Hamlin Garland was born on September 14, 1860, in West Salem, Wisconsin, United States; the second of four children of Richard Garland and Isabelle (McClintock) Garland.
Hamlin Garland remembered his father, a native of Oxford County, Maine, as a stern military disciplinarian who constantly moved his family westward-from certainty to uncertainty, from a modest but comfortable home to a shanty-in search of a better life. Garland was drawn to his mother, who accepted the moves with quiet resignation, despite the suffering and hardships they caused. The contrast between his parents was to leave him with a particular tenderness toward women, which he transformed into a recurring theme in his fiction, in which he dealt with suppressed and beaten farm women.
When the Civil War came in 1861, Richard Garland left his family to fight for the Union, returning home in 1864. Restless and impatient, he moved his family to Winneshiek County, Iowa, in 1868, then to Mitchell County, Iowa, in August 1869.