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.


Walnut Grove Myths

As we have been discovering in the past few posts of our Little House myths series, the popular Little House on the Prairie TV show has propagated some incorrect information about the Ingalls family. Last time, I debunked a few myths about Laura’s life as a young adult. This time, I’m going to take care of some of those myths that have spread about the town of Walnut Grove itself.

#8 The Ingalls Family in Walnut Grove

plum creek

A photo of the real Plum Creek in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The sign on the opposite bank marks the location of the dugout that the Ingalls Family lived in upon first arriving in the area.

In the Little House TV show, Laura lives in Walnut Grove from the time her family moves there after living temporarily in Kansas until a few years after her marriage to Almanzo Wilder. She and her family do move occasionally during this time, only to return after a short time to their beloved town in Minnesota. In real life, the Ingalls family only lived in Walnut Grove, MN, for a total of three years, moving to Burr Oak Iowa after the first two years to work in a hotel. They came back a year later. The historical Laura spent her teenage and young adult years in De Smet, South Dakota, and that is also where she met her husband, Almanzo. To point out one nod that the TV show makes to the travels of the historical Ingalls family, the TV show family does move away from Walnut Grove to work in a hotel at one point, which is very similar to the historical family’s move to the Masters Hotel in Iowa. However, the fictional town of Winoka that the TV show family moves to appears to be in the Dakotas, not Iowa.

#9 Dr. Hiram Baker

One of the most notable secondary characters in the Little House TV show is Dr. Hiram Baker, the town’s physician. Doc Baker appears in every season of the show, and he’s always trusty and dependable. Unfortunately, however, no Doc Baker ever appears in Laura’s original stories. Although other Walnut Grove townspeople such as Miss Beadle, Reverend Alden, and Mr. Nelson were all based on characters from the books, Laura never mentions a Doc Baker.

#10 The Garveys

Although there are plenty of minor characters in the TV show who do not appear in the books, it may be shocking to learn that even some of the Ingalls’ family’s best friends, the Garveys, are just as fictional as Doc Baker. However, some of the family friends from the TV show do come from the books, including the Kennedy family and the Olesons. However, there’s some stuff about the Oleson family in particular that isn’t quite what you see in the books or in history. Check back next time for more about the infamous Nellie Oleson and her family.

Throw Your Own Little House Birthday Party!

Over the past several posts, you’ve had a chance to explore some of the birthday parties described in the Little House books. You’ve even learned about the things that were happening in Laura’s life around the time of her unmentioned birthdays. Now it’s time to take your studies to the next level: throw your own Little House birthday party!

For my own twelfth birthday party, I got my parents to help me throw a pioneer-themed birthday party. I scoured all of my Laura Ingalls Wilder activity and recipe books to plan the shin-dig and came up with a plan for the party. It was a delightful eventthe perfect outlet for my excitement about Laura’s life and the pioneer days she lived in.

smilesWhy not work with your family to throw a pioneer party for your own? Here are a few simple steps to help start you off as you put together a plan:

#1 Pick a theme

Do you want to replicate a party described in one of the books or do you want to throw a pioneer party of your own making? Maybe you want to go with the “Town Party” theme from Nellie’s party in On the Banks of Plum Creek. Or perhaps you’d rather use Ben Woodworth’s birthday party from Little Town on the Prairie as a blueprint. If these don’t sound appealing, often the time of year can help you zero in on your own theme. For my twelfth birthday party, the theme was “Pioneer Winters.” We played indoor games and snow games and had a spelling bee, much like the one described in the winter chapters of Little Town on the Prairie.

#2 Decide on a dress code

Be sure to let the guests know if and how you want them to dress up. Should they dress to match the period? Or would more modern, country-style clothing suffice? Keep in mind the weather forecast for the day of your party and what sort of activities you’ll be doing. You don’t want guests to be uncomfortable in the clothes you made them wear.

