Teach PA History
The Birth of the American Cowboy and the Western Genre

What to Know
Teaching Time
2 50-minute sessions
Grade Level
Middle School
  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening
  • Geography
  • Health and Physical Education
  • History
Historical Period
  • Development of the Industrial Pennsylvania - 1877-1900
  • The Emergence of Modern Pennsylvania - 1901-1928

Lesson Introduction:

"Would I might prison in my words

And so hold by me all the year

Some portion of the Wilderness

Of freedom that I walk in here."

(Owen Wister)

Owen Wister (1860-1938) was born into a socialite family of Philadelphia--his father, a physician, and his mother, the daughter of a famous English actress, a writer and socialite, But it was not Philadelphia to which Owen Wister referred in his poem above. Instead, it was the vanishing west which Wister so longingly hoped to capture. Suffering from medical ailments, Owen Wister was encouraged by his doctor to travel west. His first trip was as a guest of Major Frank Wolcott near Glenrock, Wyoming in 1885. Several additional trips followed and became the material for Wister's western short stories and famous novel, The Virginian. This novel, published in 1902, blazed the way for other westerns by other authors to follow.

In this lesson students will examine the hero--the cowboy figure--and the setting of The Virginian. They will learn a little bit about the author and the factors that led to the disappearance of the Western way of life. Using his journal entries, they will look at how real life events influenced the fictional story. Finally, they will use a newspaper article as inspiration to create a western short story of their own.


Students will be able to:


1. Discuss what traits make the cowboy a national hero.

2. Describe the author responsible for creating and popularizing the American cowboy.

3. Compare/contrast a work of non-fiction to one of fiction to uncover the writer's inspiration.

4. Uncover different examples of how reality and fiction affect each other.

Standards Alignment

  • Geography

    7.1.8.B. Explain and locate places and regions as defined by physical and human features.
    7.2.8.A. Explain the characteristics of places and regions.
    7.3.8.A. Explain the human characteristics of places and regions using the following criteria:

  • Health, Safety and Physical Education

    10.3.6. C. Describe strategies to avoid or manage conflict and violence.

  • History

    8.2.8.A. Compare and contrast the social, political, cultural, and economic contributions of specific individuals and groups from Pennsylvania.
    8.3.8.A. Examine the role groups and individuals played in the social, political, cultural, and economic development of the United States.
    8.3.8.B. Evaluate the importance of historical documents, artifacts, and places critical to United States history.

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening

    R8.A.1.5.1. Summarize the key details and events of a fictional text as a whole.
    R8.A.2.5.1. Summarize the major points, processes, and/or events of a nonfictional text as a whole.
    R8.A.2.6. Identify, describe, and analyze the genre of a text.
    1.4.8. A. Write short stories, poems, and plays.

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