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Reverend Peter Miller of the Ephrata Cloister taught George Washington a lesson in charity and the humane treatment of prisoners and criminals.

  

Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.
— George Washington, 1776

 

The Patriot cause and the Continental Army received incalculable wartime aid from a commune of pacifist Rosicrucian scholars, the German Pietists of the Ephrata Cloister, beginning with the publication of the Declaration of Independence and lasting through the aftermath of the battles at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown. The men of Ephrata’s Brotherhood of Zion and the women of the Roses of Sharon furthered the Revolutionary efforts in various meaningful ways. Footnotes Since the Wilderness will look at several, but begin with an encounter between George Washington and Prior Jaebez, the Reverend Peter Miller.

Although a minor character in the Commander’s career, Peter Miller had- just perhaps- a profound impact on Washington.

George Washington

George Washington

A relatively arcane event may help explain one or more pardons Washington granted during the Revolution and, perhaps, his Presidency. Washington, by 1775, had documented his predisposition to treat enemies per the parameters of the humanitarian ideals evolving in the minds of the leaders of the young nation. That doesn’t mean that, a few years of disillusions, frustration, bloodshed and scattered betrayals down the road, the man didn’t require a little reminder of his own principles.

Peter Miller taught George Washington a lesson in forgiveness and charity when Miller petitioned the Commander in Chief to pardon the Cocalico tavern owner and convicted traitor, Michael Widman. Widman had been a vocal Patriot. After the colonies declared independence, Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County had formed a Committee of Safety, and Michael Widman spearheaded that Committee from inception.

Following the nearby Battle of Brandywine and the British occupation of Philadelphia, General Howe dispatched two men, traveling in cognito, to gather intelligence near the Ephrata Cloister because, by that time, the cloister had become the principal hospital for Continental soldiers wounded near Brandywine. The men stopped for supper and lodging at Michael Widman’s tavern, a short ride from Ephrata. Widman spoke of General Howe in an uncomplimentary manner. His guests were murderously perturbed. Enemy pistol to his chest, Widman managed to break through the window to his rear, and escape into the black night. Fearing that his life depended upon finding refuge from his pursuers, he hid in the attic of the brother’s house at Ephrata. All Germantown knew that Widman, a prominent, combative member of the Reformed church, had serious issues with the heretics at Ephrata. The cloister was the last place the townspeople would expect to find Michael Widman.

Widman crouched behind the chimney in the attic of the Brotherhood of

Ephrata Brother's house

Ephrata Brother's house

Zion for three days. Hungry, sleepless, at wit’s end, he grew convinced he would be executed if discovered by the British. He resolved to leave Ephrata and head for Philadelphia, request an audience with General Howe, apologize for his loose tongue and beg for clemency. Widman stopped home to tell his wife of his plight. When he reached Philadelphia, Widman saw Howe. Widman offered General Howe the locations of the Rebel munitions stores.

The men of the scouting party at the tavern recognized Widman, and reminded Howe about the event. Widman was petrified. To save his neck, he offered every conceivable service to the British. General Howe, disgusted by the whimpering Widman, summarily dismissed him, unharmed. “Such a cowardly and contemptible man,” said Howe “could never be trusted in the Royal cause.”

Widman couldn’t even claim the honors due a rat. Meanwhile, his wife had told the authorities of his plan to betray the Continental Army. As soon as he emerged from behind British lines, militia seized and hauled him to the Block House in West Chester. At court-martial, he was convicted for treason.

Peter Miller was the only person who spoke on Widman’s behalf, not at his trial but, after walking overnight from Ephrata to Valley Forge—quite a hike- he spoke directly to George Washington. Washington received Miller with respect and grace. They knew one another. Washington was fully cognizant and heartily appreciative of the service that Ephrata, and Peter Miller, provided the Patriot cause.

Miller interceded between the Commander and his prisoner not, as Washington first assumed, because Widman and Miller were friends. To the contrary: Widman was Miller’s admitted “worst enemy,” and had treated the gentle, if intellectually aggressive mystic quite roughly over the years, as they frequently crossed one another’s path.

