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.


One comment on “Nellie Oleson: Myth or History?

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

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