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Owen Wister's Virginian

Dusty Farnum

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"When you call me that, smile." 

Gary Cooper made the words famous, but legend has it that Owen Wister actually heard those words spoken by Medicine Bow, Wyoming's deputy sheriff (in response to another poker player who called him an "S.O.B."). In Wister's best known book, The Virginian, Horseman of the Plains, the lead-up is the same:

The Virginian's pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas:

"When you call me that, smile!"

And he looked at Trampas across the table. Yes, the voice was gentle. But in my ears it seemed as if somewhere the bell of death was ringing; and silence, like a stroke, fell on the large room.

Wister was born in 1860 in Philadelphia.  As a young man, he went West for his health, documenting his experiences in a series of diaries.  With those diaries at hand, he wrote The Virginian in 1902.

The Virginian is the story of a quiet hero, "a courageous loner who follows his private code of honor while prevailing over the forces of evil."

In Owen Wister Out West, Owen Wister's daughter captures the essence of the historical impact of The Virginian:

  . . . For the first time, a cowboy was a gentleman and a hero, but nobody realized then that the book was the master design on which thousands of Westerns would be modeled.  Its hero was the first cowboy to capture the public's imagination, and hundreds of young girls fell in love with him . . . besides being handsome, he was humorous and human . . . The Virginian himself is the progenitor of the cowboy as folk figure.  Because of him, little boys wear ten-gallon hats and carry toy pistols.  This one novel set the tradition of the West permanently.   We still have Western stories, Western movies, and Western radio and television drama in which the cowboy hero defends justice and his girl's honor and shoots it out with the villain . . . It was written as fiction but has become history . . .

The novel was made into at least four movies and a television series. Before the first silent film was made, it was performed in theatres. Dusty Farnum (pictured above) starred in the play for many years and went on to star in the first film version. (Read more below about the stage version and Owen Wister's song,  "Ten Thousand Cattle Straying (Dead Broke).")

Wister dedicated his Western masterpiece to his friend Teddy Roosevelt and some later editions were illustrated by Roosevelt's friend, Frederic Remington.

In Wister's introduction to The Virginian, he gives a taste of the bittersweet pleasure his book will bring, making the reader long for "good old days" even before the book begins:

What is become of the horseman, the cowpuncher, the last romantic figure upon our soil? For he was romantic. Whatever he did, he did with his might. The bread that he earned was earned hard, the wages that he squandered were squandered hard,--half a year's pay sometimes gone in a night,--"blown in," as he expressed it, or "blowed in," to be perfectly accurate. Well, he will be here among us always, invisible, waiting his chance to live and play as he would like. His wild kind has been among us always, since the beginning: a young man with his temptations, a hero without wings.

The cowpuncher's ungoverned hours did not unman him. If he gave his word, he kept it; Wall Street would have found him behind the times. Nor did he talk lewdly to women; Newport would have thought him old-fashioned. He and his brief epoch make a complete picture, for in themselves they were as complete as the pioneers of the land or the explorers of the sea. A transition has followed the horseman of the plains; a shapeless state, a condition of men and manners as unlovely as is that moment in the year when winter is gone and spring not come, and the face of Nature is ugly. I shall not dwell upon it here. Those who have seen it know well what I mean. Such transition was inevitable. Let us give thanks that it is but a transition, and not a finality.


Ten Thousand Cattle Straying (Dead Broke)

Ten thousand cattle straying,
They quit my range and travell'd away,
And it's "sons-of-guns" is what I say,
I am dead broke, dead broke this day.
Dead broke.

Ten thousand cattle straying,
They quit my range and travell'd away,
And it's "sons-of-guns" is what I say,
I am dead broke, dead broke this day.
Dead broke.

In gambling hells delaying
Ten thousand cattle straying
And it's "sons-of-guns" is what I say
They've rustled my pile, my pile away.

My girl she has went straying,
She quit me, too, and travell'd away,
With a "son-of-o-gun" from Ioway,
I'm a lone man, lone man this day.
Dead broke.

So I've took card playing,
I deal the decks but it don't seem to pay,
And it's "son-of-a gunner" I get each day,
And nothing will come, will come my way.
Dead broke.

