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The Virginian, an Alberta Resident?

by Christine Hayes - 0 Comment(s)

PC 928

Dispatch from Calgary

Postcards from the Past, PC 928

Traditionally, the time around Christmas is the time when we at the library undertake some of our longer term projects. This year we are looking at our clippings files and sorting through some of the biographical information we have found there. We found a very interesting clipping in the ”J” file about a man who claimed to be the inspiration for the Owen Wister novel The Virginian.

Now, I may be dating myself, but I remember the television show that was loosely based on this novel. It starred Doug McClure (remember him?) and James Drury and ran from 1962 to 1971. I was too young to actually remember the novel in its heyday, but according to Alex Calhoun as he is quoted in the article from 1932, in the first twenty years of Calgary Public Library’s existence, it was the most consistently popular work of fiction in the library.

The journalist uncovered the interesting detail that the man on whom Wister based his novel was none other than Everett “Dad” Johnson, a resident of the Cochrane district. Mister Johnson had lived in southern Alberta for more than 40 years when the article was written. Born in Virginia, he followed the cowboy life through Texas and the American west until he ended up in Alberta as manager of the Bar U Ranch, a role which he had taken over from George Lane.. Sure enough, a quick check of the 1891 census shows him as foreman of a cattle company, listed alongside Fred Stimson and his wife Mary.

Johnson, known as Ebb, had been a foreman in the Powder River Cattle Co. in Wyoming, It was here that he acted as guide and hunting companion to Owen Wister. It was his job as foreman that led him up to Alberta, seeking grazing land for the 76 Ranch. Johnson was recommended to Stimson for the Bar U as the “best all round cowman in the country.” While on the Bar U he met Mary Bigland, who is shown in the 1891 census as a domestic at the ranch but was in fact a nurse, there to help Mary Stimson overcome a bout of scarlet fever. Mary and Ebb left the Bar U shortly after 1891 and moved on.

Johnson, in the 1932 interview, admitted he sometimes felt a bit contemptuous of the changes made to his story by Wister, but conceded that it did make a “right good story.”

The photo below is of Johnson in 1882. I found it on the Glenbow Archives website, after seeing it in the book The Bar U by Simon M. Evans. There are more pictures at the Glenbow of Mr. Johnson. You can check their photo archives at http://ww2.glenbow.org/search/archivesPhotosSearch.aspx and search for "everett johnson. If you would like to read more about Johnson, we have the clipping in a file in the local history room and the book mentioned. If you’re interested in looking at census records for Alberta, we have them on microfilm in the genealogy collection here at the Central Library and they can be viewed on Ancestry LE, which is available at every Calgary Public Library branch through our E-Library.

Everett Cyril Johnson in 1882

Glenbow Archives, NA 2924-12

Glenbow NA 2924-12

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