The Cowboy Legend: Owen Wister’s Virginian and the Canadian-American Frontier by John Jennings (review)
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Reviewed by
Jennings, John – The Cowboy Legend: Owen Wister’s Virginian and the Canadian-American Frontier. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2015. Pp. 412.

This book is unique in that its historical narrative and focus are played out against a single individual and an unanswered literary question. In setting the two ranching frontiers in the United States and Canada against the experiences of Everett Johnson who lived on both, John Jennings brings a new dimension to what has become an ongoing debate about the nature of two parallel ranching traditions. Furthermore, through his plausible speculations that the Virginia-born Everett Johnson was the model for Owen Wister’s hero in his 1902 seminal novel, The Virginian, Jennings links the origins of a literary genre and a North American mythical figure with a cowboy who lived most of his life in western Canada.

Jennings’ research is impressive, involving several archival collections and a wide range of other primary and secondary sources. It is also personal. Jennings’ father was Everett Johnson’s doctor and friend in Calgary; Jennings was also wellacquainted with Johnson’s son, and daughter-in-law whose reminiscences, now housed in Calgary’s Glenbow Archives, provided much of the details on Johnson’s life. The narrative is enlivened by Jennings’ very readable prose, his propensity to debunk myths, and his interesting anecdotes, wry observations, and turn of the phrase. The book is well-illustrated and augmented by a Prologue which features pertinent extracts from The Virginian.

In a lengthy Introduction, Jennings sees violence and vigilantism as crucial components of the American frontier experience. He argues that their roots lay in an inadequate system of land tenure with its liberal interpretation of the public domain, and a weak, fragmented legal enforcement regime. He also sees the lingering respectability of vigilantism in American culture as an unfortunate modern by-product. On the other hand, Jennings takes the view advanced by David Breen almost forty years ago that an orderly western Canadian ranching frontier was enabled by a centralized leasehold system of land tenure and the presence of a federal law enforcement agency in the form the North-West Mounted Police. Essentially, he tries to reinforce these arguments in the narrative by situating Everett Johnson on both frontiers to see their unfolding through his eyes.

Using Johnson as a participant and eyewitness, Jennings discusses particular phases in his life to exemplify and elaborate on the violent nature of the American frontier. In Texas, Johnson saw cold-blooded murder. He was only fourteen years of age when he was forced to kill a fleeing Mexican outlaw who had shot at him. Amid the lawlessness of Deadwood City, he was acquainted with murderers and outlaw gangs, and formed less than admirable opinions of gambling drifters like Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp. As a scout, he witnessed Buffalo Bill Cody’s famous fateful encounter with the Cheyenne warrior, Yellow Hair, and gives a far different and less heroic account than the Cody version. He also took part in lynchings in Wyoming, and claimed responsibility for at least three violent deaths (two were outlaws and the other an act of self-defence). Whether as stagecoach driver, scout or expert working cowboy, Johnson reminisced about a world where human conflict, danger and violence were normal components of life. [End Page 700]

As for Alberta where he relocated in 1888, there were no such memories. As a ranch foreman, and horse breaker and trainer, Johnson entered the life of a ranching society where there were no lynchings, no vigilantism, and no range wars. Johnson’s voice does not come through as strongly in Alberta because, given Jennings’ central point about violence, there was nothing much to say. Johnson’s reminiscences, however, frequently refer to the number of dangerous American cowboys who came to Alberta to visit and live, including the notorious Sundance Kid, a law-abiding citizen when north of the 49th Parallel and Johnson’s best man at his wedding in 1891.

Jennings devotes significant attention to Owen Wister and his literary path, which culminated in his creation of the quintessential cowboy hero in The Virginian and a subsequent reluctance to name an...