Years before, Peter Miller had been the minister at the German Reformed church at Goshenhoppen, in Germantown. Under the influence of Conrad Beisell and the Dunkers, Rosicrucians, Pietists and Seventh Day Adventists at Ephrata, Miller rejected the more conventional principles of the Reformed Church. Michael Widman became the new minister. He took Miller’s defection personally. Widman spat in Miller’s face whenever they met, tripped him on the local footpaths, and at least once punched the saintly Peter Miller, who was wont to thank Widman for any abuse.

Washington, like numerous other leaders and scholars in the colonies, revered Peter Miller. Moved by the teacher’s argument, that Jesus had done as much for him, Washington granted Widman pardon and, with tears in his eyes, in front of his men, the Commander thanked Peter Miller for the lesson in charity. So did Widman. He and Miller walked home together.

Here embellished, there diluted, the story has been distorted  so many times over the years it feels a little like the cherry tree fable, but has more factual basis. Colonial records do not indicate that Widman was hanged; they do, however, show that he was punished. His property was seized and sold. Michael Diffenderfer bought four tracts of Widman’s land during March 1780.

Peter Miller taught George Washington a lesson in forgiveness, charity, and non-attachment to the desire to punish and avenge, even during wartime. Ephratan scholars preserved the story for a reason or, maybe more accurately, two reasons. One was to illustrate the extent to which Peter Miller would sacrifice personal safety and welfare to perform an unselfish act of human kindness towards even his most bitter enemy. The second reason was to memorialize the kind of contribution that the men and women drawn to Ephrata could make to a Revolutionary cause that required bloodshed to complete.

Above all a teacher, Peter Miller left home that night to forgive his enemies in a Christ-like manner; he also left home to teach another extraordinary man, one perhaps ‘chosen’ in a secular sense, the wisdom to do the same. Miller went out to sear a message into the spirit of George Washington and, by extension, into the Patriot cause and everything into which America had the power to evolve.

 

The lesson in forgiveness and charity taught by Peter Miller may have influenced Washington’s decision to honor the requests made by friends and Mary Ball Washington’s extended family to pardon a far more notorious and bloodthirsty traitor, Joseph Bettys, just a few years later. Washington took the noose from Joe Bettys’ neck following “pleas from the family and others,” “solicitations of influential and respectable Whigs,” and the “humble petition of his aged father.”

Bettys promised to reform. He didn’t, and was eventually executed, but that’s not relevant. At the moment when Washington pardoned Bettys, he pardoned a man who, multiple times, had proven flagrantly unregenerate, notoriously disloyal to the Patriot cause, embarrassing to the Ball family, and who was making a living robbing, raiding, and killing colonists. Betty’s was clearly an enemy of the state, but was pardoned.

Perhaps Washington had the example set by saintly, humble Peter Miller in mind.

Not only your Officers, and Soldiers have been treated with a Tenderness due to Fellow Citizens, & Brethren; but even those execrable Parricides whose Counsels & Aid have deluged their Country with Blood, have been protected from the Fury of a justly enraged People.- George Washington to Lt. General Gage, 1775


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Wistarburgh’s Caspar Wistar set the precedent for “red rose rent” that Baron von Stiegel followed over 30 years later.

Since 1892, Manheim Pennsylvania has enjoyed a quaint ceremony, the annual “Feast of the Roses,” on the first Sunday in June. Each year, a descendant of Henry William “Baron von” Stiegel is honored, and receives a single red rose. The red rose was stipulated in the original deed to the land granted to what is now the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Manheim.

One Red Rose

Red Rose Rent, a Feudal Custom imported to Germantown

The rose so stipulated was actually the rental fee set by the proprietor of the land. Feudal English practice of setting quit-rents was commonly adopted throughout the lower counties of Pennsylvania. In a nutshell, the payment of a quit-rent freed the tenant from all obligations save for fealty to the proprietor of the land, usually the Crown or his assigns such as, in Pennsylvania, William Penn and, thereafter, such parties to whom the rights to the acreage had transferred.

In Manheim, the rights belonged to Baron von Stiegel. The flamboyant Baron – who was not a true Baron, but spent like he was- amassed a fortune in colonial Pennsylvania by operating an iron furnace and, later, one of the most important early American glassworks, the American Flint Glass Manufactory.

