Owen Wister and Cowboy Culture

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.

Cowboy on Cattle Ranch near Spur, Texas. Russell Lee, photographer, May 1939. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

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. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1904(first published in1902). p.ix

The Virginian from America’s First Western Novel Written by Owen Wister. Everett Henry, illustrator. Cleveland: Harris-Intertype, 1962. Geography & Map Division

From the exhibition Language of the Land: Journeys into Literary America. This literary map shows key scenes from Wister’s novel against the backdrop of a map of the novel’s “landscape.”

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 parade played for packed audiences into the twentieth century.

From the outset, the cowboy was a stock character of the motion picture industry. Variety Stage Sound Recordings and Motion Pictures 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 Selections from the National Film Registry, 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.

Buckaroo Theodore Brown Parts a Cow from the Herd. [Ninety-Six Ranch, Paradise Valley, Nevada, Oct. 10, 1979]. Leslie J. Stewart, narrator; recorded by Margaret Purser and Carl Fleischhauer, July 7, 1982. Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945 to 1982. American Folklife Center

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.

Hat, Neckerchief, and Boots. Alfred Harrell, photographer, October 1980. Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945 to 1982. American Folklife Center

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