Nellie Oleson: Myth or History?

After hearing in our last post that Doc Baker and the Garvey family are characters completely original to the Little House TV series, you were probably glad to hear that at least Laura’s nemesis in the TV show, Nellie Oleson, and the rest of the Oleson family came from the books.

However, it turns out that not everything the TV show tells us about the Olesons comes from the books. In addition, not everything that we think we know about the Nellie Oleson of the books is true to history.

#11 Nels and Harriet Oleson


A photo of the real Nellie and her family. Nellie stands in the center of the photo.

In the TV show, Harriet is Nellie’s mother. From season one and on, Harriet is a consistently antagonistic character. She’s rude, nagging, prideful, and vain. Like daughter like mother, I guess you could say. The Nellie of the TV show obviously takes after her mom. Nels Oleson, on the other hand, is a kind, generous, and gentle man, his greatest fault being that he’s a bad disciplinarian and a bit of a pushover. Although these characters certainly help make the TV show more interesting, their characters have almost no grounding in the books. In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Oleson’s first names are never mentioned, and the characters really only appear in two chapters in the book On the Banks of Plum Creek. These chapters don’t give us much insight into who they are as individuals besides the fact that they are more wealthy than the rest of the town because Mr. Oleson owns a store in town and that the parents don’t seem to have much discipline over their rude and selfish children.

#12 Nellie Oleson

Even though we may not know for sure whether or not Mrs. Oleson was rude and vain, we do know more about Nellie Oleson, right? Well, it turns out that “Nellie Oleson” never even existed. Before you get too upset, though, I should explain that Laura did know girls who were like Nellie Oleson. In fact, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s depiction of Nellie Oleson in the Little House series is based on three different real-life girls who Laura knew during her childhood and adolescent years. And all three of these girls had Nellie-like qualities, which meant that they didn’t get along with Laura very well. The names of these girls were Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert. The real life Nellie Owens did have a brother named Willie, as did the Nellie Oleson of the TV show and books, and her parents also owned a store in Walnut Grove. The season one TV episode “Town Party, Country Party” is probably one of the most accurate-to-the-book portrayals of the Nellie/Laura rivalry. As we know from Laura’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl, this portrayal also stays pretty true to events that actually occurred in Laura’s life.


17 comments on “Nellie Oleson: Myth or History?

  1. Sharen says:

    Great information 😊

  2. I’ve read that Mamie Beardsley was also one of the girls LIW rolled into one as Nellie

    • L. Lanw says:

      No, Mamie wasn’t one of them.

    • Andrea says:

      Not sure how likely that is — Mamie Beardsley was her own named (albeit minor) character in Little Town on the Prairie. She was more Carrie’s contemporary than Laura’s. (Unless my memory fails me, wasn’t she involved in the rocking desk episode?)

    • That is something I’ve never heard before, and I’ve been researching and writing about the three “Nellies” for awhile now! Where did you come across possibility? I am soooo interested!

  3. DEBORAH says:

    I loved to hate Nellie Oleson on “The little House on the Prairie” tv show. The rivalry between Nellie and Laura was a
    A very good potrayl (I thought) of how Laura felt about her in the books. Most of the rest of the characters were disappointing to my 12 year old anticipation of the tv show.

    • I agree, Deborah. Though the storylines, and many of the characters, on the tv show were not from the books, I thought the show did a decent job of portraying the rivalry between Laura and Nellie. One of the things I was hoping to find as I researched the real “Nellies” for my book was that they grew into nice people like Alison Arngrim’s character did. Unfortunately, two of the “Nellies” grew into adult “Nellies!” πŸ™‚

      • Chellsheart says:

        oh wow, Robynne! I find that good to know, I didn’t know. But, I suppose with three of them….the odds are at least one would be outgrowing the rude, snotty and childish behavior. Do you or anyone know here, maybe Leah….I read somewhere that the ‘OLESON Store” is in Walnut Grove, MN….which Nellie is that in honor of? Is it based on the one Alison Arngrim played? I would like to think so, but not sure.

  4. Hi. There wasn’t family name Oleson in real life. Only Owens was their real last name.

    Craig Culwell

  5. Yes Nellie was real person in real life. Her last name was Owens not Oleson.

    Craig Culwell

    • Actually, there were three “Nellies.” Both Genevieve Masters and Nellie Owens lived in Walnut Grove, but the stories in the series from there are mostly Nellie Owens. Genevieve moved to De Smet, and she and Estella Gilbert made up the Nellie character from that point, though it was mostly Genevieve. Poor Estella got lumped with the other Nellies, but she wasn’t that bad. She was the one the “buggy ride” story was based on.

  6. When I was looking into the three “Nellies,” I was a little sad to find out that two of the “Nellies” (Gennevieve and Nellie Owens) grew up to be fairly Nellie-like. Especially Nellie Owens. Poor Estella Gilbert, however, really wasn’t that bad either as a kid, or certainly as an adult! Feel a little sorry she has to carry that legacy!

    • Kat Miller says:

      Nellie Owens did NOT grow up to act like the “Nellie” of the show. It is unfortunate when people come to that conclusion but with her name and life situations being so similar, it isn’t too surprising. If you are interested in looking into her history more deeply, perhaps researching or interviewing folks where she lived as an adult or talking with her decedents would help give a more accurate portrayal.

      • Hi Kat. I absolutely agree that Nellie Owens didn’t grow up to act like the Nellie of the show. I never said that she did. I have only ever referred to the Nellies of the books, which is my area of research, study, writing, and speaking. And it is my understanding, after consulting with numerous Little House researchers, docents, and historians in preparing for writing my biography that I have amassed the largest known body of research about the three “Nellies” who made up the composite character of Nellie Oleson (again, only referring to the one in the books). With numerous documents, letters, journal entries, and articles in hand, from land records through to Nellie Owens’ divorce and death records, I will have to respectfully disagree with you that Nellie Owens did not, as an adult, exhibit some very similar personal characteristics to that of the (book) “Nellie.” She presented as dishonest, had a rather wickedly sharp tongue, and was not averse to representing herself in an inaccurate, if not illegal, manner. All of which is documented. I don’t think she was the devil incarnate, by any stretch, but I think the facts could easily be construed as Nellie-like behavior.

  7. Chellsheart says:

    I think we all have known kids in our childhood similar to all three of the “Nellie’s”. Or for some adults, maybe they could be accused of behaving like one or all the the real life characters that Laura rolled up into one fictious person. Makes for a great read as a kid and very interesting as we search out the truth and remember just what we think we know of the stories and Laura’s life. Awesome and very interesting to read! Thanks for sharing, Leah πŸ™‚

  8. Carol Shepherd says:

    Which of the three Nellie’s was the one that tried to steal Almanzo from Laura on the buggy rides?

    • That’s Estella Gilbert. But whether she tried to “steal” him, or was simply interested, or even if HE was mildly interested is up for discussion. Almanzo was a cutie, so it’s not shocking that he drew interest. πŸ™‚

      Estella wasn’t mean, though. The worst thing Laura wrote about her was that she was “lazy.” And that might have just been the comment of a slightly jealous person. πŸ™‚

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