The Virginian

by Owen Wister

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What events in The Virginian can be compared to the actual Johnson County War?

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The Johnson County War was a conflict between cattle ranchers and alleged cattle rustlers, which took place in Johnson County, Wyoming between 1889 and 1893. There is now a general consensus among historians that, while there was a problem with cattle theft which precipitated the conflict, this instance of frontier justice on the part of the ranchers was not only harsh but often unjust. Those accused of cattle theft were assumed to be guilty and, aside from the deaths in combat, many were lynched without trial or with a brief and summary show trial. One of the early victims was Ella Watson, a rare case of a woman being lynched.

Owen Wister's novel The Virginian, has been one of the most important texts in creating the myth of the American Wild West. The novel uses the Johnson County War as a backdrop and presents the wealthy ranchers in a sympathetic light and the lynchings as terrible but necessary. This is perhaps inevitable in a book where the heroes are cowboys, charged above all with preventing and punishing cattle theft. The Virginian himself attends the lynching of a cattle thief he knows personally, and while he is haunted by the event, he regards it as just. The Virginian's employer, Judge Henry, is one of the ranchers who is involved in the war and defends the lynching of rustlers.

Wister does not seem to have considered the possibility of innocent people being killed. Even Molly Wood, who objects to the lynchings on principle, comparing them to the barbaric treatment of black people in the South, does not question the guilt of those who suffer the effects of the cowboys' vigilantism. While the lynchings are presented as grisly, the shootouts in the novel are highly romanticized and do not reflect what we know of such historical events as the shootout at the KC Ranch.

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