Baron Von Stiegel, however, was beaten to the punch on all of the above accounts by Caspar Wistar.

Wyck-House-Germantown, Wistar Home

The Wyck House, Home to Generations of Wistar Family

Over a generation prior, Caspar Wistar, Baron von Stiegel’s fellow German emigrant, began the industrial modes of his entrepreneurship with the purchase of a furnace, and diversified into glassmaking. The Wistarburgh glass operations predated Stiegel’s American Flint Glass.

Caspar Wistar may be best remembered for the glass factory but, outside of William Penn, who was the largest private owner of acreage on the world, Caspar Wistar became the largest landowner in the region. Wistar was, in fact, America’s first real estate tycoon, buying large tracts from the Penns and others, carving them into smaller parcels, and selling them to German immigrants settling in the vicinity of Berks County.

Pronounced business acumen made Caspar Wistar a rather wealthy man, which certainly made it easier to be as charitable as he was.

In Germany, the Wistar family had been most recently tied to both a Lutheran Church in Neckargemund, and a Reformed

Sister of the Roses of Sharon

Sister of the Roses of Sharon at Ephrata

congregation. When John Wister, Caspar’s brother, arrived in Pennsylvania in 1727, he was, at least briefly, associated with the Moravians and Pietists in Germantown. John Wister, in fact, married one of the sisters of the Roses of Sharon at Ephrata Cloister, Anna Thoman, known at the commune as Sister Anastasia. Caspar Wistar, however, was more pragmatic than his brother John when it came to religion and marriage. As Rosalind Beiler notes,

“just as his father and grandfather used their confessional identities to secure their government positions and enhance their social standings, so Wistar realized the benefits of religious membership for establishing his reputation in Pennsylvania. As early as 1721, he indicated his Quaker sympathies…By 1726, Wistar had become a member of the Philadelphia Friends and thereby gained entrance into the dominant network of merchants and political leaders in the province.”[1]

Caspar also married a Quaker, Catherine Jansen.

Although he had “indicated his Quaker sympathies” in writing, having signed a declaration of allegiance to the King, rather than swearing an oath, which was, as Beiler points out, anathema to Quakers, Caspar Wistar’s status as a “card carrying” Quaker did not totally overcome his sympathies for the other Protestant sects with which he’d become familiar in Germany, and which dominated the Germantown area.

As proof, Caspar not only sold, but also granted acreage to those who were not Quakers, or who could otherwise not afford to purchase real estate.

A View of the Tuplehocken by Christopher Shearer

A View of the Tuplehocken by Christopher Shearer

One such grant was made to the Reformed congregation in Tulpehocken. The Tulpehocken church received 100 acres from Wistar in 1738, upon which they built a church, cemetery, and a schoolhouse. Wistar carved the church parcel out of his total Tulpehocken Valley holdings, sales of which were enormously profitable. The transaction specified a quit-rent the church was required to pay annually: one red rose.

Other Berks County families received similar deals from Wistar. In 1910, the New York Times quoted a Berks County historian who claimed that “at least 20,000” acres in the vicinity of Reading and Germantown were deeded on similar terms. Only two men were cited as responsible for the deeds: the British merchant John Page, and Caspar Wistar.

The Lutheran Church in Manheim, whose grounds were deeded by Baron von Stiegel, may receive more press coverage today

Postcard, Baron von Stiegel and Manheim

Postcard, Baron von Stiegel and Manheim

for its annual Feast of Roses, but Caspar Wistar’s donation to the Reformed Church set the American precedent for Stiegel to follow.

Red Rose Rents are paid annually to the descendent’s of the Wistars. The roses are considered priceless heirlooms. The most lavish of the rose rent ceremonies involving the Wistar family was in 1902, when 30 Philadelphia Wistars gathered to receive their due: 157 red roses, representing rent in arrears.

