The Ox-Bow Incident

views updated

The Ox-Bow Incident

by Walter Van Tilburg Clark


A novel set in Nevada during the spring of 1885; published in 1940.


After hearing the news that one of the local cowhands has been shot, several townspeople form a posse and set out on their own to find those responsible.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Although Walter Van Tilburg Clark was born into a family of academics, he was raised in an environment notorious for its lack of civilized behavior. From the moment his family moved to Reno, Nevada, in 1917, the eight-year-old Clark felt an immense appreciation for this region commonly known as the Great Basin. It would be an affinity he would constantly return to throughout the course of his life, both physically as well as in his writings. Of the books Clark has penned, many believe The Ox-Bow Incident to be one of the best examples of the unique relationship that Clark shared with his surroundings.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Nevada in the 1800s

In the early part of the nineteenth century, the land now known as Nevada was nothing more than a barren region sparsely inhabited by American Indians. Occasionally Spanish missionaries and Hudson Bay Company fur traders would traverse its plains, but it wasn’t until the 1830s and ’40s that American settlers and gold seekers began to cross the land en route to California.

With the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, the United States acquired 1.2 million square miles of western territory. Included was much of the land that would later comprise the state of Nevada. Under U.S. sovereignty, the area gradually began to prosper, luring in settlers who wished to try their luck in agriculture or cattle-raising. After the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859, however, the population in the region soared; it grew so rapidly that on March 2, 1861, Nevada gained recognition as an autonomous territory. Three years later, on October 31, 1864, the U.S. Congress, in need of silver and votes for the Northern cause during the Civil War, voted to admit Nevada as the thirty-sixth state.

For the next decade and a half, the history of Nevada was dominated by the presence of the Comstock Lode. Thousands continued to flock to the area in search of their share of the record amounts of silver being mined daily, and temporary cities, called “boom” towns, emerged to accommodate the steadily rising population. Outside representatives from banks and investment enterprises also surfaced to profit from the silver others found. Unfortunately, for every bonanza the Comstock produced, a period of depression would inevitably follow in a boom-and-bust cycle that plagued the Nevada economy.

During the 1880s Nevada experienced its worst depression to date. Because of its dependence on the precarious mining industry, the state found itself in dire straits when the Cornstock Lode failed to produce another bonanza. In order to circumvent this problem, many Nevadans began to shift their focus elsewhere, particularly toward their meager agricultural markets. Despite efforts to expand its economy, Nevada would remain in a state of depression until the next century, when a combination of several factors—like legalized gambling, reduced divorce requirements, and the construction of the Hoover Dam—would reestablish its basis for economic growth.

Frontier justice

With the occurrence of the first American vigilante movement in the back country of South Carolina in 1767, this convoluted form of justice would provide an option to more conventional methods of deciding guilt or innocence. This system found particular support from those in the western region, where large expanses of land and lax adherence to the law made many believe that taking matters into one’s own hands was the only correct way to exact justice. As a result of this ideology, between 1767 and 1910 at least 326 vigilante movements or episodes occurred across the United States, with the bulk of these taking place in the region west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Many of the vigilante movements in the West were formally organized, with a constitution or declaration to which the members would subscribe. Oftentimes, they would even provide the accused with a formal (albeit illegal) trial, complete with both prosecuting and defense attorneys who would regulate the proceedings in a fair manner. Despite its vague resemblance to law and order, the number of accused who were acquitted following their “trial” was extremely low; the majority of these hearings resulted in death. Overall, in the period between 1860 and 1909, these movements claimed over five hundred lives, most of them by hanging.

The boom town

As the amount of silver extracted from the Comstock Lode steadily increased, so too did the quantity of prospectors. In order to accommodate this quick rise in the population, boom towns sprung up practically overnight. Since the average wage of the Nevada miner was only $5 a day, the boom towns provided few commodities, usually made available in only a general store and saloon. Boarding was also provided—at the rate of $4 a day. Many chose to erect their own form of shelter rather than pay such a sum. When the quantity of settlers had risen enough to demand some permanent institutions, schools and churches appeared.


The Comstock Lode refers to a series of profitable silver mines located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and named after “Pancake” Henry Comstock, an unsuccessful gold miner who alleged ownership of the land on which the first vein was discovered in 1859. During the peak period of 1876-78, the mines yielded approximately $36 million annually and immortalized Nevada on the map.

