Nellie Oleson

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Nellie Oleson is a fictional character in the Little House series of autobiographical children's novels written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She is portrayed by Alison Arngrim in the NBC television show Little House on the Prairie (1974 to 1983), where her role is much expanded.[citation needed]

Character sources[edit]

The character "Nellie Oleson" was based on three different girls from Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood.[citation needed]

Nellie Owens[edit]

Owens was born on August 2, 1868,[1] two years after Laura Ingalls. She had a younger brother named Willie (played by Jonathan Gilbert in the television series). Nellie's parents, William and Margaret Owens (renamed Nels and Harriet Oleson in the television series; called only "Mr. and Mrs. Oleson" in the books), did, as Laura describes, run the local mercantile in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Nellie Owens, and possibly two other girls, are the basis for the fictional Nellie Oleson. The character reappears later in the "Little House" series of books, although this iteration was almost certainly based Genevieve Masters and Estella Gilbert.[citation needed]

Later in her life, Owens moved to California and then on to Oregon, where she married Henry Kirry and had three children, Zola, Lloyd, and Leslie. Her brother Willie went blind from a firecracker explosion, attended a school for the blind, married, and also had three children. There seems to be no indication that Laura ever saw Nellie Owens again after Laura's family left Walnut Grove in 1879. Nellie died on November 2, 1949 in Oregon.[1]

Genevieve Masters[edit]

The second girl, Genevieve Masters, was born November 12, 1867 in Hornby, Steuben County, New York[1] and was the spoiled daughter of a former teacher of Laura's. Genevieve wore beautiful tailored clothes and had striking blonde hair (in curls), just as "Nellie Oleson" had. Genevieve was originally from the state of New York and boasted continually about how much more proper and "civilized" things were in the "East". With her superior attitude, Genevieve was far nastier than Nellie Owens had been, and Laura and Genevieve became keen rivals, both academically and socially. Gennie's family moved to De Smet not long after the Ingalls family, but the Owens family did not move. Therefore, the "Nellie" of Little Town on the Prairie is most likely really Genevieve Masters. In her "Letter to Children" written late in her life (a sort of form letter sent to the hundreds of children who wrote her monthly), Laura stated: "Nellie Oleson . . . moved back East, and did not live many years."[citation needed] Laura was evidently referring to Genevieve Masters in this letter as Nellie Owens lived to the age of 80. Genevieve died of pneumonia November 7, 1909 in Chicago,[1] just 5 days before her 42nd birthday. She married William Graham V. Renwick and had one daughter, Margaret.[1]

Stella Gilbert[edit]

The third girl, Stella Gilbert, lived on a claim north of the Ingalls in De Smet. She was reportedly very attractive and was very interested in Almanzo Wilder. It was possible this girl who convinced him to take her on several buggy rides, which were described in These Happy Golden Years. Almanzo, who was not aware of a conflict between Stella (Nellie in the books), and Laura, eventually became aware of Stella's fear of horses (which greatly disappointed him). In addition, Laura eventually gave Almanzo an ultimatum regarding Stella, and Almanzo's invitations to Stella to join them on the rides stopped. This was the last appearance of a "Nellie Oleson" in the series.[citation needed]

Stella's older brother was Dave Gilbert, the brave young man (he was 17 at the time) who made the very risky run to Lake Preston, Dakota Territory on his horse-drawn sled between blizzards to take the outgoing mail, and bring back the incoming mail as described by Laura in The Long Winter. Stella died in 1944 at the age of 80 years.[1]

Fictional Nellie[edit]

Little House books[edit]

Nellie Oleson appeared in three of the Little House novels Ingalls Wilder: On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), Little Town on the Prairie (1939), and These Happy Golden Years (1943) — the fourth, seventh, and eighth in the series. Laura is 13 to 15 years old in the two intervening novels. On the Banks of Plum Creek alone is set in Minnesota, near Walnut Grove where the long-running television series is set. In that novel Laura is 7 to 9 years old.[2][clarification needed]

Oleson also stars in Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls, a 2007 by Tui T. Sutherland as Heather Williams, published by HarperCollins in 2007. The Library of Congress catalog summary is "Wealthy, spoiled Nellie Oleson is only happy when she is the center of attention, and so she feels angry and left out when Laura Ingalls, a poor country girl, moves to Walnut Grove and is embraced by Nellie's friends and schoolteacher."[3] Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls is one among dozens of Little House series extensions published beginning in the 1990s.[citation needed]

Little House on the Prairie television series[edit]

