Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Little House on the Prairie - Historical or Fictional Characters

Every once in a while, a question will come up about characters on television's Little House on the Prairie. Since the show was based upon Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, some not familiar with Wilder's real life aren't sure which characters are historical figures and which were created solely for the show. Here's a good place to start.

The Ingalls family included: Caroline and Charles and their children Mary, Laura, Caroline Celestia (Carrie), Charles Frederick (Baby Freddie), and Grace. Popular characters though they were, the Ingallses never adopted an orphan boy named Albert or the Cooper children.

Mary Ingalls went blind as a teenager. Her hopes of being a teacher were quickly dashed. While she was sent away to a college for the blind and learned many things, she never married. She remained single, living with her parents until their deaths (Charles in 1902 and Caroline in 1924), and then with Grace and her husband in the Ingallses home in De Smet. She died in 1928 while visiting her sister Carrie. So, Adam Kendall was a made for TV husband.

Reverend Edwin Hyde Alden was minister of the Congregational Church in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Known as Robert, the real life minister who started the church in Walnut Grove, was a home missionary with a wife and daughter back east. He rode the train west and preached in New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, Barnston, Walnut Grove, Saratoga and Marshall. He would preach in schoolhouses, private homes, and railroad depots. He was known to have built small chapels and churches in pioneer communities.

When the Ingalls family was staying in the Surveyor's House in De Smet, Reverend Alden visited them. He had left Minnesota and entered the missionary field in Dakota. The community wasn't yet know as De Smet, but Reverend Alden held the first church service ever held there right in the Surveyor's House. He would stop by De Smet during his journeys, holding services in an unfinished depot until a new minister was appointed, Reverend Edward Brown.

Dabbs Greer played Reverend Alden on Little House on the Prairie. He traveled to other communities, just like his real life counterpart. He was single in the show, however, until Season 6, when he married widow Anna Craig.

Kevin Hagen played kindly Doctor Baker on the show. He is not based on any real life character that I know of. When the Ingalls family lived in Kansas, a black homeopathic doctor named George Tann treated them for malaria.

In the television show, Doc Baker took care of everyone's aches and pains. He delivered babies and acted as the town's veterinarian. In Season 8, Doc Baker decides he needs some help, so he hires African-American doctor Caleb Ledoux, who moves to town with his wife, Maddie. Racist sentiments in town almost drive them away, but they agree to stay in Walnut Grove, though we never see them again.

After the pilot episode, the Ingalls family leaves Kansas and journeys to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Though the real life Ingalls family only stayed in Walnut Grove a couple of years (1874 - 1876) before crop failures forced them to leave, and then returned again for another two years (1877 - 1879), living in town before moving to their final home in De Smet, South Dakota, the majority of the show took place in Walnut Grove.

When the TV Ingalls and the real life Ingalls stop at Plum Creek, they purchase a dugout house on the banks of the creek from Mr. Hanson. Mr. Hanson was a Norwegian settler who itched to go west, but on television, he was one of the founders of Walnut Grove, and remained there until his death.

Mr. Edwards was a neighbor of the Ingalls family when they lived in Kansas. A bachelor, originally from Tennessee, he lived across the creek. Identifying who he was and what his occupation was is difficult. In Donald Zochert's book Laura, he says he might have been J.H. Edwards, who ran Ed's Saloon and dealt in "liquor and cigars" in Fort Scott, but Zochert says that would make him too far away to be the man Wilder mentions in her books.

In the show, the character of Mr. Edwards is first introduced in the pilot, helping the Ingalls family and befriending Laura. They have a teary-eyed parting when the Ingalls family is forced to leave Kansas, but Mr. Edwards shows up in Walnut Grove. This time, he has a backstory: his wife and daughter died and it was his fault for moving them so far away from medical help, which accounts for his excessive drinking. 

Nellie Oleson, while featured in the books and on the television series, was a totally fictional character made up by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She is a composite of three of Wilder's classmates: Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert. Nellie Owens had a brother named Willie and her parents (William and Margaret) ran a mercantile in Walnut Grove. Sound familiar TV lovers?

I hope you have enjoyed this discussion. Comments are always welcome.

1 comment:

g.dibble said...

Great post! Thanks for your research!