When the boom towns first appeared, the only road through town consisted of a dirt pathway defined by the steady tracks of countless wagons. In the summer, this pathway was dust-laden except for the slim trenches made by the wheels. In the winter, this same thoroughfare would become a mud bog after the rains. Nevertheless, many settlers continued to flock to the area in search of riches, prompting the construction of more and more buildings to accommodate the flow. Eventually some towns, like Virginia City, grew large enough to sustain themselves following the departure of their temporary citizens. As was often the case, however, many others were simply vacated, leaving behind only a hollow shell of the prosperity they once enjoyed.


Above C Street in Virginia City, the ornate homes of the merchants and bankers looked down on the gaudy, vulgar town, which had swelled to twenty-thousand people by the mid-1870s. While the Irishmen, Cornishmen, Germans, Mexicans, and a polyglot of miners labored in the tunnels far below, town matrons sat on their porches eating ice cream and drinking champagne.

(Milneret al., p. 201)

The Novel in Focus

The plot

As The Ox-Bow Incident opens, the reader is introduced to two rugged cowboys, Gil Carter and Art Croft, who are returning to the town of Bridger’s Wells after a long period of isolation on the range. Like many of the boom towns that existed at the time, Bridger’s Wells offered travelers the basic necessities: a general store, a land and mining claims office, an inn, a saloon, and a church. Both men soon join the town’s other visitors in Canby’s saloon.


Because of the immense wealth spawned by the discovery of the Comstock Lode, the region loosely known as Nevada gained enough national recognition to earn itself statehood. But who should be credited with this landmark discovery? One suggestion offered by historians is the two Grosh brothers. Like many of the miners who prospected in the area known as Gold Canyon during the winter, these brothers would spend the summer months at Carson City searching for precious minerals. After several years of this, their hard work finally reached fruition with the discovery of a ledge of silver ore. Unfortunately, before either of the brothers could capitalize on their find, tragedy struck. On August 19, 1857, Hosea Grosh accidentally struck a pick into his foot, a wound that would lead to his death less than a month later on September 2. Shortly thereafter, while returning to California, his brother Allan and a companion met harsh storms that left both men with badly frozen legs. After refusing to allow amputation, Allan died from the wound on December 19. Although critics claim that the ledge these two brothers discovered was merely the Silver City branch of the Comstock Lode, many believe that had they lived a few more years, further discovery was imminent.

Once inside the dark and cool interior, the two order whiskey and begin talking. Based on the conversations that take place, the reader discovers two key points. The first is that Rose Mapen, Gil’s love prior to departing for the range, has been run out of town because of her overtly flirtatious manner. The second point is that cows have been rustled and the culprits are still at large. This last bit of news proves to be particularly upsetting to those in attendance. As the time passes, the men continue to drink and unwind by engaging in a high-strung game of poker. Before tempers explode beyond control, however, the mood is interrupted by the arrival of unfortunate news. It seems that the rustlers have struck again and this time a man has been shot. Upon hearing this everyone files out of the saloon, led by Jeff Farnley, a close companion of the victim.

Outside in the open, feelings of anger quickly replace anxiety as the men begin to organize a vigilante posse. For the next few hours, people and horses scurry about frantically while those in possession of weapons return home to collect them. Thanks to the words of the storeowner, Davies, several of those in attendance begin to question the wisdom of their actions. Despite his efforts, any doubts sparked in the men’s minds are quickly put to rest by the appearance of Major Tetley, a retired officer in the Confederate army, and his scholarly son, Gerald. Shortly after their arrival, the group, now numbering twenty-eight in all, exit the town in pursuit of the rustlers.

After riding for several hours, the sky darkens and snow begins to fall, causing some of those present to reconsider their actions once again. As the weather continues to worsen, so too does the morale of the men, until they are startled back to reality by the arrival of a stagecoach. When the stagecoach finally comes into view, one of the men, a former guard and driver for Wells Fargo named Winder, recognizes the vehicle as one of their own. Unfortunately, his efforts to attract the coach’s attention are stifled by the wind, causing the driver to mistakenly believe that his coach is being attacked.

In the confusion that ensues, the driver fires shots at the posse. At first, nobody appears to be hit, but as the coach quickly comes to a stop, it becomes evident that Art has taken a bullet in the shoulder. While those around him see to his wound, the passengers in the stagecoach gradually emerge. To everyone’s surprise, out comes Rose Mapen, Gil’s former love, and her husband, a Mr. Swanson from San Francisco. After several moments of astonishment, the men saddle up again to renew their quest.