#3 Find some games

This was one of my favorite parts about planning my own party. I probably spent hours going through my pioneer activity books, trying to narrow down the plethora of choices I found while selecting party games. One of the games we ended up playing was a version of tag that you could only play in the snow called “fox and geese.” To replicate Ben Woodworth’s party, some games you could play are “blind man’s bluff” and “drop the handkerchief.” You can easily find the rules to games like this online or in an activity book about pioneer life. Maybe you could incorporate some Little House trivia into one of your games.

#4 Make your menu

If you’ve read any of Laura’s descriptions of the birthday parties she experiences in the Little House books, you probably know that food is one of the most important aspects of any party. For the Ingalls girls’ country party in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Ma’s vanity cakes were a special treat. At Ben Woodworth’s party, Laura delighted in the oyster soup and orange slices. To come up with your own Little House menu, check out some of the recipes in The Little House Cookbook. This cookbook offers recipes of food mentioned throughout the series and will help you stay true to the times in your cooking.

 #5 Have fun!

Obviously, there are several more details that go into party planning, especially when it comes to a pioneer-themed party, but the most important thing about throwing any party is to have fun and enjoy the process of planning and executing it. This is your chance to experience the sort of celebrations that Laura would have experienced when she was a kid, so make the most of it!

Laura’s Birthdays with Almanzo

Happy 150th birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder! In honor of Laura’s birthday, we have devoted a good many blog posts the theme of birthdays in the Little House series and in Laura’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl.


A photo of Laura and Almanzo Wilder, taken soon after their marriage in 1885. Laura was 18 and Almanzo was 28.

Today, we will be wrapping up our exploration of Laura’s unmentioned birthdays and of our Little House birthday posts with a search of the final book of Laura’s original 8-book series, These Happy Golden Years.

Teacher’s Birthday

The first several chapters of These Happy Golden Years give an account of Laura’s first-ever teaching gig when she was only fifteen years old. She taught a two-month term at the Brewster school, twelve miles away from her home in De Smet. Every day, she managed five students in the one-room schoolhouse. Every evening, she went back to mean Mrs. Brewster’s house for dinner and bed. Every weekend, Almanzo Wilder would come through the cold, wintry weather to bring her home to her family.

Laura’s sixteenth birthday would have come around the middle of the two months of this routine. At the beginning of the chapter, “A Knife in the Dark,” Laura describes the February weather: “There were no blizzards yet, but February was very cold. The wind was like knives.” It is in this chapter that Laura begins to feel bad for Almanzo, who continually braves the cold to bring her home. She decides it’s not fair to take so much from him when she can’t give anything in return. So she tells him straight up that “I am going with you only because I want to get home. When I am home to stay, I will not go with you any more. So now you know, and if you want to save yourself these long, cold drives, you can” (These Happy Golden Years 62). Nevertheless, Almanzo continues to come get her anyway, explaining that he’s not the “kind of fellow” that would leave her at the Brewster’s when she’s so homesick just because “there’s nothing in it” for himself (77). (A very similar account of these events appears on pages 264-267 of Pioneer Girl.) This birthday brought Laura a new friend in Almanzoa friend with whom she would ultimately spend the rest of her life.

When the Clock Strikes Twelve

These Happy Golden Years skips right over Laura’s birthday month during the time of her engagement to Almanzo, going straight from the Christmas chapter to a chapter about the teacher’s examination, which Laura took in March after turning seventeen. Pioneer Girl, however, tells us a bit about the rest of the winter following that Christmas. That Christmas, Almanzo had planned to spend the entire winter with his family in Minnesota. However, he ends up getting lonesome for Laura and returns unannounced on Christmas Eve to surprise his fiancee.

Laura goes on in her autobiography to describe how she and Almanzo spent the rest of the winter having sleigh rides and chatting by the fire in the Ingalls’ sitting room (Pioneer Girl 314). Wilder briefly writes about one particular fire-lit evening:

The folks left us alone about nine o’clock, but we knew that Manly [Laura’s nickname for Almanzo] was expected to leave when the clock struck eleven. He always did except one stormy night when he stopped the clock just before it struck and started it again when his watch said twelve, so that it struck eleven just as he left.

