The 1902 first edition of “The Virginian: Horseman of the Plains.”

The University of Wyoming’s marketing campaign, “The World Needs More Cowboys,” caused a stir when it released last July. Now the slogan is the homecoming theme and it emblazons UW campus buses, the football stadium, T-shirts, and billboards statewide. I’ve been trying to decide which side of the controversy I’m on. Is it sexist and exclusionary or an innovative spin on Wyoming’s long-standing Cowboy state image? The question started me thinking about how Owen Wister portrayed Wyoming cowboys in his 1902 novel, “The Virginian: Horseman of the Plains.”

Wister was the eastern writer whose novel celebrated Wyoming ranch life and especially one particular cowboy, the novel’s namesake, the Virginian. For Wister’s early 20th century audience and readers who followed, the Virginian epitomized the look, the character and the romantic notions that shaped the way cowboys were depicted later in fiction. The novel captured readers’ imaginations right away; it was reprinted 15 times in its first year of publication. Literary scholars still consider it the seminal western classic. Later Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour and others adopted features of Wister’s plot, creating the popular formula western.

Then Hollywood spun their own versions in western movies with such heroes as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and a slew of other cowboy stars from Gary Cooper, to John Wayne, to Clint Eastwood. Not to mention numerous popular television series like Gunsmoke and Bonanza that inspired a generation of fans.

But over time positive connotations of “cowboy” eroded. The Marlboro Man sold cigarettes. The Spaghetti Western cowboys were ruthless and violent. For some people, to “cowboy” became an insult.

The original manuscript of The Virginian is preserved in The University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. In UW Library’s Special Collections, you can find early editions of the novel and others written by Wister.

However, few students would recognize the name today, even though they might support Wister’s notion of what a cowboy represents. According to western literary scholar Richard Etulain, the Virginian is “self-reliant, individualistic, and freedom loving.” His rough edges are softened by the influence of Molly Wood, the eastern “schoolmarm” he sets out to win.

The resulting hero is as intelligent as he is physically attractive. His integrity and fairness are demonstrated repeatedly. He bests the villain Trampas and upholds justice even when his friend, Steve, must be hanged for cattle rustling. He respects women and accepts that Molly is in many ways smarter than he is. He succeeds on his own merits. At the beginning of the novel he cowboys on a ranch owned by Judge Henry; by the novel’s mid-point he is foreman there; by novels end he and Molly have their own successful ranch.

Did the creators of UW’s marketing campaign consult Wister’s novel? Probably not. The cowboy image he represents so permeates American culture they didn’t need to.

In Wyoming where I live, real cowboys don’t always live up to the Virginian’s high standards, but we like to think they mostly do. The updated image UW promotes when it asserts that the world needs more of them revives the iconic cowboy image Wister created while taking a chance on making that hero relevant in 21st century terms. At first the slogan made me wonder: Really, does the world need more cowboys? Then I saw the promotional video and began to see the point.

Cowboys it says, “are every sex, shape, color, and creed.” They possess qualities like, “restless curiosity, daring, and optimism.” UW cowboys “don’t just sweep you off your feet and ride off into the sunset.” Backing this soundtrack are multiple rapid-fire images of diverse students from differing ethnic backgrounds, many of them women and minorities. They represent varied professions and pursuits such as dance, art, engineering, and athletics.

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While it may be a stretch for some to embrace this contemporary spin on the cowboy, I’m thinking Owen Wister could relate. When the Harvard-educated, widely-traveled Wister came to Wyoming from Boston to escape a monotonous desk job, Wyoming rejuvenated him. He resolved to “preserve in writing” the West he was experiencing. Little did Wister know he would be transforming the unsung cattle herder into an iconic hero who has inspired literature, film, and actual lives ever since.

Perhaps UW’s marketing plan will not only catch the imagination of prospective college students, but also make us think about how we define heroes. It may be time to remember the admirable qualities of an old-fashioned cowboy hero and bring him into the 21st century. The world could use more cowboys like that.

Marcia Hensley taught English and Western American Literature at Western Wyoming Community College. Her essays have appeared in several anthologies, High Country News, and the syndicated column Writers...

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  1. November 13, 2017 ·
    Contrary to Hollywood, black slaves were America’s 1st cowboys. The word cowboy, originally had nothing to do w-roping cattle & hell-raising in the high plains. The word ‘cowboy’ grew out of social customs that did not allow black males to be addressed as ‘mister’ or ‘men’. ‘Boy,’ was a derogatory term for a black male that included “cowboy,”, “house boy,” “field boy,” “stable boy”. Thousands of black cowboys were lawmen, Buffalo soldiers, ranchers, farmers. Few are found in history books.

