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Who Was Nellie Oleson?

Ah...Nellie Oleson. 
This is one of the funniest memes I've ever seen!

Readers and viewers alike recognize Nellie Oleson for the bully she was. So who was this Nellie that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about in the Little House books? 

Prior to my research for The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide, I was aware that Nellie Oleson was not exactly a real person. I enjoyed learning even more about her character during my research. Nellie Oleson is what we call a composite character. That means she represents multiple real-life individuals.

Nellie represented three real people from Laura Ingalls’s childhood: Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert. 
Nellie Owens and Genevieve Masters lived in Walnut Grove, Minnesota (by Plum Creek). Nellie’s father owned a store. Wilder described Nellie and her brother Willie as “rude and selfish.” Genevieve liked to brag about her New York connections. Wilder’s third adversary, Stella Gilbert, lived a couple of miles away from Laura’s home in De Smet, Dakota Territory. Like the fictional Nellie Oleson, Stella often went on buggy rides with Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder.

Wilder likely limited Laura's rival to just one character to simplify and streamline the books. It's also a bit shocking to have Nellie show up after we think Laura left her behind for good. In my opinion, that twist demonstrates Wilder's writing ability and how she knew her audience. (This was just one of many ways.) 

You either love or hate Nellie, right? I suspect many viewers of the Little House on the Prairie television show loved Alison Arngrim's acting...and maybe even her character. She certainly added zest to the show! Readers who don't remember details of the Little House books or television show certainly recall Nellie. 

If you're curious about the real Nellie Oleson, you'll want to read Robynne Elizabeth Miller's book The Three Faces of Nellie: The Real Story Behind Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Nellie Oleson." (affiliate link).

Here's the book description:
Whether you love her, hate her, or love to hate her, Nellie Oleson is one of most recognizable literary figures of the 20th century. But Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie series in which Nellie appears, had a secret. . .Nellie wasn’t a real person! Instead, she was a composite character created from three girls Laura knew from childhood: Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Estella Gilbert. The Little House character of Nellie Oleson is one-dimensional: snobbish, selfish, and thoroughly unpleasant. But the real women behind Laura’s creation? An intriguing mix of the not-so-nice and the unexpectedly redeemable. In short, they were human. Discovering the true stories behind Nellie, Genevieve, and Estella has been a fascinating journey. All three ended up on the West Coast at one point. . .true westward movement! One was widowed twice, one ended up divorced, and one died way too young. Two only had one child, and one had three, though she outlived her youngest by a very long time. There’s even some “Nellie-like” drama in there: Embezzlement. Lying on censuses. Shady land deals. But there are some beautiful things, too. . .like the enduring love of a husband after his bride died. Or the rare closeness of a mother and daughter who shared their lives as adults. Or the strength of a young widowed mother who not only cared for her son, but headed out west, in true pioneer fashion, while she did so. Laura Ingalls Wilder did a masterful job of creating the character of Nellie Oleson. But the three real-life women behind that iconic character are, in my opinion, infinitely more intriguing.
I'm excited to share with you that Robynne Elizabeth Miller is having a giveaway for The Three Faces of Nellie: The Real Story Behind Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Nellie Oleson." 

Check out Robynne's website and her many books related to pioneers and Laura Ingalls Wilder...and be on the lookout for a new book coming soon. 

The giveaway is now over. Thanks!
Look for more Little House activities in my book, The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter GuideIt's full of history, activities, and fun for Little House fans. You might also like to have Lessons with Laura

Subscribe to Wilder Companion if you don't want to miss a post. 

 Happy Trails! ~ Annette 

Annette Whipple is a nonfiction children's author. Learn more about her books and presentations at


  1. To me, Nellie epitomizes not only the attitude of privilege, but also someone who didn't have a pioneering spirit nor the drive to settle the unsettled land. She did however add the acerbic element that the books needed to prevent them from becoming too sweet on the societal level.

  2. I always loved Nellie's curls but could not stand how mean and conniving she could be.

  3. I would love to read this book to learn more about Nellie.

  4. I loved reading about Nellie because she was so different than Laura and Mary. I'm so interested in that time period, telling about her gave me another glimpse into life on the prairie during that time.

  5. Nellie was just so mean to Laura.

  6. Never heard about Nellie. I would love to read this book to learn more about her.

  7. You know, I"m not really sure what I think about Nellie, that's a good question. I just know the stereotypes about her.

  8. I love her curls, but not the curling attitude that came along with it.