Bonanza: The “Yellowstone” of the 1970s

Bonanza is a classic Western television series that aired on NBC from 1959 to 1973. That’s quite a stretch of time! The show follows the lives of the Cartwright family, who own and operate a ranch called the Ponderosa in the fictional town of Virginia City, Nevada. The family patriarch, Ben Cartwright, is a widower with three sons: Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe. The family faces challenges and conflicts while navigating life in the Old West.

Bonanza was one of the longest-running Westerns in television history and remains a beloved classic. The show was known for its iconic theme song, memorable characters, and captivating storylines. Bonanza tackled various themes and issues, including family dynamics, social justice, and the changing landscape of the American West. The show also featured diverse characters, including Native American actors who played prominent roles in several episodes.

History of Bonanza

Bonanza was created by David Dortort and produced by NBC. The show was unique in that it focused on the family dynamics of the Cartwrights rather than just their adventures. Each of the four Cartwright sons had a distinct personality, often leading to conflicts and disagreements. The family patriarch, Ben Cartwright, was played by Lorne Greene and was the voice of reason and stability. I mean, just look at Lorne Greene, who wouldn’t trust him?

lorne Greene on Bonanza

Bonanza was a groundbreaking show for its time, tackling social issues such as racism and discrimination. It was also one of the first television series filmed in color, adding to its popularity. The show was a hit with audiences and consistently ranked in the top 10 most-watched shows during its run.

Despite its success, Bonanza faced some challenges during its run. The sudden death of actor Dan Blocker, who played the character Hoss Cartwright, in 1972 led to the show’s cancellation the following year.

Plot and Characters

The plot of this beloved Western centered around the Cartwright family. The patriarch of the family, Ben Cartwright, is a widower who owns the Ponderosa Ranch in Nevada. Ben has three sons: Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.

The plot of each episode typically revolves around the Cartwrights’ efforts to protect their land and community from various threats. These threats include hostile Native American tribes, outlaws, and rival ranchers. The show also explores the personal lives and relationships of the Cartwright family members.

the cartwright family from the television show bonanza

The characters in Bonanza are well-developed and complex. Ben Cartwright is a wise and compassionate father figure who is respected by his sons and the people in his community. Adam Cartwright is the eldest son and is portrayed as intelligent and level-headed. Hoss Cartwright is the middle son and is known for his gentle nature and physical strength. Little Joe Cartwright is the youngest son and is depicted as impulsive and often getting into trouble. And yes, Little Joe does indeed grow up to be Charles Ingalls on another TV classic, Little House on the Prairie.

Source: Getty Images

The show also features a variety of recurring characters, including Hop Sing, the Cartwrights’ Chinese cook, and Sheriff Roy Coffee, a close friend of the family. The portrayal of Native American characters on the show has been criticized for being stereotypical and insensitive.

Impact and Legacy

One of the most significant legacies of Bonanza was its impact on the Western genre. The show helped to popularize the genre and paved the way for other popular Western shows like Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. Bonanza also helped to establish the Western as a viable genre for television and film, which has had a lasting impact on the entertainment industry. Would we have a Yellowstone mega franchise without Bonanza? Maybe not!

Revival and Remakes

Bonanza’s popularity has led to several attempts at revival and remakes. Here are some of the most notable:

Bonanza: The Next Generation

In 1988, NBC attempted to revive the show with a made-for-TV movie called “Bonanza: The Next Generation.” The movie featured several original cast members, including Lorne Greene, but also introduced a new generation of Cartwrights. Despite the hype, the movie failed to capture the magic of the original series and was not well-received by fans or critics.


In 2001, a prequel to Bonanza called “Ponderosa” premiered. The show followed the early years of the Cartwright family and their struggles to establish a ranch in the Nevada territory. While the show had a loyal following, it was canceled after only one season due to low ratings.

Bonanza: Under Attack

In 1995, a made-for-TV movie called “Bonanza: Under Attack” was released. The movie featured several original cast members and followed the Cartwrights as they attempted to save their ranch from a group of land developers. While the movie was not a critical success, it was well-received by fans and is still considered a fun watch for those who love the original series.

Bonanza: The Return

In 1993, a made-for-TV movie called “Bonanza: The Return” was released. The movie featured Michael Landon Jr. as the grown-up son of Little Joe Cartwright, who returns to the Ponderosa after a long absence. While the movie was not as successful as some of the other attempts at revival, it was a fun watch for fans of the original series.

(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The Bonanza Theme Song and Opening Sequence

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the absolutely iconic Bonanza theme song and its opening title sequence. Go ahead and watch, we’ll wait.

We know you’re tapping your foot to the catchy tune….

Good stuff, right? The theme song was written by Jay Livingston, Ray Evans, Billy Mays, and David Rose. They wrote this classic in a single day and promptly sold it to NBC for the princely sum of $500.

map of the ponderosa and the fictional town of Virginia City from the classic television show Bonanza