A strong, silent stranger rides into the lawless lands of the western frontier, battles horse thieves, deals with dastardly villains and wins the heart of a schoolmarm.
Although this plot has been repeated thousands of times in popular culture, Owen Wister’s 1902 novel, The Virginian, is where it first appeared in book form. This classic is widely regarded as the first great cowboy novel of the American west, aside from short stories and dime novels.
The cowboy hero of the book, like knights of old, lives by a code of honesty and fair play and is a man of quiet courage and a deep sense of honour. Set in the vast Wyoming territory, this masterpiece helped establish the code of the west and its stereotypical characters: the gentle but brave, white-hatted cowboy, the pretty spinster from back east, and villains beyond redemption, all of whom have found their place in popular culture throughout the 20th century. The novel is also considered to depict the first known shootout in American literature.
Wister was an easterner born in Pennsylvania, but who spent several summers in the American west. He first visited Wyoming in 1885 and loosely based this novel against the backdrop of the Johnson County War, which that took place between the established ranchers and small farmers from 1889 and 1893. In the novel, Wister took the side of the ranchers in this confrontation and the hero, known only as the Virginian, is on their side. The book became a sensation almost overnight, selling more than 1.5 million copies by 1938 and inspiring four movies, a Broadway play and a television series. The Virginian was voted by the Western American Writers in 1977 as the greatest western novel of all time. Combining action, romance and atmosphere, it remains a classic of frontier fiction.
What is little known is that the hero, the Virginian, has a Canadian connection. It is widely believed that the hero is based upon Everett Cyril “Ebb” Johnson, who was born in Virginia in 1860. He worked for the Powder River Cattle Company and, in the fall of 1886, drove cattle north to what is now southern Alberta. Johnson was impressed with the country and a few years later, he moved north for good.
After working on a ranch west of Calgary, he became the foreman of the famous Bar-U Ranch, where he met and married Mary Eleanor Bigland, from Windermere, England. His best man was a cowboy named Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid, who was in Canada hiding out from the authorities. Later, Johnson worked for various ranches in the area and then as a cattle buyer.
In 1902, soon after the publication of The Virginian, Wister sent a copy, inscribed “To the hero from the author,” to Johnson, acknowledging Johnson as the Virginian. In later years, Johnson ran a successful butcher shop in Cochrane, Alta.
But, realizing that his glory days were at an end, he was never really happy in Canada and longed for his home in Virginia. He retired to Calgary in 1923 and died in 1946, but the legacy of the Virginian lives on.
Ken Mather is a Spallumcheen author. He can be reached through www.kenmather.com.