Shortly after the original grant, Caspar ceased to insist on even the token tribute of thanks for his generosity.

~~~~~

Sidebar 1: Caspar’s grant to Tuplehocken was notarized by Conrad Weiser, a Justice of the Peace who, even while busy negotiating on behalf of William Penn or closing agreements with the Native Americans, was a resident of Ephrata Cloister, toward which we’ll look next.

Sidebar 2: James Logan was the official overseer of the collection of quit rents in Pennsylvania, as well as the acting governor of the province from 1736-1738. Logan’s personal physician was Christopher Witt, a prominent member of the brethren of Ephrata. James Logan also was the prior holder of the grant to the land that was purchased by Stiegel and subsequently transferred to the Lutheran congregation at Manheim.

~~~~~

[1] Beiler, Rosalind J. Immigrant and entrepreneur: the Atlantic world of Caspar Wistar, 1650-1750.

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History often tangles us up in battles, polemics and gods. Not so the story of the Wistar family, from their colonial Philadelphia and West New Jersey businesses through the DNA passed today between lab rats. Although the family lacks its former “household name” status, the Wistars remain among the most celebrated families to have called the middle colonies and Mid-Atlantic States home. Wistar genealogy and social circles spin you through names like Franklin, Bache, Trist, and Jefferson, to name but a few. Family members built fortunes though business, rose to international prominence for medical and scientific achievements, received accolades for their philanthropy, chaired learned societies, ascended the ranks of Freemasonry and exposed social injustice, becoming particularly vocal during abolition and prison reform debates.

 

Caspar Wistar and America‘s First Profitable Glass Factory

 

glass factory

A Furnace at the Glass Factory

Caspar was the first Wistar to emigrate from Germany to America. He arrived in 1717, virtually broke, with nine pence and a rifle, and settled in the area between Berks County and Philadelphia. Caspar, always industrious, made soap, and bootstrapped and brokered real estate deals to save enough to purchase a furnace and, next, a forge in Berks County. With the forge, Caspar built a very profitable business, manufacturing high quality brass buttons, a staple of period apparel.

Wistarburgh GlassThe rising young businessman joined the Society of Friends and married wisely, wedding a wealthy Quaker, Catherine Jansen. Associating with the Society of Friends would prove opportune, especially during the middle years of operations at the Wistar Glass Works in Wistarburgh, in Salem County, New Jersey. At Wistarburgh, Caspar built the very first glass factory in America to achieve sustained profitability.

Caspar opened a retail store on Market Street in Philadelphia, quite close to the home of Ben Franklin, with whom he became good friends. Caspar died one of the leading merchants and wealthiest men in the middle colonies, thanks to the button and brass works, sagacious real estate speculation, the landmark Wistarburgh glass business, and family operated retail outlets in New Jersey and New York. Caspar’s brother, Richard Wistar, ran the New York store.

Caspar Wistar, Wistarburgh, Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin's Electrostatic Generator

Wistarburgh pane glass and bottles were common in homes and businesses throughout the middle colonies. Wistar glass also enjoys the historic and scientific honor of having been made to specification for Benjamin Franklin, who incorporated Wistar glass in a variety of devices he designed for his experiments in electricity. Franklin tested his first lightning rod at Caspar Wistar’s house.

More on the Wistarburgh Glass Works


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Caspar Wistar M.D. is the grandson of the Caspar who built the glass business. His medical training was first rate: University of Edinburgh. The family could clearly afford the best. Following graduation, he returned to Philadelphia where, in 1789, he succeeded the esteemed Benjamin Rush as the chemistry professor at the College of Pennsylvania, known today as the University of Pennsylvania. Caspar Wistar also taught midwifery and, most importantly, anatomy. In fact, Doctor Caspar Wistar wrote the seminal American anatomical textbook, the two-volume A System of Anatomy, published in 1811 and 1814.

Caspar the M.D. was a highly respected member of numerous of the most learned societies in the humanities and sciences, and sat on the boards of numerous schools and hospitals. His expertise earned him worldwide renown, which helped him to recruit medical students from Europe to study in Pennsylvania. Doctor Wistar was among the earliest advocates of the benefits of vaccination against disease.

