhouse with brother Roy (PG)
     has nicknames Manzo and Mannie (PG)
     Royal and Almanzo go home to Minnesota for Christmas (THGY 24)
     Wilder boys / brothers (SSL 28; TLW 2, 8, 10, 19, 22, 26, 28, 31; LTP 11; THGY 16; PG)
     Almanzo wins buggy race with peddler’s cart (LTP 8)