Riders Of The Purple Sage—100 Years Later
By Lorin Swinehart
He rides alone and silent into the little Utah town of Cottonwoods in 1871. Stern, determined, a man of few words, he arrives astride a magnificent stallion, clothed in black leather and toting a pair of Colt .45 revolvers. The locals, courageous when safe within the anonymity of the mob, scurry hastily from his path.
His name is Lassiter. His reputation as a gunfighter has preceded him. He is a man on a mission, determined to locate the grave of his sister, Mille Erne. He holds Mormons responsible for her death. Those who find themselves on the wrong side of things have good reason to fear him.
Some in Cottonwoods are definitely on the wrong side of things. The Mormon Church in the region has been usurped by two local thugs, Elder Tull and Bishop Dyer, who have created a personality cult centered upon themselves. Tull has designs upon the ranchlands of the beautiful Jane Withersteen. If Tull can force the hapless Jane to marry him, he acquires her land, buildings, including the opulent Withersteen House, and luxurious herds of cattle and horses. Like all such types, he finds sufficient accomplices, bullies and sycophants to do his bidding.
Lassiter appears in time to prevent the whipping of Bern Venter, Jane’s ranch hand, by a mob led by Tull. Venter’s crime seems to be his status as a non-Mormon and Jane’s defense of him. The gang disperses when confronted by the death- dealing Lassiter.
In Lassiter we find the prototype for every western hero to stride across the pages of a tales of the western frontier. Matt Dillon, Wyatt Earp, Cheyenne, Brett Maverick, Walker—Texas Ranger and countless others are cast in his mold. We see him represented in such classic western movies as Shane and the more recent Free Range and Crossfire Trail. The radio and TV characters the Lone Ranger and Sgt. Preston were based upon Grey’s characters.
Zane Grey’s tales manifest no ambivalence. The lines between good and evil are clearly delineated, and the good guys confront the bad guys without fear or equivocation. Grey’s world is inhabited by strong western men and strong western women. Jane is such a character but made vulnerable by her adherence to the dictates of the local sect and her determination to prevent violence. Lassiter kills Elder Tull by causing a rockslide while rescuing Jane’s kidnapped adopted daughter Fay. Venter dispatches the wicked bishop before his entire congregation and kills the leader of a gang of rustlers, wounding a mysterious masked rider, who turns out to be Bess, a girl with whom he subsequently falls in love. Lassiter and Jane flee to a hidden valley, and Venter and Bess escape to his farm in Illinois. While Lassiter and Venter have not “cleaned up the town” in classical horse opera fashion, they have rescued the damsels in distress and ridden off into the sunset.
Riders of the Purple Sage became Grey’s first bestseller, causing him to become the world’s first millionaire author. It remains to this day the world’s best western novel. Grey would produce 90 books and become a household name. Many of his works appeared in movies and TV programs.
Grey’s fame as a fisherman and adventurer rivaled his reputation as an author. His enthusiasm for fishing began with his tutelage under an elderly hermit known locally as Old Muddy Miser near his boyhood home of Zanesville, Ohio. To this day, Grey holds several world records. His love of adventure took him around the world, to remote western wildernesses and ocean expanses off the coast of New Zealand.
Grey began his career as a dentist, following in his father’s footsteps, but he became bored with his practice and remained determined to become a writer. Riders of the Purple Sage was published after several failed attempts to make a name for himself. Perhaps more than any other writer, he captures the immensity of the American West, its sun-baked prairies, scorching deserts, vast expanses, biting cold, blistering heat, incredible loneliness, toxic water, dangerous animals and short tempers. His love of the West and of nature caused him to become an early advocate for the environment, protesting logging, mining and overgrazing practices.
When I was a boy growing up in my small Midwestern town, my friends and I would argue endlessly over who was the greatest cowboy: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy. Knowing full well that a cowboy’s best friend was his horse, we conducted similar debates over which was the world’s greatest equine: Trigger, Champion or Topper. I have no idea what small boys argue about today. I do know that my generation owed a great debt to Zane Grey for creating Lassiter, the prototype for all those other heroes of yesteryear.