#Lookback: Owen Wister

A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

In the summer of 1885 when he was 25, Owen Wister made his first journey to Wyoming.  His doctor had prescribed a trip to the West to improve his health and his spirit.  His time in the West would change his life forever.  He was struck by the natural beauty of the land and the clean fresh air, and especially the rugged individualism that permeated the friendly people he encountered. His traveling companions were two women in their forties who were friends of his mother. They spent the summer with Frank Wolcott, who later became a leader of the Johnson County War. On Wolcott’s ranch they lived the ranch life.   Over the years, Wister became quite paternalistic about Wyoming fearing it would, ”New Yorkify”, and lose its charm. When he returned many years later he felt his fears had been realized and the West he had loved had vanished.

In the Fall of 1885, Wister returned to the East to continue his studies at Harvard.  Among his friends at Harvard was Theodore Roosevelt who also had a love of the western lifestyle. Wister went on to earn a law degree.  Wister returned to Wyoming in 1887 taking the stagecoach from Rawlins to Lander.  He checked into the Lander Hotel on July 30, 1887.  The register he signed is in the collection at the Pioneer Museum and is on display.  He continued onto Fort Washakie and outfitted an expedition to Jackson Hole. He hired Tigee, a well-known Shoshone guide to lead his group through the mountains.  He also hired Jules Mason and George West to pack for this team.  They became long-time friends. He made many friends in Wyoming and kept journals about his experiences.  He used these journals as source material when he changed professions from a lawyer to a writer.

Wister fell in love with the Wind River Mountains; he enjoyed hunting and fishing. He killed his first grizzly bear just across the continental divide. Tigee had killed an elk and used part of it to bait the bear.

The next year he returned to Fort Washakie and hired Paul DeRose and Dick Washakie, the son of Chief Washakie along with Jules Mason and George West to guide his party into Yellowstone.

In 1889, Wister returned and while on the train met one of the men accused of killing Cattle Kate and James Averill. He liked the man and hoped he would not be convicted. Wister always seemed to side with the big landowners, many of whom had sent their sons to Harvard. Wister took many photographs during his visits to Wyoming including photos of J.K. Moore, the owner of the trading post at Fort Washakie, and a photo of Chief Washaki when the chief was in his nineties.

His trip to Wyoming in 1890 seemed to be a turning point in his writing career. His notebooks from 1890 were full of details that would be incorporated into his novel, The Virginian.

Wister’s first novel, Lin McLean was published in 1898, but his most significant work was The Virginian published in 1902.  The Virginian is considered by many to be the prototype of the American Western novel with a noble cowboy who fights an evil villain and gets the girl in the end.  Over the years, the formula has been copied by writers such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. In many ways, the myth of the American West poured out of the pen of Owen Wister from his experiences while visiting Wyoming. The myth was established for generations of readers and movie goers.

Next up for the Fremont County Museum

October 2- November 15, 9-5 at the Pioneer Museum, “Grounded: A Contemporary Exhibition of Art from Northern Plains Tribes”

November 15-October 2022 at the Pioneer Museum, “Wind River Memories: Artists of the Lander Valley and Beyond” art exhibition

November 19, 10am, at the Dubois Museum, “Kids Gingerbread Houses” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum.  The WRCCF will help deliver the long term financial support our museums need to flourish.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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