Places: The Virginian

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1902

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Western

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Medicine Bow

*Medicine Virginian, TheBow. Wyoming town in and around which the novel is set, during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The setting depicts a romantic scene with spectacular landscapes, including wide rangelands, impressive rock formations and colors, and vast distances. The reader is left with a sense of endless space in a wild, almost hostile environment. The scenery conveys the rugged image of courageous men who choose to be more attached to their horses and six-shooters than to the constraints demanded by marriage and a family.

Owen Wister notes that during the late nineteenth century the town of Medicine Bow consisted of twenty-nine buildings, including a general store, a saloon, a feed stable, two dining houses, a train depot, and a few houses. There were only two ranches that occupied the vast surroundings, one owned by Judge Henry and the other by Sam Balaam. A river running through their land provided a natural boundary of separation.

With the cattle boom of the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, Medicine Bow was quickly changing, as was the West in general. Medicine Bow became the largest cattle shipping point along the Union Pacific Railroad, shipping an average of two hundred head per day. In order to herd the cattle, roads were built. To raise and breed the cattle, fences were erected along the roads and other locations on the once-open range. The cattle business brought many changes to the pristine conditions that had existed there. The streets of Medicine Bow, as well as the open range in general, became littered with tin cans and other garbage. The West was changing, becoming more like the East, where the Virginian and the other major characters in the novel had originally lived. They moved West hoping to escape the decadent conditions that were prevalent in the East. Unfortunately, the same conditions were also rapidly developing in the West.


*Wyoming. Frontier state that in the early 1870’s was almost entirely open rangeland, covered with long sequences of prairie grass and fertile land. The vastness was only occasionally interrupted by canyons and rivers, but it was not split up by roads, settlements, or fences. Wyoming was a new land, the unknown, and stood in sharp contrast to the American East. The title of “cowboy” implied an attitude and a lifestyle that were representative of the land. There was virtually no evidence that in only a few years the western frontier would become a mere memory.

Sunk Creek Ranch

Sunk Creek Ranch. Located more than two hundred miles from Medicine Bow, Sunk Creek is the location of Judge Henry’s cattle ranch, where the Virginian becomes the foreman and demonstrates to other cowhands that a cowboy should live by the honor code of the old West. Sunk Creek represents a site of transition from the plains horseman to barbed wire, farming, and development. Here, as well as at Medicine Bow, Wister challenges his readers to be and do the best at all times, no matter what the circumstances, particularly during times of transition and development.

Bear Creek

Bear Creek. Small Wyoming town in which Molly Wood, an easterner, takes up residence in order to teach school. Bear Creek symbolizes a place of selfless acts, tolerance, and love. It is where Molly devotes much of her time to teaching frontier children, who need her love and nurturing care. It is also where Molly patiently nurses the Virginian back to health after he is shot. Bear Creek represents one of the last places in America where true American virtues exist. The land, Molly, and the Virginian all symbolize those vanishing qualities.

BibliographyCobbs, John L. Owen Wister. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Argues that Wister was a good writer whose works deserve more attention. Devotes one chapter to a discussion of The Virginian and provides a good survey of other secondary sources on the book through the early 1980’s.Etulain, Richard W. Owen Wister. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1973. A brief survey of Wister’s career and a good introduction to his writings. Includes some perceptive comments about The Virginian.Lambert, Neal. “Owen Wister’s Virginian: The Genesis of a Cultural Hero.” Western American Literature 6 (Summer, 1971): 99-107. A perceptive analysis of the development and meaning of the central figure of Wister’s novel by one of the leading students of his work.Payne, Darwin. Owen Wister: Chronicler of the West, Gentleman of the East. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985. The best available biography of Wister, which draws on extensive research in his papers at the Library of Congress and other manuscript collections. Contains an abundance of material on the history of The Virginian and the response it evoked during Wister’s lifetime.White, G. Edward. The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience: The West of Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Owen Wister. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968. Examines the way in which Wister interacted with the West and the historical circumstances that led him to write The Virginian. White deals with Wister’s links with participants in the Johnson County War of April, 1892.
Categories: Places