In July 1885, Owen Wister visited Medicine Bow in Wyoming Territory as part of his tour of the region, only to discover there were no rooms available in town to sleep. Instead of moving on when he arrived on July 19, Wister decided to stay, and ended up sleeping on the general store’s counter for the night. In his journal entry for July 21, he wrote, “I slept from ten to twelve thirty on the counter of the store at Medicine Bow and then the train came in bringing the lawyer and the fish…” The lawyer was his traveling companion, and the fish their dinner.
Wister then continued his tour, having noted earlier in his journal that calling Medicine Bow a town was being generous. He even went so far as to create a town inventory, which consisted mostly of what he termed “shanties” and something else he slated as “too late for classification.”
From Medicine Bow, Wister and his companion set out across the plains, camping out at various points. They encountered, and hunted, all types of animals, which were usually eaten or fashioned into mementoes. Wister notes that he was not feeling well over the course of this trip but felt better by the first of August, when they made camp on Upper Deer Creek in what would soon become Converse County. They were joined by nearby rancher Frank Wolcott, later of Johnson County War notoriety, and his wife. Although Wolcott proved a boon companion, Wister had a different opinion of the wife, noting in his diary, “Mrs. Wolcott has the Puritan virtues and she congealed early…It’s a bad thing to have no humour – and she hasn’t a grain.” By August 14, Wister was off again, continuing his travels and falling in love with the West.
Owen Wister was a famous writer and historian. He is credited as the “father” of western fiction. His most notable titles are The Virginian: A Horseman of the High Plains and a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. He was born July 14, 1860, to Sarah Butler and Owen Jones Wister in Germantown, a neighborhood in the northwestern part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Young Owen spent his youth traveling through Europe with his parents, learning French, and developing a love for music. He attended Harvard University and graduated summa cum laude in 1882 before traveling back to Europe to study music.
His adventures were cut short when Owen Sr. told him to come home to be a banker. Owen hated banking and convinced his father to let him return to Harvard, this time to the law school. He graduated in 1888 and was admitted to the bar in 1890. During his law school years, Wister took his first trip West, to Wyoming, as a restorative for a near nervous breakdown. It was also the birth of his appreciation for the region that would inspire his writing for the remainder of his life. He would make fifteen trips out west from 1885 to 1900 and would keep meticulous notes of each that would help him write his western stories.
In 1902, what is considered the first western, The Virginian, was published. Set in Wyoming Territory in the 1880s, it is about a cowboy who falls in love with a Vermont schoolteacher and the cowboy’s search for justice set against the backdrop of the Johnson County War. Wister wrote the book in Wyoming, where he often spent the summers to improve his health. He wrote most of the story in his cabin near Jackson, Wyoming, as well as various other locations scattered around the state.
The 1885 trip described in part above played a large role in the creation of The Virginian. During Wister’s travels he discovered a range of characters and events that later became part of the novel, as well as short stories. The Virginian includes a section in which the story follows a rustler’s trail from Casper through the Teton Range and into Idaho, closely mirroring some of Wister’s 1885 trip through the region. During his Wyoming stays Wister also spent a lot of time camping and hunting in both Yellowstone National Park and Jackson, which also inspired the novel’s storylines.
Wister continued to travel back and forth from the East to the western plains, writing and capturing the essence of the West in short stories, at times bringing his family and friends to see the beauty of the West. His love letters to the region in the form of his writings and stories led him to become the father of western fiction and encouraged the image of a wild and untamed West.
To discover more about Owen Wister, his writings, and his trips out West and to Wyoming, please visit the American Heritage Center’s digital materials website. There you can view many photographs, as well as Wister’s journals and notebooks that have been digitized.
Post contributed by AHC Archives Intern Brittany Heye.
Vannoy, Cynthia. “Owen Wister’s Wyoming.” True West Magazine. March 30, 2018. https://truewestmagazine.com/owen-wisters-wyoming/.
Nesbitt, John D. “Owen Wister: Inventor of the Good-Guy Cowboy.” WyoHistory.org. November 8, 2014. https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/owen-wister-inventor-good-guy-cowboy.