Nellie Oleson
Little House on the Prairie character
Portrayed by Alison Arngrim
First appearance 1.02 Country Girls
Last appearance 9.08 The Return of Nellie

The Little House books were later adapted into a long-running television series. Played by actress Alison Arngrim, Nellie Oleson was a manipulative, witty, sharp-tongued character on the NBC television show, Little House on the Prairie. Her parents, Nels and Harriet Oleson, owned the mercantile in the small town of Walnut Grove, set in post-Civil War Minnesota. Early in the series, the character of Nellie closely resembled her counterpart from the books - mainly as portrayed in On the Banks of Plum Creek. She had long, elaborately curled hair, acted very prissy and spoiled - yet underneath, she could display a vicious and manipulative personality. Nellie took after her doting mother Harriet (Katherine MacGregor), while father Nels (Richard Bull) tended to be stern with his two children and had little tolerance for Nellie's often cruel antics. Nels and Harriet frequently conflicted on the rearing of both Nellie and Willie; Harriet's assertiveness frequently won out, although Nellie was not always allowed to get away with her behavior. For example, on the episode called "The Cheaters", Mrs. Oleson finds out Nellie has cheated, and Mrs. Oleson started hitting Nellie with her jacket.[citation needed]

Arngrim's character grew in importance during the series (as did the roles of the entire Oleson family) as she served as a perfect antagonist to honest, tomboyish Laura Ingalls, played by Melissa Gilbert. Nellie and Laura feuded during their school years together, which was at times comically paralleled with quarreling between the two girls' mothers, Harriet and Caroline Ingalls (Karen Grassle). After Nellie graduated from school, her mother, Harriet, bestowed her with a restaurant and hotel. At first, Nellie balked, showing great incompetence in the hospitality business. Eventually, Nels and Harriet hired Percival Dalton (played by Steve Tracy) to help Nellie learn how to cook and run the restaurant. During this time, Nellie began maturing — thanks to Percy's work with her and Nels's values winning out over Harriet's — and fell in love with Percival. The two eventually married, and Nellie gave birth to twin children (Benjamin and Jennifer).[citation needed]

Nellie ended up becoming close friends with Laura in her adult years and Laura was present at her wedding. Before Nellie takes off for her honeymoon, she throws the bouquet to Laura. In the episode "Come Let us Reason Together", Laura's mother Caroline helped deliver Nellie's twin babies.[citation needed]

Arngrim left the series at the end of the seventh season. Nellie's resulting departure was explained by having her move with Percival and their twins to New York to run the family business when Percy's father falls ill; the move is made permanent when Percival's father dies. After Nellie's departure became permanent, the Olesons adopted a daughter named Nancy (played by Allison Balson), who bore a striking resemblance to Nellie, although she had a nastier and meaner disposition than Nellie. Nellie — who retained her pleasant personality seen in her later years — returned in the ninth season and met Nancy, who briefly ran away from home when she (mistakenly) believed that her adoptive parents loved Nellie more than her. When Nellie first meets Nancy and see how she acts, she asks her parents in shock: "I know I was temperamental at her age, but I wasn't THAT bad....Was I?" They all start to laugh, then they realize she was as bad.[citation needed]

As compared to the book On the Banks of Plum Creek, Nellie Oleson was a much more prominent character in the series. Likewise, while in the books Nellie's family members are only very minor characters, the Olesons on the series all ended up becoming major figures, and several episodes concentrated almost exclusively on Nellie or her family. Eventually, the "villainous duo" of mother Harriet and daughter Nellie proved to be very popular with viewers for their often evil, yet humorous, antics.[citation needed]

Still running daily in syndication across the United States, as well as in many other countries, the series continues to have a popular following, and the character of Nellie, as portrayed by Alison Arngrim, has become a cultural icon of sorts.[by whom?][4]

Cultural impact[edit]

The sketch comedy group The Nellie Olesons took their name after the character.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Miller, Robynne Elizabeth (2016). The Three Faces of Nellie. Practical Pioneer Press. ISBN 069281258X. 
  2. ^ Source is our five book articles (the 5 Newberry Medal runners-up, about which much has been published, although we cite little).[clarification needed]
  3. ^ "Nellie Oleson meets Laura Ingalls". Library of Congress Online Catalog ( Retrieved 2015-10-09.
  4. ^ Gulla, Bob (2006-12-03). "'Little House' Popularity Endures". American Profile (, 3 December 2006. Archived 2009-07-26. Retrieved on 2015-10-09 from


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