  2. Well done Ms. Hensley.

    Putting aside the price tag and using a slogan already in use by Oklahoma State University, the underlying meaning of the slogan is spot on. We really do need more “Cowboys” in this world. Hard work and dedication to one’s profession(s) has been replaced by entitlement and the mentality that “everybody is a winner.” We really do need more cowboys, whether you are a welder, electrician, doctor, lawyer, miner, computer programmer, biologist, entrepreneur or any of the numerous opportunities available today – it just takes some hard work, dedication and time to develop to get the job done. There is no participation trophy at the end of the day, just the satisfaction of putting in a good day’s work and accomplishing the task.

    Again, well done Ms. Hensley.

  3. Thanks Marcia,
    Vanderhoff is wrong…he speaks no truth by saying this line…”Truth be told the only real working cowboys left in North America were to be found in Alberta Canada if you knew where to look , on Indian Reservations, and in Old Mexico.” Complete BS…!

    If he’d been to Sublette County, WY, he would have seen plenty of “real” cowboys.
    That’s how the work gets done in the fall, by cowboys, cowgirls and ranchers working together as a team. It’s still an honorable occupation. Riding for work brings a sense of accomplishment at the end of a day; exhausting yourself, a good horse and dog by moving hundreds of cattle to a better place. Moving cattle, either to the home ranch in the fall or the mountain pastures in the summer, is animal husbandry, one of the oldest human skills, and it requires animal handlers.
    A person who can use a horse in any terrain to manage livestock is a cowboy.
    Some folks are born into ranch life, others hire on, but if you don’t know,
    you’re missing a valuable part of being Wyoming/American and human.

    1. Every cow and attendant cowboy in Wyoming could disappear into the belly of a hovering UFO tomorrow, and they would not be missed by the cattle market or the rest of America. Only a very tiny percentage of carcass beef ever set foot on public graze in their short lives. Trying to do agriculture of any sort above 4,000 feet elevation in semi-arid Wyoming is

      The cattle business – and by inference cowboying- in Sublette County and elsewhere across Wyoming is based on a flawed business model heavily dependant on subsidization and tax abatements the rest of Wyoming does not enjoy. We bend over backwards to prop up public lands livestock, but it’s a losing proposition on paper along the way to consuming a vast chunk of natural resources.

      We all pay to keep cowboys on economic lifesupport. The cheap water and below cost grazing fees have to be recouped somewhere else . The total cost to Wyoming of that support is far beyond the price on a package of burger or a cut of steak. Take away that support to level the playing field based entirely on market forces, and the Wyoming cowman , his hired hands, and the cows would ride off into the sunset one final time. The hobby rancher and the tax shelter cattle baron need to go away regardless. Agriculture and especially beef have long since been a drag on the Wyoming economy. Smallest employment, lowest of wages, least contribution to the gross state product after expensing it all out.

      Romanticizing and mythologizing cowboys is in the end counterproductive, except to provide a livelihood for Hollywood and the rodeo circuits as a means to their own end. For a while longer.

      p.s. A significant portion of my life was spent on or around ranches in Park County and the high country of the Absarokas. I’ve got a couple thousand miles on the saddle odometer.

  4. What taxonomy do we honestly use to describe a Wyoming Cowboy ? Genus Wyomingus Specie cowboyus ?? Perhaps. But there are several subspecies as well.

    I was one of the early contributors who helped get American Cowboy Magazine off the ground in the early 1990’s . They were in Kansas at the time, and had been publishing of all things a magazine devoted to porcelain doll collectors. But the owners-publishers were determined to do a top flight glossy slick magazine all about the American cowboy , and they moved to Sheridan Wyoming to make good on that goal; to journal the great mythical pith and rawhide cowboy from closer to the wellspring. They even bought a place and ran some cows. I gave up on them after a few years. I guess they are still publishing, out of Boulder Colorado maybe.

    I gave up on them because they were caught in the Hollywooden honeytrap of the romanticized cowboy of then and now. Traded those porcelain dolls for the 2-dimensional cardboard cutout cowboys.

