June 28

This Day in History

Old West

Jun 28, 1857:

Western writer Emerson Hough is born

Emerson Hough, one of the most successful writers of adventure novels of the romantic western genre, is born in Newton, Iowa.

After graduating from the State University of Iowa in 1880, Hough briefly studied law before turning to a career in journalism. In his 20s, he became the manager of the Chicago branch of Field and Stream, the popular hunting and conservation magazine. Deeply fascinated with the frontier and wilderness living, Hough embarked on extensive tours of the wildest areas of the American West. A winter ski trip through the still relatively unknown territory of Yellowstone National Park in 1895 made him a lifelong advocate of the national park system.

Beginning in the late 1890s, Hough began producing a mixture of fictional and factual books reflecting his affection for the American West. His most notable non-fictional works were popular historical celebrations of great mythic figures of the Old West, and included The Story of the Cowboy (1897) and The Story of the Outlaw (1906).

Hough's greatest success, however, came with fictional works that combined sentimental romance stories with the western novel. One of his most popular works, The Covered Wagon (1922), established many of the conventions of the genre that continue to be popular today. The story concerns a migrant wagon train crossing the Oregon Trail. A noble but misunderstood hero vies with a charming but ultimately evil villain for the love of a beautiful young woman. As the wagon train travels west, the emigrants face disasters and dangers during which the hero's hidden strength and character are revealed. The hero, of course, wins his ladylove.

Although Hough maintained that The Covered Wagon and all his other western novels were based on fact, the books focused on conventional tales of love and romance rather than history. The western setting was often little more than a useful means of combing a masculine adventure story with a feminine love story. Hough was a master of his genre, however, and his simple but compelling tales were copied in countless books and movies. In 1923, The Covered Wagon was made into one of the first western movies.

Having published more than 18 books, Emerson Hough died in Evanston, Illinois, in 1923. He was 66 years old.

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