Candy Moulton: Reading the West 9-23-13
Western novelist Owen Wister, who became famous for “The Virginian,” was a “dude” in Jackson Hole, Wyo., long before he wrote his classic novel. Many stories circulate about his writing. Old timers claim to have been the character upon which he based the Virginian. The book is the stuff of legends and many of Wister’s scenes are in Wyoming spots like Medicine Bow, the Goose Egg Ranch near Casper, the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, or from incidents that took place during his trips to Jackson Hole.
Wister spent a considerable amount of time in Wyoming after 1885 when his health broke down and his doctor S. Weir Mitchell, advised him to head west. Wister first visited Jackson Hole in 1887 on a big game shooting trip.
His daughter Frances Stokes wrote in a letter January 29, 1958: “I went to Jackson Hole as a child with my parents and sister and brothers in the summers of 1911 and 1912. In 1912 we built a two story log cabin in the 100 acre ranch my Father bought not far from the JY [dude ranch] … It was called the Owen Wister cabin and my friend told me that it was now said that Owen lived there while writing ‘The Virginian’” As Stokes pointed out, that was not the case. ‘The Virginian’ was first serialized in Harper Magazine in 1894 as a series of short stories. When Wister set out to turn the stories into the novel, he was living in Charleston, South Carolina.
The University of Wyoming in Laramie has Owen Wister’s pencil-written diaries of his time in the West and also what are believed to be the only two pages of pencil manuscript of “The Virginian” that exist.
While he may not have written any of “The Virginian,” in Wyoming, Wister did spend time in the state.
Portions of a diary published in the Jackson Hole Guide in 1965, chronicle a trip Wister and John K. Mitchell took to Jackson Hole in the 1880s. Mitchell describes Owen Wister as D., or Dan. Their more-than-a-month-long trip included time at Sheep Creek, known as Dick’s Basin for Beaver Dick Leigh, Brooks Lake, and in Yellowstone and the Absaroka Mountain Range.
Mitchell wrote: “Monday, [August] 31st, D, and I rode to the Snake R. ferry “Jones’s Ranch,” to hunt up a J.P. and get a Wyoming Game license for me. Across the swamp, the same troublesome swamp, we got safely enough, the trail taking the far side of the stream we had tried so often to cross, forded the Snake, more swamp and wet willows, deep mud-holes, and presently emerged on a beautiful meadow, and struck the wagon road, down which or pack came.”
The men asked for Beaver Dick Leigh, who they wanted as a guide, and learned he was already out with a prospecting party from New York, so they continued on their way, reaching the house where the justice of the peace lived. That man was not home, “but a good looking young fellow, sturdy, blue-eyed and pleasant, of whom we purchased cornmeal … invited us to stay and grub and the promise of fresh meat was too attractive to be missed, so we stayed and ate elk meat in the house of the game protector and justice of the peace two days before the season opened,” Mitchell wrote.
Upon completing their meal, Wister and Michell left a message for the justice of the peace that they needed a hunting license and then set out looking for Beaver Dick Leigh who would show them the hunting ground.
Mitchell and Wister finally located Beaver Dick a, “round shouldered, long-bearded, big nosed old man, with a clear light blue eye, … very talkative, like all the mountain men and old trappers; 28 years scout, guide and interpreter for the Army, trapper, pioneer, and real frontiersman, hating the encroachment of settlements, and keeping away from them … He is to come tomorrow and show us how to get through the canyon without wings!
The following day with Beaver Dick to lead them across the country, Mitchell said, “We climbed and scrambled, we dodged under half-falled trees and circumnavigated trunks too high to jump … Half way down a big flat rock stuck out over the creek at a sharper angle than the rest of the slope, and round it we went very gingerly, as to slip on it would have shot one into the creek. At the bottom of the slope we crawled gingerly over a mass of tumbled granite rocks, all sharp edged as knives, and one of sizes from a small house downward … [soon] Dick was scrambling up another steep bank, his one spur working viciously. Then we dropped into the stream, and went 40 or 50 yards in the water, crossed again, belly deep, at the foot of a beautiful rapid and struggled up another hill, I on foot, but Dick still in the saddle.”
Wister, who had a successful hunt under Beaver Dick’s guidance, later wrote of Jackson Hole, “That region is the country I have loved best in the world. Where there any part of my life I would live again, it would be the time spent there.”
He would add, “In 1888, [near] the camp between String and Jenny Lake, at the edge of the pines where the creek enters them for its final descent into Jenny Lake, I climbed to the rocky scoop where the real steepness of the Grand Teton begins-and came down again ingloriously.”
Experiences like his hunting trip with Mitchell, and sliding down the steep mountainside near Jenny Lake, gave Wister an understanding of the West and its rugged terrain. And that, of course, shows up in his writing. ❖