My luck has gone straying,
I make no strike by night or day,
But it's "sons-of-guns" I still will say,
For I'm in the game, the game to stay.
Dead broke.

Owen Wister, 1888

This song, written for the stage version of The Virginian, became well known and often was not attributed to Wister. It was adopted by singers with a variety of changes, some more polite than others. The song inspired the title of Katie Lee's landmark book, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story and Verse. (Katie Lee helped gain recognition for more than one rightful owner of words.)

In the liner notes to a recently released CD that accompanies Katie Lee's book, she comments on the song: "....Not every cowboy swore a purple streak, but damn few said 'goodness me!' unless their true love rode ahead and their mama behind them."

Folklorist and music historian and John I. White (author of Git Along Little Dogies) wrote about Wister's song in a 1967 article in Western Folklore. He noted that the song appeared without attribution in a number of respectable books, including Songs of Man, edited by Norman Luboff and Win Stracke; Margaret Larkin's Singing Cowboy; John and Alan Lomax' Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads;and elsewhere.

White quotes Owen Wister about writing the song and his stage production, "After several visits to Wyoming I wrote it in camp there in the summer of 1888. I set it to the air of an old French opera. Sixteen years afterward, when it came to producing a dramatization of my book The Virginian, it struck me that the song would make a good point in the play, if used in the way of what is now called a theme song. I did not want to use the tune of the French opera and I composed one of my own... White writes, "Wister apparently felt flattered rather than resentful because his work had been handed about from singer to singer over the years and eventually put into printed collections without his permission. [Wister] continued: 'The fact that it was published in a collection of cowpunchers' songs in a version which bore only very faint traces of the original is a very pretty demonstration of the way many a popular ballad was gradually developed.'"

White tells that, "Wister had studied musical composition at Harvard, then taken a law degree. But after five summers spent in Wyoming in search of health and big game, he became a full-time writer of Western stories. Wister's first published Western story, "Hank's Woman," appeared in Harper's Weekly Magazine, August 27, 1892. In 1902 his first and only Western novel, The Virginian, became the year's number one best seller. Considering the great success of the book both at home and abroad and the fact that the author's grandmother was the well-known English actress Fanny Kemble, it was only natural that Wister should try dramatizing the adventures of his popular cowboy hero."

You can view the song's original sheet music at the University of Colorado Digital Sheet Music Collection. See a related poem in our Strays section, here.


Links and Books

See our feature with the full text of "Evolution of the Cow-Puncher" here.

See our feature with the full text of "A Journey in Search of Christmas" from Lin McLean here.

From the Library of Congress on-line exhibits:

The Virginian, first edition book cover

An "literary map" of The Virginian by Everett Henry

An illustrated letter from Frederic Remington to Owen Wister

The Library of Congress holds the Owen Wister's papers

Owen Wister photos and links at the University of Wyoming American Heritage Center in a virtual exhibit

1904 Sheet music, words and music by Owen Wister for a song ("Ten Thousand Cattle Straying (Dead Broke)") from a play based on the Virginian

Biography, background, and links at Wikipedia

Biographical article from Harvard Magazine:

Read the full text of The Virginian at: Project Gutenberg  (and other works, including The Jimmyjohn Boss and other stories; Lady Baltimore, Lin McLean, Mother, Padre Ignacio, Philosophy 4, and The Straight Deal)

Click to order from Amazon   The Virginian  

Many editions are available. The entire text of The Virginian is available, free, on line from the Gutenberg Project.)


Click to order from Amazon Salvation Gap & Other Western Classics


Click to order from Amazon Lin McLean (Wister's first novel.  It's about a young Wyoming cowboy who "tires of the dust and hard life and heads east to Boston to seek his fortune," the character who was to become "The Virginian." 


Also by Owen Wister, out of print and worth finding:

Owen Wister out West; His Journals and Letters. Edited by Frances Kimble Wister, 1958 (see the excerpt above)

Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship 1930

When The West Was West, 1928

Red Men and White, 1896 (some editions include Wister's essay "The Evolution of a Cow-Puncher."

 About Owen Wister, out of print and worth finding:

My Father, Owen Wister, 1952 (Letters from Owen Wister to his mother, written during his first trip to Wyoming.   Edited by Frances Kemble Wister.)






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