Sorting Fact from Television: Ingalls and Wilder Families

Little House on the Prairie is one of the most beloved TV shows of all time. The series premiered September 11, 1974, and ended after nine seasons on May 10, 1982. In 1982-1983, the spin-off Little House: A New Beginning aired, absent lead characters Michael Landon and Karen Grassle. 


The show followed the adventures of Laura Ingalls and her family, who lived in the small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in the 1870s-1890s. It was an adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s best-selling series of Little House books. 

The series has aired so many times that most Americans can name at least one of the stars or cite some of the well-known characters.   

As Seen on TV

Family researchers know all too well that family stories are sometimes exaggerated, adapted to make a point, inaccurate or simply not the truth. Well the same is true with Little House on the Prairie, after-all, it was just a television show. 

If you’ve enjoyed the series, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between facts and stories simply produced for television. Not everything is “as seen on TV.”  

The series explored many different storylines —faith, adoption, blindness, drug addiction and alcoholism, poverty, child abuse, prejudice, and many other themes. In doing so, dozens of cast members and guest stars were introduced to viewers. 

Some actors were well-known, like Ernest Borgnine, Burl Ives, and Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Special appearances also included many who played roles in other westerns. Then there were cast members who went on to become famous actors, like Jason Bateman and Shannen Doherty. 

A number of actors played the role of an Ingalls or Wilder relative. But playing a role on TV and actually being a relative from a genealogy perspective is where fiction and reality were blurred. 

Matthew Labyorteaux on Little House on the Prairie, who portrayed Albert Ingalls (photo credit Wikipedia)

Let’s take Albert (Quinn) Ingalls as an example. On the series, Albert is the adopted son of Caroline and Charles Ingalls.

Shocker alert! Albert was not a real person. He was a character Michael Landon created for the series to help bring to life stories about addiction and adoption during the 1800s. The name Albert was a tribute to Albert Muscatele. Albert Muscatele was the son of Eleanor and Ray Muscatele. At age 18 he was riding his bicycle and was hit by a car and killed.

Ingalls & Wilder Connections

Family researchers and genealogists are by their very nature curious individuals. They enjoy the challenge of a good puzzle and are thrilled when the pieces come together. So invigorated, fans of the series have created thousands of Laura and Charles Ingalls family trees on popular genealogy sites.

While some trees were created to explore the possibility of a genuine connection to the Ingalls or Wilder families; the majority were simply generated by curious fans. 

If you have tried to create a tree for the Ingalls or Wilder families, or perhaps for one of the other families featured in the series – Oleson, Garvey, Carter, Edwards, Baker, you were likely met with some genealogical challenges.

Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls in
Little House on the Prairie. (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you searched for Adam Kendall, husband of Mary Ingalls (played by Melissa Sue Anderson), and their son, Adam Charles Holbrook Kendall Jr, who died in a fire at the blind school? Caution: If you don’t want to know the truth, you better stop reading now.
Mary Amelia Ingalls was the oldest child of Charles and Caroline Ingalls. She never married or had children. However, some of the details of her life, as shown on Little House on the Prairie, were true.

According to Laura Wilder’s memoir, Pioneer Girl, the Ingalls family thought their daughter, Mary, at age 14, lost her sight because of scarlet fever. But they were never sure. They also pondered whether it could have been the measles, a stroke or other medical event.

Was there a Nellie Oleson?

What about Nellie Oleson, surely there was a real person named Nellie in Walnut Grove. Laura Ingalls Wilder did a masterful job of creating the character of Nellie Oleson, as well as others who were portrayed in her books in a somewhat negative light. Ready for another shocker – Nellie wasn’t a real person either. Instead, she was a composite of three girls Laura knew from childhood, Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Estella Gilbert.  

Well, I better stop here. If you are a fan of the show you might be feeling a bit disappointed. But don’t despair, there were real Ingalls and Wilder families and you may still be a distant relative.  So keep enjoying the search for answers. 

Starting an Ingalls Tree
Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls (photo credit Wikipedia)

Whether just for fun or to look for a possible connection to the Ingalls family, the best place to start is with Laura. Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born Feb. 7, 1867, in Wisconsin. She was the second child of Charles Philip Ingalls and Caroline Lake Quiner. She married Almanzo James Wilder (born Feb. 13, 1867, near Malone, New York) on Aug. 25, 1885, in De Smet, Dakota Territory. Laura and Almanzo had two children, Rose (Dec. 5, 1886-Oct. 30, 1968); and a baby boy, who died soon after his birth in August 1889. 

The Little House (9 Volume Set) by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, ideal for children 6-10 years
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Pamela Smith Hill
Little House in the Big Woods: Little House, Book 1, ideal children ages 5- 9 years

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