Cross-Border Cowboy

Owen Wister’s The Virginian may have a real-life Canadian connection.

One of the enduring iconic images of the American and Canadian wests is the frontier cowboy. He is independent, fearless, hardy and good-hearted, particularly with women and animals, but willing to indulge in violence to maintain a largely self-determined natural justice.

To many, the frontier cowboy is the epitome of true democracy—unencumbered by the perceived effeteness and social orders of the eastern American and European cultures—who is willing to vigorously defend the free exercise of individualism.

This image ties into other deeply held beliefs, particularly in the United States. He is free to exercise self-defence and defend democracy through the unfettered use of guns. He is also a willing participant in vigilantism to overcome incomprehensible laws and corrupt governments that impede natural justice.

Of course, life is never as black and white as this. Vigilantism is often an expression of bigotry and the violent oppression by majorities against minorities. Unfettered gun ownership leads to tragic levels of violence. Nevertheless, the frontier cowboy of folklore rarely has to face such a lack of moral certainty, if one can use such a mild description of these brutal events.

A benchmark in the creation of the iconic frontier cowboy was Owen Wister’s book, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. Published in 1902, it has been reproduced in a half dozen movies and a long-running TV series.

This popularity may reflect the fact that Wister witnessed first-hand the cowboy culture of Wyoming in the 1880s and ’90s. Hence, his accounts were more realistic than dime-store novels. Wister also addressed the complex elements of cowboy culture.

His protagonist hailed from Virginia, not the raw Texan frontier. He struggled with the consequences of vigilante justice, when forced to hang his best friend for cattle rustling. The love of his life is revolted by his use of violence and breaks away. He must win her back, by proving that his motives were actually “moral and just.”

With larger than life literary figures, there is generally a strong desire by readers to believe that they were inspired by real-life individuals. Hence, it should come as no surprise that there is much speculation as to who the mysterious Virginian was based on. Wister rarely gave any hint, if indeed there had been such person.

A noted retired history professor at Trent University, Jennings proposes that the Virginian can be traced back to a real-life individual, Everett (Ebb) Johnson, whom he had known as a young boy in southern Alberta. Jennings developed a youthful fascination with the stories he was told by Johnson and was further captivated by the stories in the Glenbow Archives that had been recorded by Jean Johnson, Ebb’s daughter–in-law. Thus, The Cowboy Legend is based on something more concrete than half-remembered stories from Jennings’s youth.

Jennings makes many convincing points as he tests his thesis that Johnson was either the Virginian, or else a significant model for the character. Johnson was born in Virginia, the descendent of a well-connected southern family. He lived and worked in Wyoming as a cowboy. He had extensive contact with Wister during the latter’s time in Wyoming. He also personally knew such fabled figures as Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp and Butch Cassidy. The best man at his wedding was Henry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid.

In the late 1880s, Johnson moved to southern Alberta. Consequently, his life story provides a first-hand link between the American frontier cowboys and those in the Canadian West. Jennings spends a great deal of time on a comparison between the two. He explores why the Canadian frontier was marked by strict law and order, with an absence of the gun-toting violence of the United States. He shows how the same individual could live a very different life north of the border than south of it. He also works hard to dispel recent contentions, by such historians as Warren Elofson, that the differences between the two frontiers were small.

There are times when Jennings overreaches. When talking about the role of the North West Mounted Police in the development of the Canadian West, he refers to a “police-state”—a far-fetched claim, given the usual connotations of the term. He claims a wonderful relationship between the NWMP and the First Nations. The police often did well, particularly in helping to prevent the participation of southern Alberta’s First Nations in the North West (Riel) Rebellion. Nevertheless, there is still much to criticize in their conduct toward the First Nations.

Jennings makes scant mention of the Riel Rebellion of 1885, even though it was a remarkable exception to the “peaceable” Canadian West. However, one can justify the omission since the cowboys of southern Alberta had little involvement in the conflict.

Jennings is much stronger in his arguments that a key difference between the frontiers was the legal system, particularly with respect to land ownership and grazing rights. Those rules were put into place in Western Canada largely before settlement, and not afterward. Hence, there was not the necessity for the early frontiersmen to create their own laws, as was the case in the United States.

The main argument that Johnson was the real-life model for the Virginian is now impossible to prove. Wister purposely left any identity as a mystery. There were apparently letters to Johnson from Wister and a specially autographed copy of the famous book. However, these were destroyed in a fire.

More importantly, as Jennings freely admits, while Wister kept extensive journals of his time in Wyoming, there is no mention of Johnson in them. One could reasonably conclude that if an individual made a major impression on Wister, then at least some sort of contemporary record of their relationship would exist.

Nevertheless, Jennings does make a strong argument, albeit with totally circumstantial evidence, that Johnson was the Virginian, or at least a significant influence on the way that Wister portrayed the character. Moreover, he provides a well-researched biography of this true-to-life frontier cowboy of the American and Canadian wests. At the same time, Jennings provides a sound academic analysis of the differences between the two frontiers along with excellent insights as to why those differences developed. All this makes The Cowboy Legend a good read for both aficionados of the frontier cowboy story and for those looking for strong academic research and analysis of the early West.