Ella Rhoads was born in Council Grove, Kansas, to Charles Reeve[s] Rhoads and Mary A. Rhoads. She was the youngest of six children. In 1863, the family traveled by wagon train from Kansas to Oregon and first settled in Eastern Oregon’s Grand Ronde Valley. They later moved to Portland, then to a farm near Milwaukie, then to Oregon City. Ella was privately tutored and also attended public school. At age 23, she married Russell Carden Higginson, age 33, a druggist from the Northeastern United States. He was a distant cousin of New England writer and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson. In 1888, Ella and Russell Higginson moved to New Whatcom (later Bellingham), Washington where they would live the rest of their lives. During their marriage, Higginson and her husband traveled to the Northeast United States to visit his family and to Honolulu for her husband's health. Higginson herself traveled to Alaska for four consecutive summers as part of the research for her travel book. In 1892, the Higginson house in Bellingham was built. On May 14, 1909, Russell Higginson, age 57, died after a short illness. During WWI, Ella Higginson ceased to write during the war years and volunteered full-time for the American Red Cross. She died on December 27, 1940, at age 78, having been ill most of the year. She left an estate of about $60,000. She is buried in Bayview Cemetery, Bellingham, Washington beneath a self-designed granite monument adorned with four-leaf clovers, a reference to her most well-known poem.
In 1912, Higginson served as campaign manager for Washington State Republican candidate Frances C. Axtell, cousin of United States President Grover Cleveland. Axtell became the first female member of the Washington State Legislature.
Higginson won multiple national awards for her writing from magazines such as McClure’s and Collier’s. Over fifty of her poems were set to music and sung by celebrated dramatic singers of the day such as Enrico Caruso. In 1931, Higginson was named the first Poet Laureate of Washington State.