The banks of the Schuylkill were packed with onlookers. On a craggy outcropping overlooking a clearing by the river stood Frederic Remington’s new, larger-than-life bronze statue wrapped in American flags. Soon enough, the cord would be ceremoniously pulled to reveal the city’s latest equestrian monument: “The Cow-Boy.”
Five thousand spectators turned out for the dedication. A band of cowboys (the musical variety) warmed up the crowd. Wyoming Jack, “a noted scout” and Chief He-Dog, in full regalia, did the honors. The popular cowgirls Mida and Lida Kemp were there. Mounted Sioux: Yellow Cloud, Cheering Horse and Driving Bear looked on as their families stood with VIP Philadelphia: leadership of the Fairmount Park Commission, the Fairmount Park Art Association (which had commissioned the piece) and others. A stand-in for Mayor John E. Reyburn apologized for His Honor’s absence. June 20, 1908 was a big day for dedications. The mayor had gone out to Valley Forge for the unveiling of another equestrian in bronze: Anthony Wayne.
The fictional “Cow-Boy” attracted a larger crowd than the real Revolutionary War hero.
One would have expected to see there that day the Philadelphian most responsible for the cowboy legend. More than anything else, Owen Wister’s best-selling novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, published six years earlier, had forged the cowboy in the popular imagination. Lauded as “one of the great triumphs of American literature,” The New York Times claimed Wister had “come pretty near to writing the American novel.” The Virginian was reprinted sixteen times; two million hardbound copies found their way into readers’ hands. There would be five film versions and, in the 1960s, a long-playing television series.
“It is safe to say,” writes historian John Jennings, “that Wister launched the foremost popular mythology in American history.” And he did so by animating the cowboy with words as much as Remington did with images and figures. From the stormy evening in Yellowstone National Park where they first met in 1893, Wister and Remington together crafted and popularized this American character, the appeal of which, Jennings points out, “stood in stark contrast to the vulgar excesses of the Gilded Age.” But in 1899, Wister and Remington had a falling out. And so, that Saturday on the banks of the Schuylkill, Remington alone stood as the cowboy’s creator.
In fact, credit was due to the trio of Remington, Wister and Wister’s Harvard classmate and lifelong friend, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1888 Roosevelt admired the Dakota cowboy’s “quiet, uncomplaining fortitude.” He found the cowboy brave, “hospitable, hardy, adventurous” and “the grim pioneer of our race, [possessing] to a very high degree, the stern, manly qualities that are necessary to a nation.” This ready-made romantic figure was capable of reassuring some Americans “that the simple, honest virtues of Jeffersonian America were not lost.” With the cowboy, Remington, Wister and Roosevelt (now as the U.S. President who brought Remington’s Bronco Buster in the Oval Office) “manufactured a myth” of this, the “most popular American folk hero.”
The cowboy hadn’t always been the object of such unbridled admiration. Before Wister’s Virginian, this frontier type was more of “a rough, violent, one-dimensional drifter” familiar at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Remington identified something more, something special, in an article titled “The Texas Cowboy” published in 1892:
The cowboy is strongly unimaginative, absolutely unconventional, and his character is as tough as his life, made hard and narrow by combat with appalling dangers, great vicissitudes, and an absence of ideas at variance with his own. He shows in his method of verbal expression that he has succumbed to his environment, for he thinks horse, talks horse, and dreams horse, and awakens to find himself, with some meat and bread and a quart of coffee under his belt, sitting on a horse. … The cowboy’s life is passed alone, with only his pony and the great stretch of solemn plains and the flat, blue sky. He has little use for his voice, though his thoughts may wander as far afield as any poet’s. . . . You will find in his gaze a positive quality . . . for no English high-caste man ever regarded the rest of the world from so high a pinnacle as this tanned and dusty person who sleeps in a blanket and eats bacon three times a day.
Remington and Wister met the next year and soon elevated the cowboy a few notches higher, while revealing distinct biases along the way, in an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. In the American West, wrote Wister, one could avoid the “hordes of encroaching alien vermin, that turn our cities to Babels and our citizenship to a hybrid farce.” He went on: “it won’t be a century before the West is simply the true America with thought, type, and life of its own kind. We Atlantic Coast people, all varnished with Europe, and some of us having a good lot of Europe in our marrow besides, will vanish from the face of the earth.” Accompanying this essay, titled the “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” were five illustrations by Remington, including, most notably, “The Last Cavalier,” depicting a cowboy on horseback “with a host of Anglo-Saxon knights, crusaders, cavaliers, frontiersmen, explorers, and soldiers of the Raj receding into the misty past.”
Why not introduce this larger-than-life American hero to the public in the form of a larger-than-life monument? “The fast disappearing Indians and western cowboy should be put in enduring bronze,” encouraged New York art editor Alexander W. Drake in a letter to Remington in 1899, “. . . this should be done by the only man in America who can do it,” he flattered. “What could be more appropriate for an American city?”
The Fairmount Park Art Association agreed. And so would The Philadelphia Inquirer, which described Remington as “the most truly American,” artist who “owed nothing of his craftsmanship to foreign study or to copying foreign ideas. He was a product of our own soil, educated in an American atmosphere.” Remington produced sculptures “with such fidelity to life that they will remain long after the last cow-puncher has gone to his grave.”
Many other cities wanted larger-than-life cowboys by Remington. Only Philadelphia would get one. A year and a half after the 1908 dedication, Remington died of complications from appendicitis. The Corcoran Gallery in Washington would be the first of many museums to purchase one of his bronzes (Off the Range, also known as Coming Through the Rye) but table-top sculptures, however spirited, just didn’t have the presence or the unexpected gravitas of this 12-foot “Cow-Boy” monument overlooking the Schuylkill.
[Sources: Frederic Remington, “The Texas Cowboy,” The Denver Republican, Sept 1892 (Published in Current Literature, Vol 11, September-December, 1892); Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (New York: The Macmillan Company,1902); “Cowboy Statue to be Unveiled,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 1908; “Picturesque Scenes Attend Unveiling of the Cowboy Monument in the Park,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 1908; Fairmount Park Art Association, Annual Report (Philadelphia: Fairmount Park Art Association, 1909);, “A Genuine American Artist, The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 1909; David Sellin, “Cowboy,” in Fairmount Park Art Association, Sculpture of a City: Philadelphia’s Treasures in Bronze and Stone,” (Walker Pub. Co, 1974); David A. Smith, “Owen Wister’s Paladin of the Plains: The Virginian as Cultural Hero,” South Dakota History, 2008, vol. 38, no. 1, pp 47-77; John Jennings, The Cowboy Legend Owen Wister’s Virginian and the Canadian-American Frontier (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2012).]
Disclosure: The writer is a member of The Association for Public Art (formerly The Fairmount Park Art Association) board of directors.