Maybe Almanzo and Laura’s extra-long chat that night was on Laura’s birthday.

De Smet Birthdays

To follow up on our Little House birthday-themed blog posts, written in celebration of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 150th birthday this year, we’ve spent a couple blog posts talking about the birthdays that don’t appear in any of Laura’s literature. Since we know the time of year of Laura’s birthday, however, we can easily locate the chapters that discuss the time of year around her birthday. Laura’s birthday is on February 7th, so it usually comes right after the chapters about Christmas.

In the last two posts, we talked about Laura’s birthdays in Indian Territory and in the surveyors’ house. This time, we are going to look at the rest of her birthdays in The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie.

One of Many Winter Days

In The Long Winter, the days and weeks and months all seem to blend together. However, we do know that the events of the chapter, the “The Hard Winter” occur on January first and that “The Wheat in the Wall” happens sometime in the middle of February. With those dates as guides, we can deduce that the chapter “Cold and Dark” takes place sometime around Laura’s birthday. This chapter describes how Laura spends her winter nights struggling to sleep because of the sounds of the blizzard. During the daytime, she twists hay for fuel and finds time to study. To liven up the days, Ma and the girls recite speeches and poetry and Pa reads out-loud from his big green book. This is the chapter when Pa can’t play the fiddle because his fingers are too stiff from cold.

Both this chapter and Pioneer Girl also describe how, around this same time, the snow drifts got so high that it completely covered the stable and Pa had to dig a tunnel to get from the back door of their house to the stable. Laura also describes Pa and the Wilder boys’ bravery as they were some of the only townsfolk daring enough to go out of town and bring back more hay to burn for fuel.

Fun Times with Friends


Ida Brown, one of Laura’s close friends who also attended Ben Woodworth’s birthday party.

Laura’s birthday in Little Town on the Prairie would have arrived sometime during the chapter “The Madcap Days.” This chapter describes the time Laura would spend with her friends in the wintry weather, having snowball fights and riding on sleds pulled by the boys. Laura writes in this book that “Laura was having such a good time that she almost forgot about improving her opportunity in school” (Little Town on the Prairie 252). Laura describes many of the same excursions in Pioneer Girl on pages 249-251.

Neither Little Town nor Pioneer Girl make any mention of Laura’s birthday. However, according to both accounts, it just so happens that Laura does attend a birthday party for her friend Ben Woodworth right around the time of her own birthday. The birthday party is on January 28th, about a week and a half before her own birthday. At first, everyone is super awkward at the party because no one among the friends knows how to behave in the formal atmosphere of Mrs. Woodworth’s fancy house. Once everyone loosens up, however, they have a delightful time. Wilder writes how the young adults eat oyster soup for dinner with oranges and a white-frosted birthday cake for dessert, which were great treats to Laura and her friends. Then she and her friends stay out till ten that night, playing games and testing out a little brass machine that makes electricity. Sounds like an electrifying celebration, does it not?

Laura’s Kansas and Silver Lake Birthdays


The three oldest Ingalls sisters around the time of the events described in By the Shores of Silver Lake. (From left to right: Carrie, Mary, and Laura.)

In our last post, I talked about how so few of the Little House books actually contain any mention of Laura’s birthdays. We used information from Pioneer Girl and Little House on the Prairie to learn some things about Laura’s birthday on the road. This time, we’re gonna look at Laura’s unmentioned birthdays in Kansas and by the shores of Silver Lake.

A Not-so-happy Sick Day

The chapter that immediately follows the Christmas chapter in Little House on the Prairie is “A Scream in the Night.” This chapter is set in late winter, just around the time of year that Laura would have had her birthday. In this chapter, the whole family hears a scream that turns out to be coming from a panther. Pa ends up trying to hunt down the panther to prevent it from later hurting Mary and Laura, but an Indian that Pa meets in the woods finds it first and kills it instead.

In Pioneer Girl, Laura describes the time immediately following the Ingalls’ Christmas in Kansas as the winter that the whole family had the whooping cough. That is the only detail that we have from her autobiography about this time in her life. So it may just be that poor Laura was sick during her birthday in Indian Territory.

