Wilder Baby Names: Little Names on the Prairie
All pioneer names didn’t evoke subsistence, desolate winters, or dull prairie life–some of their baby names were as adventurous as the frontier folk themselves. Here are some stunning examples that are straight from the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s historical and largely-autobiographical Little House books.
Laura Elizabeth Ingalls (1867-1957) is the spirited protagonist who wrote a set of classic tales about her life at the request of her romantically-named daughter (and only surviving child) Rose Wilder Lane. Her first full manuscript was written under the working title Pioneer Girl and was rejected; this evolved into the nine-book series beginning with Little House in the Big Woods on through The First Four Years. Her lore didn’t stop there, though. West From Home is a series of Laura’s letters to her husband during a visit to the 1915 World’s Fair. On The Way Home and The Road Back are diaries of her major trips; the latter three volumes were published posthumously.
The year of Laura’s birth is likely to have seen her first name in the top 20. By 1880, Laura was ranked #17 in the U.S and her middle name, Elizabeth, was #4. The surname Ingalls (“from England”) has Scottish origins and goes back to Old Norse (Viking) days.
A devoted daughter, Laura is Pa’s “little half pint of sweet cider half-drunk up” and steps up to the filial duties as a schoolteacher when older sister Mary becomes disabled. At age eighteen Laura marries Almanzo James Wilder, whom she affectionately calls Manly.
Almanzo appears to be an Anglicization of an Arabic name whose origin is explained to some extent in Little Town on the Prairie: “Way back in the time of the crusades there was a Wilder…and an Arab…saved his life. El Manzoor was his name.” Almanzo isn’t found on any SSA Top 1000 lists for at least 130 years, but similar name Alonzo was ranked at #126 when Almanzo Wilder was aged 23.
Caroline Lake (Quiner) “Ma” Ingalls, Charles Phillip “Pa” Ingalls. Ma’s middle name, Lake, has been revived by the likes of Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen, and Caroline (meaning “free man” and a feminine version of Charles) is almost as classic a choice as Mary or Laura.
Mary Amelia, Caroline Celestia “Carrie”, Charles Frederic “Freddy”, and Grace Pearl Ingalls are Laura’s siblings. Mary, the eldest, becomes blind as a complication from what was (130+ years later) determined to probably have been viral meningoencephalitis. Carrie’s striking middle name, Celestia, is a variant of the “heavenly” Celeste. Freddy is not mentioned in the original children’s literature and tragically died at only nine months old.
Jack the brindle bulldog is a faithful companion of the family’s in Laura’s childhood. Against all odds, he survives an unexpected rise in the water level as the Ingallses float their wagon across a waterway on their journey to Plum Creek, MN. There is also a pet cat, Black Susan.
Charlotte the rag doll is Laura’s dearest possession and one of her only childhood toys. She has black button eyes, black woolen curls, and a dress of pink and blue Calico. Laura’s maternal grandmother’s name was Charlotte Wallis (Tucker) Quiner, but it is uncertain whether this family tie is where she gets the inspiration for the name of her beloved companion.
Although it was never discussed in the books, Laura may have been named after Pa’s sister Laura Ladocia “Docia” Ingalls. Aunt Docia first appears with cameo pin affixed and corsets pulled in Little House in the Big Woods, which is set in Laura’s birthplace of Pepin, Wisconsin.
Docia’s children with first husband August Waldvogel are Laura’s cousins Lena and August Eugene “Jean.” Aunt Docia later marries Hiram “Uncle Hi” Forbes. A festive and related word-name is Delaine: Ma’s dark-green, fancy, special-occasion dress that she wears to the sugaring-off dance.
Among Pa’s siblings that appear in Laura’s stories are Ruba Celestia “Aunt Ruby”, Pauline Melona “Aunt Polly”, and George Whiting “Uncle George” Ingalls. Uncle George gets beaten in a jigging contest with Grandma.
Uncle Peter Riley Ingalls and his wife, Eliza, are parents to Laura’s cousins Alice Josephine, Ella Estella, and Peter Franklin Ingalls. Aunt Ruby’s baby is named Dolly Varden Card, but in the first book she is mentioned as “Aunt Eliza’s baby.”
Ida Wright Brown is Laura’s schoolmate who crochets lace for Laura as a wedding gift. Ida later marries Elmer McConnell. Oscar Edmund “Cap” Garland is one of the young suitors in Laura’s social circle. The easygoing nickname Cap could fit any number of formal first names for either a 19th or a 21st century fella.
Royal Gould, Eliza Jane, and Alice are the siblings of Almanzo’s that are mentioned in Farmer Boy. When their parents go out of town, the Wilder children do some damage to the wallpaper in Ma’s pristine parlor. The day is saved when bossy Eliza Jane takes pity on Almanzo and patches the ink splotch by hand. Almanzo’s youngest brother, Perley Day, has not yet been born at the time of the story.
More details and postscripts that aren’t in the original nine books: Almanzo’s parents are James Mason Wilder and Angelina Albina Day. Eliza Jane marries later in life and has a son, Walcott “Wilder” Thayer—he lives up to his family surname nickname when he visits Laura and Almanzo’s Rocky Ridge farm and makes mischief.
“Old Dan Tucker” is a song Pa’s friend Mr. Edwards sings for the Ingalls children. The Ingalls are also close with Robert and Ellie Boast.
Nellie Oleson is Laura’s childhood frenemy who in the later books represents her three real-life nemeses: Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert.
Last but not least, Reverend Edwin Hyde Alden (meaning “old, wise friend”) is the Walnut Grove (MN) patriarch who founds the church; later, he reunites with the Ingalls family in the Dakota Territory.