Owen Wister, author of “The Virginian” and “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher.” A blue-blooded Philadelphian, Wister became enamored with the American West after his 1885 visit to Wyoming.
First edition of “The Virginian” (1902), Wister’s magnum opus.
Yale-educated Frederic Remington created some of the most memorable and influential images of the Wild West, and was the first to suggest that Wister write an essay about the history of the cowboy.
Theodore Roosevelt, another Ivy Leaguer and a close friend of Wister’s, was also obsessed with the history of the frontier. His multivolume “The Winning of the West” shared many themes with the work of Wister and Remington.
Charles Goodnight, one of the first cowboys.
Real cowboys performed dangerous work, frequently for low wages. They had to contend with difficult weather, sleep deprivation, thirst and hunger on the trail, and the dangers posed by animals, cattle thieves, and hostile Indians.
Historians estimate that between 1/4 and 1/3 of cowboys were people of color. Here, a group of African-American cowboys pose near Bonham, Texas, ca. 1911-1915.
Wister, Remington, and Roosevelt popularized the heroic image of the cowboy. Remington’s painting “The Cowboy” appeared in 1902, the same year that Wister published “The Virginian.”
“The Bronco Buster” (1916). Remington also excelled in sculpture.
Remington’s “Aiding a Comrade” (1890) reflects the danger and comradeship of cowboy life.
“What an Unbranded Cow Has Cost” (1895). Wister and Remington emphasized the role of honor among cowboys — a kind of knight’s code for the 19th century.
This Civil War-era cartoon depicts an argument between the US and Britain, as personified by Brother Jonathan (a precursor to Uncle Sam) and John Bull. “John and Jonathan” would clash again in the opening of “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher.”
Remington’s “The Last Cavalier” accompanied “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher” in its 1895 debut in the pages of Harper’s Monthly. It perfectly captured Wister’s insistence on the racial and ideological connections between the cowboy and his medieval ancestors.
“The Fall of the Cowboy” (1895). Wister and Remington’s imagined West, with its heroic racial struggles, ended with the enclosure and domestication of its Anglo-Saxon cowboys.
The titanic labor struggles of the 1890s heavily influenced Wister’s and Remington’s vision of the West. Remington saw the Pullman Strike of 1894 in part as a clash between racially degraded cities and a still-pure West.
“The Virginian” cemented an image of the cowboy in the American imagination. John Wayne’s cowboy (seen here as he appeared in “Stagecoach” in 1939) was among the most important iterations of the character.
Another important variation on Wister’s cowboy: Alan Ladd in “Shane” (1953).
The cowboy image endures not just in popular media, but in politics, too — not least by Ronald Reagan.