I always thought it odd that the book many scholars consider the first Western novel was called The Virginian. It is set in Wyoming where the lead character, who was born in Virginia, works as a cowboy. He is never referred to by name, only as The Virginian.
The author, at first glance, seems like an odd one to have invented the genre. Owen Wister was born in Philadelphia, attended schools in Britain and Switzerland, and ultimately graduated from Harvard, where he was a Hasty Pudding member. He studied music for a couple of years in a Paris conservatory before turning to the law, and eventually to writing.
Wister became friends with Teddy Roosevelt and, like Roosevelt, spent many summers in the West, mostly in Wyoming.
The Virginian was a monster hit, reprinted fourteen times in 1902, the year it came out. It remains one of the 50 top-selling works of fiction.
So, the author was from Philadelphia, the book was set in Wyoming, where they named a mountain after Wister, and this is a blog about Idaho history. What’s the connection?
Possibly none. However, one-time Idaho State Penitentiary Warden C.E. Arney insisted that Ed Harrington Trafton, one-time inmate of his prison, was the man Wister used as his model for the hero in Wister’s story. That according to an article in the Idaho Statesman of September 17, 1922.
It wasn’t just the Statesman making this claim. On August 16, 1922, the Los Angeles Times ran a story with the stacked headline:
Owen Wister Novel Hero
Was Real Pioneer
Blazed First Trails Into
Jackson Hole Country
Ed Trafton Whacked Bulls
With Buffalo Bill
As proof of the connection, the Times offered a letter of introduction found on Trafton and written by James W. Melrose, who was a special agent in the Department of Justice for 16 years in Denver.
“This will introduce Edwin B. Trafton,” the letter states, “better known as ‘Ed Harrington.’”
“Mr. Trafton is the man from whom Owen Wister modeled the character, The Virginian, in his famous story of that name.”
Melrose went on to laud Trafton/Harrington as a well-known guide for 35 years in the Yellowstone country and a prolific big game hunter. According to the letter he built the first log cabin and blazed the first trails there in 1880. Harrington, Melrose said, was one of the first into the Black Hills for the gold rush there in 1875. He “whacked bulls out of old Cheyenne with the celebrated Buffalo Bill Cody.”
Perhaps the most important detail on his resume, as far as the Virginian connection goes, was that “He fought a duel with the original ‘Trampas,’ better known as Black Tex, who had given Ed until sundown to leave camp.”
Trampas was the name of the villain in The Virginian.
Left out of the Melrose letter were the multiple arrests of Trafton/Harrington, his history as a highwayman, and that time he stole $10,000 from his mother.
Did the author use Trafton/Harrington as the model for one of his characters? Given the man’s shady side, maybe he was the model for Trampas, the bad guy. Trampas and Trafton are a bit similar.
Wister himself never said that the Virginian was modeled after any single person.
The Times noted that, “The man whose adventurous life inspired Owen Wister to write The Virginian, one of the most popular stories of the pioneer West, dropped dead at Second Street and Broadway late yesterday afternoon while drinking an ice cream soda.” The cause of death was listed as apoplexy. He was 64 or 65 and is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California.
And thus, with Trafton’s end, we begin his story. It will continue with tomorrow’s post.