    Early on I had a textual discussion with Jesse Mullins the Editor about the various subspecies of cowboys I had known growing up and the ones walking around today . Which subspecie of cowboy do we want to portray ? He seemed shocked that I would dare say there are next to zero ” Real Cowboys” left in all of Wyoming. They had long since passed on and gone extinct, like Neanderthals and Denisovans, and were supplanted by what amounted to a modern Cro-Magnon cowboy that rapidly evolved into a new breed altogether.

    Those would be subspecies such as Hay Farmer Cowboys , Rodeo Cowboys, Dude Wrangler Cowboys , Mountain Trash Cowboys, Downtown Cowboys, Barstool Cowboys , Gunfight Reenactor Cowboys, Dallas Cowboys , Cocaine Cowboys ( be wary of those guys ! ) , and the worst of the lot – the Wannabe Cowboy a/k/a City Slicker. ( Dare I even bespeak the Brokeback Cowboy ? ) Truth be told the only real working cowboys left in North America were to be found in Alberta Canada if you knew where to look , on Indian Reservations, and in Old Mexico.

    The joke was if you happened to be in an airport and saw a guy in a big Stetson hat , longlseeved cotton shirt and blue jeans , $ 500 boots, a belt buckle the size of a salad plate, a leather vest and silk wild rag neckscarf, would you dare say to him ” I see by your attire you must be a cowboy ? ” Because you’d be wrong. The real cowboy is that short wiry guy who walks with a slight limp wearing the King’s Ropes hat and sneakers over in the food court , and drives a Kenworth 18-wheeler.

    I will tell you about one real cowboy I knew from my days tending bar in Meeteetse WY , at the Cowboy Bar. His name was Ron Gillespie, but he called himself ” Cowboy”. He worked on all the big ranches in the area, had a beautiful vivacious wife and a couple kids, moved from one outfit to another , even hit the oil patch a few times. But Ron always rodeoed and worked brandings and roundups . He was the guy you wanted as the Mugger in the annual 4th of July Wild Horse Race at the Cody Stampede. That was Ron ” Cowboy ” Gillespie, version 1.0 . Seemed as authentic as any working cowboy in his late 20’s at the time, and I knew many.
    I lost track of him after I left Meeteetse .

    Version 2.0 of of Cowboy Gillespie became front page news, and not in a good way. He had been shot in the back and killed trying to rob the Elkhorn Bar in Meeteetse at 3 o’clock in the morning. Turns out his wife and kids had left him . “Cowboy Ron” was the leader of a methamphetamine ring that was dealing to high schoolers and Y.A. tweakers.

    So when we in Wyoming extoll the virtues of the Cowboy that Owen Wister so magnanimously journaled in classic literature in ” The Viriginian” , and revert back to that fictional character a century later to edify our only 4-year university , keep in mind that he, too, was only one specimen of one subspecie of Wyoming Cowboy. No single cowboy who ever lived epitomized Wister’s consumate character. The human body is too frail to contain all those virtues at once.

    The University of Wyoming would be doing us all a favor by quietly retiring that ” World Needs More Cowboys” campaign. Never mind that Oklahoma State used that same exact slogan to brand its school for a stint., And moved on from it.

  5. Cowboys were in reality low-paid slaves of wealthy ranchers and speculators. Nothing romantic about them at all. That’s why dime-store-novel writers like Wister created the mythology. No one would buy novels that truly depicted reality. It would be too similar to the plight of other workers during the same time period: complete subjugation to the authority of the wealthy owner class, low wages, and poor working conditions.

  6. It wasn’t the slogan itself that got me, it was the outlandish price tag while they raise fees. THAT is bogus.

  7. A valuable and timely reminder of why Wyoming is a special place. Thank you, Marcia. The Virginian is woven into the fabric of every person who choses to be in Wyoming – even those who haven’t read Owen Wister. The university’s “Cowboy” campaign will move many young people to consider UW but, just as car ads are watched most closely by those who already own the brand, the greatest effect of the campaign (and especially the video) may be on current and former Cowboys. The video inspires and confirms, and perhaps a version of it should be show in every high school across the state.

    1. Glad you like it, Tim. I agree -The Virginian is woven into the fabric of Wyomingites lives even if they haven’t read or heard of it..

    2. Wyoming’s neurotic compulsion to perpetuate the myth of the cowboy and anachronistic Old West belief systems as a prequisite to coexist with the 21st century is precisely why we can’t have nice things. Or expect any real 21st century economic development to materialize. It’s sad.