‘Little House on the Prairie’: Was the Character of Harriet Oleson Based on a Real Person?

Now a popular staple in reruns, Little House on the Prairie starred Michael Landon as the Ingalls family patriarch Charles Ingalls during its nine-season run on NBC that began in 1974.

From Ma and Pa Ingalls to Mr. Edwards, many of the characters in the beloved television series were based on actual people in author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life from her Little House novels.

In the case of Harriet Oleson, how her character was brought into Wilder’s books is almost as tangled as those weeds that Laura used to walk through to get to her favorite fishing spot.

Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls, and Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls
(L-R) Melissa Gilbert as Laura Elizabeth Ingalls and Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls | NBCU Photo Bank

The 1970s and early ’80s television series captured the hearts and imaginations of viewers when it first aired. Its simplicity, life lessons, and inevitably emotional scenes brought fans back to Walnut Grove week after week.

In her 2020 interview with CBS Sunday Morning, actor Melissa Gilbert recalled her days on the show’s set.

Melissa Gilbert as Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder, Lindsay or Sydney Greenbush as Carrie Ingalls, Melisssa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls Kendall in 'Little House on the Prairie'
Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lindsay or Sydney Greenbush as Carrie Ingalls, Melisssa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ | Ted Shepherd/NBCU Photo Bank

“It was like a really great summer camp,” she recalled. “But I also got to play the ultimate game of dress-up and be in those fantastic clothes and button-up boots. I don’t remember it ever not being fun.”

The actor touched on the series’ enduring appeal so many decades after its airing.

“With everything that’s going on in the world right now, from what I’m hearing from people, Little House on the Prairie is a reminder of when things were simpler for us,” she said.

Katherine MacGregor played Harriet Oleson

In the role of hateful, snobby, spiteful mercantile owner Harriet Oleson, Katherine MacGregor stole every scene she appeared in. And, according to actor Alison Arngrim, MacGregor wasn’t that different from the character she played.

Katherine MacGregor of 'Little House on the Prairie'
Katherine MacGregor of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

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Arngrim recalled her on-screen mother MacGregor in her 2011 memoir Confessions of a Prairie B*tch.

“I have had people ask me, ‘Just what was that woman on?’ She was not actually Mrs. Oleson incarnate, but my God, she was close,” the Nellie Oleson actor wrote.

“Fortunately, Katherine does not share Mrs. Oleson’s meanness – or her infamous prejudices against Jews, African Americans, circus fat ladies, poor people, and basically anyone who wasn’t Mrs. Oleson.”

The real-life person Harriet Oleson’s character was based on

Was Harriet Oleson an actual person that Laura Ingalls Wilder knew? Well, she was and she wasn’t.

Nellie Oleson was one of Wilder’s peers. The author’s account of her classmate revealed that Nellie was just as unkind in real life as the book and television character.

Katherine MacGregor of 'Little House on the Prairie'
Katherine MacGregor of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

“Nellie was the girl who had made fun of Laura and Mary because they were only country girls, while her father was a storekeeper,” Wilder wrote in her novel based on her life, Little Town on the Prairie. “She held her head high and looked scornfully down her nose.”

Wilder based Nellie’s character on three girls she grew up with, one of whom was named Nellie Owens, but Wilder changed Nellie’s last name.

Nellie Owens’ mother was Margaret and on the TV series, it was she who the character of Harriet Oleson was based upon. In reality, Margaret Owens was the opposite of Harriet: kind, forgiving, and sweet. The only thing the two had in common was that in real life Owens really did own and operate the town mercantile.