Bonanza chronicles the weekly adventures of the Cartwright family, headed by the thrice-widowed patriarch “Ben Cartwright” (Lorne Greene). He had three sons, each by a different wife: the eldest was the urbane architect “Adam Cartwright” (Pernell Roberts) who built the ranch house; the second was the bighearted giant Eric “Hoss” Cartwright (Dan Blocker); and the youngest was the hotheaded and headstrong Joseph or “Little Joe” (Michael Landon). Via exposition (Bonanza, “Rose for Lotta”, premiere September 12, 1959) and flashback episodes, each wife was accorded a different ethnicity: English (Bonanza, “Elizabeth My Love”; episode #65) Swedish (Bonanza, “Inger My Love”, episode #95) and French Creole (Bonanza, “Marie My Love”, episode #120) respectively. The family’s cook was the Chinese immigrant Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung).
The Cartwright family lived on a 600,000+ acre (937+ square-mile) ranch called the Ponderosa on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe in Nevada. The vast size of the Cartwrights’ land was quietly revised to “half a million acres” on Lorne Greene’s 1964 song, “Saga of the Ponderosa.” The ranch name refers to the Ponderosa Pine, common in the West. The nearest town to the Ponderosa was Virginia City, where the Cartwrights would go to converse with Sheriff Roy Coffee (played by veteran actor Ray Teal), or his deputy Clem Foster (Bing Russell).