Conrad Michael Richter, the son of the Reverend John Absalom Richter and Charlotte Esther Henry Richter, was born on October 13, 1890, in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, a town named by his great-grandfather, a tavern keeper. His mother's family included tradesmen, craftsmen, a United States congressman, and a hero of the War of 1812. Richter's interest in philosophy and religion derived from his paternal grandfather and uncle, both circuit-riding clergymen, and his father, a former storekeeper-turned-Lutheran-pastor to small parishes of coal miners.
Opting for a writing career, Richter gave up his original plans to major in philosophy and religion. At nineteen, he began reporting for the Patton, Pennsylvania, Courier. To improve his writing style, he sought editing jobs on the Johnstown Journal and Leader and the Pittsburgh Dispatch.
From 1910 to 1924, Richter served as a private secretary — a position that enabled him to travel — to a wealthy Cleveland family. During this period, in 1915, his short story "Brothers of No Kin" was included in The Best Short Stories of 1915. He also published various stories in Ladies' Home Journal, American, and Saturday Evening Post, and wrote children's stories for John Martin's Book.
Also in 1915, Richter married Harvena Maria Achenbach and settled outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The couple had only one child, a daughter. To support the family, Richter opened a publishing firm in Reading, Pennsylvania, but he earned little from his first published title, Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories (1924).
When his wife became ill in 1928, Richter sold the Reading publishing firm and resettled first near the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and later in Arizona. A lover of history from boyhood, he studied American Southwest history and folklore by reading documents, diaries, military maps and charts, letters, and news clippings. To gain a full knowledge of the American Southwest and to enliven his fiction, he also interviewed elderly residents about their experiences. By publishing his stories in many magazines and anthologies, including Ghost Stories, Country Home, Western Trails, Farm Journal, and Woman's Home Companion, he gained the lifelong support of his readers, who approved of his authentic detail and diction. He developed themes of fortitude and perseverance, which earned him a reputation as spokesman for the pioneer era.
Most comfortable writing short stories, Richter published Early Americana and Other Stories in 1936, his first collection of American Southwest tales. He achieved a major breakthrough with The Sea of Grass (1937), a best-selling prairie novel about a cattle baron who settles in the Midwest. During his twenty-two years living in the American Southwest, he published many books, including Tacey Cromwell (1942), a story about a prostitute in an Arizona mining boom town, Always Young and Fair (1947), which details the life of a woman whose lover died in the Spanish-American War, The Light in the Forest (1953), about a boy who's forced to choose between two racial and cultural identities, and The Lady (1957), an account of the unsolved disappearance of Doña Ellen Sessions from the New Mexico Territory during a range feud between herders and cattle breeders. His historical fiction examines progress during an era of national growth. It also examines the price of this prosperity in terms of family hardship, individual suffering and loss, and society's breakup.
Richter returned to Pennsylvania and focused his writing on Pennsylvania history in a trilogy, The Awakening Land (1966), subtitled The Trees, The Fields, and The Town, the saga of heroine Sayward Luckett's family, pioneers in the Ohio Valley from the 1700s until the American Civil War.
At Richter's death in a Pottsville, Pennsylvania, hospital on October 30, 1968, Pine Grove established the Conrad Richter Memorial Fund, which supports the planting of trees. Outside his former home on Mifflin Street, his publisher and agent placed an informational plaque. Pennsylvania State University maintains a Richter collection, which includes his posthumous collection, The Rawhide Knot and Other Stories (1978), and a parallel to True Son's story, A Country of Strangers (1982), the story of Mary Stanton, a female captive whom the Lenni Lenape rename Stone Girl.
Richter's attention to ordinary work habits, superstitions, rites of passage, dialect, and belief systems earned him the 1961 National Book Award for autobiographical fiction for The Waters of Kronos (1960), a work in which he altered his life story in Pine Grove to that of the fictional John Donner in Unionville. In addition, he earned an Ohioana Library Medal, a Gold Medal for Literature from Society of Libraries of New York University, a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1959, and honorary doctorates from Susquehanna and Temple universities, the University of New Mexico, and Lafayette and Lebanon Valley colleges. He achieved his greatest recognition when he was awarded the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for The Town (1950), an appealing portrayal of pioneer life.