New Friends and Old Friends

In the chapter “Happy Winter Days” from By the Shores of Silver Lake,  the Ingalls family celebrates New Year’s Day with their good friends Mr. and Mrs. Boast. In the days following their festive celebration in the Boasts’ house, Mrs. Boast comes over every day to the Ingalls’ temporary winter home in the surveyors’ house to play in the snow with Laura and Carrie or do her sewing and knitting with Ma and the girls in the house. It’s during this time that Mrs. Boast also gives Laura a stack of old newspapers that she had brought with her from Iowa and that are filled with wonderful stories for Laura and the girls to read. Mrs. Boast also shows the Ingalls family how to make their own whatnot shelf, which was a stylish thing to have in Iowa at the time. The chapter never explicitly mentions Laura’s birthday, but this must have been a happy time for Laura with Mrs. Boast making every day delightful.

Laura also tells about these wintry days with the Boasts in Pioneer Girl, writing that “All our evenings were spent in our big room, listening to Pa play the violin, telling stories, playing chickers, and always, every evening singing” (Pioneer Girl 186). Although the books describe this as happening in March, Laura also recalls that Reverend Alden from their church in Walnut Grove and a missionary friend of his stopped by to visit the Ingalls family one cold, snowy night in February. Reverend Alden and his friend held the first church services of the area there in the surveyors’ house (187). What a wonderful treat for the birthday girl.

A Search for the “Lost” Birthdays

To celebrate our dear Laura’s 150th birthday, we’ve spent the past few posts talking about the different birthday celebrations that Laura took part in. We even took a moment to compare Laura’s birthdays with Almanzo’s ninth birthday talked about in Farmer Boy.

When I first started working on this series of blog posts, I assumed that I would need nine blog posts to talk about the birthdays described in each of the nine Little House books. I wrote the one about Laura’s Big Woods birthday, and then I moved on to Almanzo’s birthday described in Farmer Boy. When I picked up Little House on the Prairie to find Laura’s next birthday celebration, however, there was nothing to be found. It turns out that Laura’s birthday is not even mentioned in that book. That’s when I realized that her birthday celebrations never even come up as major topics in the later books. I thought, perhaps, there was nothing more to say on the topic.

Then I got curious. What was going on in Laura’s life around the time of her unmentioned birthdays each year? Is there any mention of her missing birthdays in her autobiography, Pioneer Girl? I decided to find myself some answers. And so the research continued.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be sharing with you some of the stuff I found.

A Birthday On the Road


The Society’s “new” 1880-1890 prairie schooner. This wagon looks similar to what the Ingalls family would have used to travel in.

The covered wagon that Laura and her family traveled in likely looked much like the wagon in this picture.

Since we know that Laura’s birthday is in February, locating the time of year for her birthday is actually pretty simple since it generally comes soon after the chapters about Christmas. When there’s no such Christmas context available, you just have to keep your eye out for descriptions of late winter.

Little House on the Prairie starts in late winter, when Pa, Ma, and the girls pack up their things into the covered wagon and take off for the west. They leave this time of year so that they can cross Lake Pepin on the ice. This means that Laura’s birthday probably would have come sometime around the beginning of their journey to Indian Territory in Kansas.

In fact, Wilder offers us her memories of her birthday “on the road” in her autobiography Pioneer Girl. The story of crossing the ice actually comes from her memories of traveling to Minnesota in 1874. She describes how she and her cousins all got scarlet fever in the late winter, right before her Pa and Uncle Peter had been planning to cross the lake and head west. Laura was the only one still sick when they finally ventured out on the frozen lake in their covered wagons (Pioneer Girl 55). After crossing the lake, they stayed in a little hotel in Lake City, Minnesota. It was in this hotel that Laura woke up on the morning of her birthday (59). She recalls how Pa had gone to town and bought her a “pretty little book of verses called ‘The Floweret'” (59). She was seven years old at this time.