The Good Old Days: Bonanza

Let’s return to those old days of the late 1950s and revisit a television western which premiered on NBC September 12 1959.  It was a simple story of a widower and his three sons—Adam, Hoss and Little Joe.

Benjamin Cartwright had married three times.  Respectively, his wives were of English, Swedish and French Creole descent.

Ben Cartwright was a former sea captain who gave up the sea to head West to find his destiny.  Eventually, he found his way to Nevada where he established the Ponderosa, a thousand-square-mile spread on the North shore of Lake Tahoe.

Adam, the university-educated son, was an architect and mining engineer who designed the stately ranch house.  There with Hop Sing, their Chinese cook, they lived, worked and loved.

There were 430 episodes made between September 12, 1959 and January 16, 1973.  All episodes were filmed in color since NBC was owned by RCA who used the show to promote its new color television sets.

The Cartwrights dealt with a vast array of situations over the years with some famous people showing up—Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Lotta Crabtree, Thomas Bowers, etc. Environmental issues were discussed from the pilot episode to the finale.

The Ponderosa was a legacy entrusted to the Cartwrights to nourish and to protect from those who would destroy the beauty of this earthly heaven, as Ben referred to it in the opening of the series.  Over the course of the series and movies there were those dastardly types who wanted to strip the land bare of its trees and natural resources.

Of course there were outlaws, gunfights, and a whole host of other things which pulled the Cartwrights into the affairs of Virginia City and the territory.  As Ben said to Adam, “We can’t ignore the rest of the world. We’re the only stabilizing influence in the country.”

In many ways Bonanza was a western Camelot where the Cartwrights fought for truth, justice and the American way for all people.  There are two episodes I want to comment on.

The episode “Enter Thomas Bowers” was aired on April 26, 1964. The Ladies of the Virginia City Culture Society were putting on a benefit concert for the Paiute Indians. They invited a famous opera singer to come to Virginia City to perform.

The ladies and some of the townspeople are shocked when Thomas Bowers turns out to be a black man.  He faces the prejudices of a western town. It is a powerful episode, especially in the context of 1964 and the Civil Rights Movement.

The most poignant episode was Forever, the 14th season premiere when the series moved from Sunday to Tuesday.  This episode was written and directed by Michael Landon. The episode dealt with loss—the death of Hoss and the murder of Alice and her unborn. With the death of Hoss and Alice, Little Joe dealt with an emotional rollercoaster as he went through the stages of grief.  The two-hour episode left everyone saddened. Forever became the series’ signature episode because Bonanza would never be the same after those tragic deaths.

On the lighter side there were episodes which featured a flapjack-eating contest, bunny rabbits, leprechauns, mistaken identity, etc.  Be it serious or comedic, Bonanza delivered week after week.


G. D. Williams       © 2012






Bonanza: Hoss and Emily-A Hurt Which You Have To Bear Alone