Was Pa Ingalls trying to always find something better, or was he trying to provide for his family?

After re-reading the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder as an adult, I have a different view of Charles “Pa” Ingalls than I once did.

In my child’s mind, Pa was fun and spontaneous and always looking for adventure.

As an adult I still see Pa as those things, but also as a little bit irritating and maybe somewhat irresponsible at times. From what we read in the books, he was always looking for the next adventure or opportunity, instead of finding stability for his family. Then again, maybe traveling from place to place was how he was finding financial stability for his family – he had to go where the work and food was.

It had to have been hard for him to stay still, I realize that. He was a person who was always looking for a new experience. When more families pushed into the west to find new experiences, he wanted to join them.

Pa reminds me a lot of a family member of my husband’s who is always seeking a new opportunity that she is sure will bring her riches. Each scheme fails and she’s left right where she started. In some ways, this is Pa.

He moves the family to the prairie, but the government threatens to move them out so he leaves and moves on to Plum Creek. They are there several years but as soon as Pa is offered another opportunity to build a new life in a new land, he’s gone again, moving his family hundreds of miles across the country.

Living with him must have been hard for his wife and children, more so his wife Caroline. Even though the books are more fiction than non-fiction, it’s clear that Laura probably wrote some truth in the pages when it came to her parents and her father’s constant urge to move the family. There were many times Laura described her mother as worried or tired and who wouldn’t be when their spouse is constantly coming home with a new idea and when they live in unpredictable places where life can change on a whim?

“Laura knew that Ma had never wanted to leave Plum Creek and did not like to be here now; she did not like traveling in that lonely country with night coming on and such men riding the prairie.” – On the Shores of Silver Lake.

When Pa did come back from his trips, he always had some crazy story about why he was delayed or what happened during the trip. The stories were most likely true — except that far fetched one on Plum Creek when he fell in a snowbank/cave and had to stay there for three days until he was able to dig his way out and then found out he was right up the hill from their house. Come on, Pa, really? You were in town hanging out with the blacksmith or the general store owner. Don’t lie, dude. *wink*

He also left his family alone in some dangerous situations where angry Native Americans (I mean, the Ingalls were building homes on their land half the time, so of course tthey were angry), wolves, rowdy railroad workers, or other threats could have harmed them.

Charles and Caroline Ingalls

Despite Pa’s propensity to launch the family into an insecure situation, it was clear he loved them. I don’t believe he was always rushing off to something new simply for himself. Sometimes he might have been, but mainly he was taking new jobs, trying new things in farming, and moving to new places to help provide a better life for his family, not gain riches and fame for himself.

Even if he was doing it for his family, it couldn’t have been easy never knowing when he might come home and suggest they move again.

Luckily, Pa sacrifices his desire for adventure more than once for Caroline and his girls, something Laura touches on in The Shores of Silver Lake.

When Laura’s cousins leave to go further West, both she and Pa look after them wistfully, wishing they could follow them into adventure. Pa, however, says he won’t continue into the west because a town his being built where they are now and with a town will come a school. Caroline always wanted her children to attend school and Pa says he promised her he would calm down and settle down so the children could be educated.

In the end, it was the love of Caroline and his girls that kept him at least a little bit grounded.

Have you ever read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series? What is your impression of Charles Ingalls based on these books? Was his desire for adventure a detriment or a benefit to his family? Did he drag them all over the country too much, even if he did do it for the right reason?

12 thoughts on “Was Pa Ingalls trying to always find something better, or was he trying to provide for his family?

  1. Pingback: Sunday Bookends: Unconvential shows and movies, dairy parades, and new book covers | Boondock Ramblings

  2. People who have ever had to hustle – and I mean truly hustle – to get by are not psychologically threatened by change and personal risk in the way that people who park themselves in one place are. (The real Charles Ingalls was also a Freemason, so he probably had pseudo-professional connections in most of the places they landed, which is why he could pick up work virtually anywhere.) Like many folks today, he just wasn’t of the rat race persuasion.

    If he had planted his family in one place and eked out a boring existence, his daughter would not have had anything to write about. It’s a lot more interesting to read books about being left alone on the prairie with alien cultures than it is to read about tending the counter at the family store every day until you die.

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  3. My mom loved the books, but I only ever watched the TV show. Even then I always thought he was doing his best to support his family during a time when things seemed to be constantly changing and new opportunities were always around the corner. But I think the show made them seem more stable than they actually were.

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    • From reading the books in order, I’d say the show definitely painted him in a better light but I also think the books show a man who wasn’t perfect but did try hard to support his family. And he certainly seemed to love his girls.

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  4. I love these books so much! I reread them every year and would love to take a Little House “pilgrimage” as a trip one day. That being said – I think that even though this could be a very adventurous way to live, I could see not every member of the family enjoying it. Especially Ma. I am sure as a mother she may have craved stability for the girls and we know she wanted regular school days for them. I feel like Laura of all of them embraced the changes and challenges for she ultimately trusted and adored her father.

    I have read some not great accounts of Charles Ingalls though, in biographies of the family. I had to stop reading them because they bothered me and were too much realism for me. I prefer to just believe the Little House books – they are a long time favorite and I don’t want that ruined, if it makes sense. Lol. That being said, have you read The Wilder Life? I loved that book!

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  5. I have to read those books again. I remember reading the first one but I believe the TV series is clouding the book version. I will have to go back and read the whole series as an adult. Reminds me of my dad. We lived in North Dakota for awhile because my dad was able to find work there as well as Texas. Mostly he would work jobs around Arizona since this it was his birth state and where he always said his true home was. The hardest times were when he would quit a job a couple weeks before Christmas. He did this a couple times if I remember right.

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    • I think some men are simply roamers and wanderers. Not always a bad thing – it’s just how they are. The bad thing is if they wander away from their family and never come back.


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