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American Heritage Center

The Virginian

Owen Wister met a ranch foreman in New Mexico who partially inspired The Virginian.

Photo: "Apache Tejo (New Mexico)--Brook, Spanish, et al.," 1894, where Owen Wister met a ranch foreman who partially inspired The Virginian. Owen Wister Papers.

Around 1891, Owen Wister began experimenting with his most famous character.  He created a Southern born ranch hand who was hardened to the West, yet genteel, and who espoused Wister’s conservative patrician values. This character came to be known as The Virginian.

At same time, Wister conceived the idea of a picaresque novel about The Virginian. Between 1892-1902, he developed the character of The Virginian and wrote a series of short stories to be tied together into a novel.

There have been many claims about the identity of the Virginian. According to Wister, he was a composite of several men he met in the West. One of these men was a Virginian born rancher he met in 1885. Another person was Corporal Skirdin, whom he met at Fort Bowie, Arizona, in 1893. Other influences included two Kansas boys and a ranch foreman he met in New Mexico in 1894.

An illustration from the 1902 original edition of The Virginian.

Photo: "When you call me that, smile!" An illustration from the 1902 original edition of The Virginian. Toppan Rare Books Library, American Heritage Center.

The most famous line of The Virginian was based on an anecdote recorded by Wister in his 1894 diary. It was attributed to John Lawrence in Fetterman, Wyoming, around 1885-1886. In response to a taunt during a card game, Lawrence reportedly looked at his name caller and said “You smile when you call me that!”  According to Wister, the other man smiled and the incident ended peacefully. Wister’s version of this line, “When you call me that, smile!,” appeared in Chapter 2 of The Virginian.

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