Thomas Nutall, the botanist, named the familiar vine Wistaria for Caspar. Watchful eyes studying the Lewis and Clark Expedition may recall the name Wistar, too. As Stephen Ambrose reminds us, “Dr. Caspar Wistar was the last of the Philadelphia savants” Meriwether Lewis consulted while preparing for his journey through the Louisiana Purchase territory. Thomas Jefferson, Doctor Wistar’s close friend, as revealed through Jefferson’s correspondence, recommended the doctor to Lewis. Ambrose cites Wistar as the “foremost authority on fossils in America.” Wistar and Meriwether Doctor Wistar, America's Premier Anatomist, and the First American DinosaurLewis discussed Megalonyx and the mastodons Jefferson and Lewis thought might still be stomping Midwestern prairie. Lewis sent Wistar specimens for identification.

Bill Bryson unearths a chance for Doctor Caspar to have had another claim to fame, however. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson relates the 1787 disinterment of a huge leg bone, likely a femur, from the banks of Woodbury Creek, in Gloucester County, New Jersey. American Scientist points out that the “distinguished physician and anatomist Caspar Wistar” presented a paper to the American Philosophical Society in which he described a very large thighbone, too large to belong to any of the animals indigenous to the region at that time. American Scientist further notes that Woodbury Creek is quite close to the marl pits at Haddonfield, New Jersey, where, “70 years later, the first associated remains of any dinosaur were excavated and described by Joseph Leidy as Hadrosaurus…we can be reasonably sure that the femur [described by Wistar] was the first discovery of an American dinosaur.”


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With Henry Wister, the family saga twists away from the stolid towards the curious. Henry Wister’s legacy is also the easiest to illustrate, so we’ll indulge.

Dr. Wistar's Balsam of Wild CherryBesides Richard, Caspar “Glass” Wistar had another brother, John. John’s line spelled the family name with a penultimate “e” rather than “a.” Henry descends from John, as does Sarah (Sally) Wister, the author of Sally Wister’s Journal, a chronicle of a young woman’s life during the British occupation and later evacuation of Philadelphia.

Circa 1840, Henry Wister developed a nostrum, Dr. Winstar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry, a heady mélange of cherry bark, alcohol and opiates. Sales were enormous. Dr. Winstar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry was on the market for over 100 years. Its bottles- made long after the Wistarburgh glassblowers last fired the furnace near the dawn of the Revolutionary War- remain highly prized by glass collectors.

The formula rights passed to various hands during the product’s market Dr. Wistar's Balsam of Wild Cherrytenure. In 1855, a spin-off hit the pharmacy shelves: Winstar’s Cough Lozenges. Dr. Winstar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry was allegedly the cure for “consumption,” or tuberculosis, and its popularity no doubt stemmed from the fact that up to 25% of the adult population during the middle of the nineteenth century through WWI was thought to have died of “consumption.”

Heavily advertised, Dr. Winstar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry was often featured in large placements in newspapers up and down the US eastern seaboard and throughout Canada. In its heyday, the Balsam was the best selling nostrum on the market.

 

“No Quackery!  No Deception!

The Physician may boast of his skill in many diseases, the Quack may puff his wonderful cures, but of all the remedies ever discovered for the diseases of the Pulmonary Organs, it is universally admitted that nothing has ever proved as successful as that unrivaled medicine-  Dr. Winstar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry, which has effected some of the most astonishing cures ever recorded in the history of Medicine.”

 

So ran a sample ad. At a buck a bottle, it was worth a shot, even if just for the buzz.


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Isaac Jones Wistar is the great nephew of Dr. Caspar Wistar the anatomist. Despite establishing an endowment to fund what became America’s first independent medical research facility, Isaac was not a man of medicine. He was almost everything but.

Isaac Jones Wistar

Isaac Jones Wistar

Seduced by the gold rush in 1849, Isaac made money mining after moving to San Francisco, where he studied law in addition to veins of ore. Between 1857 and 1861, Isaac returned to Pennsylvania, where he practiced law before the Supreme Court of Philadelphia. During this period, Isaac lead quite a varied life, working not only as an attorney, but also as a farmer, a trapper for Hudson’s Bay Company, and mountaineer. Later Isaac, like several of his ancestral Wistars, would become a noted advocate for prison reform.

