Novelist Owen Wister was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on July 14, 1860. His 1902 novel The Virginian helped create the myth of the American cowboy. Reared and educated on the east coast, Wister first visited the West in 1885. Set in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, The Virginian‘s tender romance between a refined Eastern schoolteacher and a rough-and-tumble cowhand, with its climactic pistol gunfight, introduced themes now standard to the American Western.
Whatever he did, he did with his might. The bread that he earned was earned hard, the wages that he squandered were squandered hard….If he gave his word, he kept it.
Owen Wister, The Virginian, 1902
A popular fascination with the disappearing frontier laid the foundation of the Western’s success. Former Indian scout Buffalo Bill Cody capitalized on this interest when he brought the Wild West east in 1883. With a cast of 100 cowboys and Indians, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, and a menagerie of wild animals, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West paraded and played for packed audiences into the twentieth century.
From the outset, the cowboy was a stock character of the motion picture industry. The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 features two early movies with cowboy motifs. A Frontier Flirtation (1903) presents the cowboy as a questionable character, unsuited to court a lady, while the no-nonsense gunslinger of Alphonse and Gaston cuts short the lead characters’ exaggerated civilities.
The Great Train Robbery (1903), included in the collection Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies, was shot in the Edison New York studio and in New Jersey at Essex County Park and at the Lackawanna Railway. The bandit leader was played by Justus D. Barnes, and G. M. Anderson, later better-known as Bronco Billy, played a variety of roles. In 1905, Edison parodied The Great Train Robbery in The Little Train Robbery, employing a cast of child actors.
Real cowboy culture faded, just as the popular image of the American cowboy became more sharply defined in films, songs, and inexpensive “pulp” Western magazines. From 1978 to 1982, the Library of Congress American Folklife Center employed a team of researchers to document what remained of traditional life on the range. The project focused on Nevada cattle ranching and the work of “buckaroos,” as cowboys commonly are called in that region.
- Visit the Library of Congress American Folklife Center’s online collection Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945 to 1982, which includes photographs, motion pictures, and sound recordings documenting the life of the cowboys on the Ninety-Six Ranch in Paradise Valley, Nevada. Browse the subject list to explore this chronicle of twentieth-century cowboy life.
- To locate additional pictures, recollections, songs, and stories about real and imaginary cowboys, search on cowboy in the following collections:
- Panoramic Photographs
- American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940
- Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip
- Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell
- Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941
- Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection
- Search on Buffalo Bill or Annie Oakley in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 to find personal recollections of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Parade.
- Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years contains a letter illustrating Owen Wister’s friendship with artist Frederick Remington. Wister’s papers are held by the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.
- Explore the Library of Congress’ collection of literary maps, such as the map of Owen Wister’s The Virginian shown above, available online in the exhibition, Language of the Land: Journeys into Literary America.