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The fictional locations

Naturally, the fictional locations can be different in the original novel The Virginian, written in 1902 when the old west was more current affairs than history, And in each and every movie adaptation, and in the TV series the Virginian.

In the introduction "To the Reader". Owen Wister says: "For Wyoming between 1874 and 1890 was a colony as wild as was Virginia one hundred years earlier. As wild, with a scantier population, and the same primitive joys and dangers. There were, to be sure, not so many Chippendale settees."

So the events in the novel happen sometime in the 16 years between 1874 and 1890, possibly during a significant fraction or even all of those 16 years.

The novel opens with the narrator arriving on a Union Pacific train at the town of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, a real town on the Union Pacific railroad line. The Union Pacific reach Laramie, east of Medicine Bow on June 7, 1868, and reached Fort Fred Steele, west of Medicine Bow, on July 21, 1868, so Medicine Bow was the westernmost station on the line for only a few weeks. The Union Pacific reached Evanston, in the southwestern corner of Wyoming, on December 4, 1868.

So if the Shiloh ranch was a great distance west of Medicine Bow, it would have been logical to get off the train at a more western station anytime in the period 1874 to 1890. But Medicine Bow, at 41 degrees, 53 minutes 52 seconds north, seems to be the northernmost Union Pacific station in Wyoming. So almost straight north from Medicine Bow would seem to be a logical direction for finding the Shiloh Ranch.

If one locates Rawlins, Medicine Bow, and Laramie on the map of Wyoming and draws large circles around them, a straight line between the two places were two of the circles overlap will be the line between the places that are closest to each of the towns. So a line from southeast to north west between Rawlins and Medicine Bow, and a line from southwest to northeast between Medicine Bow and Laramie, should mark the borders of the area that is closer to medicine Bow than any other Union Pacific station. Except that there may have been intermediate stations on the line in 1874-1890, which would reduce the size of the area closest to Medicine Bow.

Medicine Bow is 215 miles due south of the Wyoming-Montana border. But in Chapter Two the Virginian tells the narrator that the distance to the ranch is 263 miles. If the ranch was on the Wyoming-Montana border it would have to be 151.472 miles west of due north from Medicine Bow. Fortunately the Virginian could have meant that it was 263 miles as the various roads and watercourses they traveled along wound, instead of as the crow flies.




Congress established Yellowstone National Park in the northwestern corner of Wyoming in 1872. So by 1874 a large portion of northwest Wyoming was unavailable for ranching. The Wind River reservation for the Eastern Shoshone was established in northwest Wyoming in 1868, also restricting the possible ranch sites in that region.

But all of northern Wyoming was unavailable for ranching until the late 1870s. A vast region of northeastern Wyoming was part of the unceded Sioux territory which it was illegal for white persons to enter without Sioux permission. And the Sioux tended to believe that what was theirs was theirs and what was someone else's was also theirs if they could take it, and they roamed far beyond the official borders of Sioux territory and robbed and stole as a much as they wanted to, even in territory claimed by other tribes. Before the Sioux were forced to give up the unceded territory and stay on the reservation in 1877, northern Wyoming was too dangerous to ranch in. Fort Fetterman, on the North Platte River, was the northernmost outpost of civilization in eastern Wyoming in the 1870s and was considered to be a remote hellhole.

And after the Sioux were defeated and northern Wyoming was safe for ranching, the Northern Pacific railroad began building its transcontinental line across southern Montana, completing it on September 8, 1883. So after 1883 at the latest, the more northern parts of Wyoming were closer to stations on the Northern Pacific railroad than the Union Pacific.

So in the novel The Virginian it is a bit hard to imagine a route to the ranch that covered 263 miles from Medicine Bow that wasn't very winding. I also note that it seems to take about 3 or 4 days to get there, which is about 65.75 to 87.66 miles per day, or 5.47 to 7.3 miles per hour if they traveled 12 hours a day.

On the return trip: "The Judge himself drove me to the railroad by another way—across the Bow Leg Mountains, and south through Balaam's Ranch and Drybone to Rock Creek."

Own Wister said the Bow Leg Mountains were based on the Big Horn Mountains, which are about 150 to 200 miles northwest of Medicine Bow.

It is claimed that Fetterman City, built near abandoned Fort Fetterman after 1882, was the inspiration for Owen Wistler's fictional Drybone.

The ghost town of Rock Creek is in Albany County to the east of Medicine Bow and was reached by the railroad in 1868.

Since the Johnson County War that inspired part of the plot of The Virginian was centered around Buffalo, the ranch may have been near Buffalo, and then a roundabout route to Rock Creek could go through (foothills of?) the Bighorn Mountains, and Fetterman City. Buffalo and Medicine Bow are 171.29 miles apart, and 202 miles by I-25 and US 87.

I note that Buffalo, Wyoming, is only about 149.5 miles by road from Custer, Montana, on the Northern Pacific railroad since 1883.

So perhaps it is good that the TV show The Virginian moved the ranch to just a couple of hours riding distance from Medicine Bow so that characters could go to the town as often as the plot required. That puts the ranch house within perhaps a 10 miles radius of Medicine Bow, a place with a definite location on the map, while in the novel the ranch is vaguely located within tens of thousands of square miles.