As the Civil War flared in 1861, Isaac Wistar raised roughly 1000 volunteers for a unit to go to battle under his command. Wounded several times, he served with distinction in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, at Gettysburg, and at Antietam. By 1864, he made Brigadier General, but soon retired from the military and returned to his home in Philadelphia, where he assumed the roll of vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, and managed its coal shipping and canal divisions. Isaac prospered.

Isaac’s great uncle Caspar, the anatomist and teacher, developed an

Anatomical Model by William Rush for Caspar Wistar and the Wistar Horner Museum

Anatomical Model by William Rush

extensive collection of fossils, anatomical models and teaching aids, representing both human and animal forms. A core holding within the collection were the models made to spec for Caspar by William Rush, the founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and widely considered America’s first important native sculptor. William Rush became famous for his grand-scale public sculptures, and is remembered by military historians for the figurehead carvings featured on four of the US Navy’s first six frigates, but Rush also finished 21 large anatomical models for Caspar Winstar, using carved wood and papier-mache. Rush’s large anatomical structures, combined with an array of lesser models of varied provenance, formed the cornerstone of the first anatomical museum in the United States: the Wistar and Horner Museum.

William Horner, the physician appointed by Doctor Wistar to curate the early phase of the collection, added considerably to its holdings. When Joseph Leidy, the respected parasitologist and paleontologist, took over for Horner, he further developed the anatomical museum to include groundbreaking dinosaur specimens. The holdings grew so large, and were so well used, the University of Pennsylvania had trouble budgeting for its maintenance.

The Wistar Institute

Drawing for the Wistar Institute in 1894

Isaac Jones Wistar saved the collection. His endowment created the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology. The University of Pennsylvania transferred the holdings of the Wistar and Horner collection to the Institute in 1894.

Within a decade, the Wistar Institute became an important center for medical research. Its contributions to science include the eponymous Wistar Rat, the world’s first standardized lab animal, from which the Institute estimates that half of all today’s lab rats descend. The Wistar Institute developed vaccines against rubella and rabies (a good idea, with all those rats around) and is now considered among the world’s premier cancer research facilities.


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Accomplished as the family members have been, a discussion of the Wistars is incomplete unless one can appreciate the tangle of relationships the family has forged since coming to America.

Sarah Franklin Bache

Catherine Wistar Bache, for example, represents multiple points of social and genealogical convergence. Take a few steps back from Catherine- we start at Benjamin Franklin. Ben had a daughter, Sarah. Sarah married Richard Bache who, upon Franklin’s removal, became the nation’s second Postmaster General. Sarah Franklin and Richard Bache had a son, Dr. William Bache. He was Ben Franklin’s grandson.

Franklin’s grandson married Catherine Wistar, whose brother was Dr. Caspar Wistar, the anatomist, and whose grandfather was the Caspar Wistar who built the Wistarburgh Glass business. Put another way, Ben and Caspar “Glass” Wistar, friends and neighbors, had grandchildren who married one another.

The year after they were married, yellow fever ravaged Philadelphia. William Bache’s brother, Benjamin, died. The Baches, Wistars and Franklins were all friends with Thomas Jefferson and, at his urging, Dr. William Bache and Catherine Wistar Bache moved to Monticello, where they lived for several months, before moving into a new house in Franklin, Virginia.

Their farm did not produce well enough to support the family. They had financial difficulties. William Bache asked President Jefferson for a government appointment, which he received in 1802. He cared for sick American seamen in New Orleans. Catherine Wistar Bache and their children – among them Benjamin Franklin Bache- returned to Philadelphia. The following year, William Bache became Surveyor of the Port of Philadelphia, where the family reunited.

As Milton Rubicam observes, the “career of the Wistars and Wisters has been a continuous adventure, a story of heroic men and gracious ladies, of philanthropists and scholars, of soldiers and authors, and of men and women with strong convictions of duty to their country and their community.” We have only rolled some highlight reels here.

owen wister the virginian

Map for The Virginian, by Owen Wister

We could just as easily have looked at Owen Wister, the author of The Virginian and who, some have argued, is the father of the American Western and who, said a NY Times critic, may have written “the American novel.” Owen Wister’s mother was Sarah Kemble, the daughter of the celebrated actress Fanny Kemble. At Harvard, Owen secured an interesting class reunion by becoming friends with Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Cabot Lodge.


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