As the night progresses, the weather grows increasingly worse. By now, the wind is swirling with snow and even the warmest of posse riders cannot help but to feel the chill. Before the elements become too harsh, the men find temporary sanctuary in a valley, where it is rumored that the rustlers had last been seen. Sure enough, sleeping around a fire are the silhouettes of three men, clueless to the fate that awaits them.

After the first awakens—a large man resembling “a Mex playing a Navajo” (The Ox-Bow Incident, p. 190)—it is not long before all three are alert and demand an explanation. Still failing to

realize their situation, the three men adamantly declare their innocence in whatever offense the others are accusing them of committing.

Over the course of the next several hours, the posse acts as judge, jury, and executioner for the three men. The defendants are confronted with a barrage of questions, to which they provide competent answers. Unfortunately, because of the lack of evidence present—and fueled by the men’s insatiable desire to exact justice—the story provided by the three men is ruled to be untrue. They are declared guilty, and after further consideration it is decided that they will be hung at dawn.

When morning arrives, the three men are led to the middle of the valley to the site of their execution, “a big pine with its top shot away by lightning” (The Ox-Bow Incident, p. 218). There, the accused lose all sense of composure. “My God,” cries one, in disbelief, “you aren’t going to, really!” (The Ox-Bow Incident, p. 217). As before, their cries go unheeded, and the posse proceeds with the hanging.

Before they can ride out of view of the swaying bodies, however, the posse is met by Risley, the sheriff, and four companions, one of whom is the man thought to have been killed by the rustlers. It seems that the rumors surrounding his murder had been just that. Upon hearing this news, those in the posse immediately realize the magnitude of their mistake. Scarcely a word is spoken or a head raised as they continue their ride into town.

Back in Bridger’s Wells, the men slowly disband, still reflecting on their actions. Major Tetley and his son, Gerald, later commit suicide.

As the novel comes to a close, Gil and Art are conversing about their desire to return to the isolation of the range. Despite the amenities of the town, they are anxious to escape from the events that have unfolded. “I’ll be glad to get out of here,” Gil acknowledges, as if the act of leaving would provide a catharsis for what occurred. (The Ox-Bow Incident, p. 287).


One night as I was making my run, my horse shied out to one side and would not pass a clump of several juniper trees along the road. I finally forced him back into the road and then I discovered why the horse had shied. From each of these small trees was suspended a man with a rope around his neck, and on each of their chests was pinned a notice from the Vigilance Committee. You should have seen the clearing out of Virginia City after that lynching bee.

(Dosch in Lockley, p. 6)

What Davies thinks

Although the story in The Ox-Bow Incident is told from the point of view of Art Croft, it is the store owner Davies who represents the conscience of the men. Through his eyes, the reader is led along a path that delves into the paradox of frontier justice.

From the moment the men begin to organize a posse in the absence of the law, Davies


Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident is your correspondent’s unwavering choice for the year’s finest first novel. It has many of the elements of an old-fashioned horse opera—monosyllabic cowpunchers, cattle rustlers, a Mae Western lady, barroom brawls, shootings, lynchings, a villainous Mexican. But it bears about the same relation to a Western that The Maltese Falcon does to a hack detective story. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think it’s sort of what you might call a masterpiece.

(Clifton Fadiman in James and Brown, p. 177)

remains sternly opposed, though he accompanies them. He repeatedly questions the men about the nature of their feelings and challenges them to consider more deeply what they are about to do. “We desire justice,” he declares emphatically, “and justice has never been attained in haste and strong feeling” (The Ox-Bow Incident, p. 41).

At the conclusion of the story, those in the posse finally realize the tragedy in their mistake. None, however, is as upset as Davies, who places the blame for the entire episode upon his own shoulders. According to him, his inability to stop the hanging is far worse than the crime committed by those who proceeded. In a personal confession to Art, Davies makes the following statement:

I had everything, justice, pity, even the backing—and I knew it—and I let those three men hang because I was afraid. The lowest kind of virtue, the quality dogs have when they need it, the only thing Tetley had, guts, plain guts, and I didn’t have it.

(The Ox-Bow Incident, p. 278)

The sort of indecision that plagues Davies was not uncommon throughout the West. Given a lax and ineffectual legal system, many turned to vigilantism as a means to establish order and stability in the region. Eventually many men came to view personal justice outside the law as the only masculine way to combat criminality. As a result, those who opposed such measures often kept their opinions to themselves out of fear of being labeled weak or unmanly. This may account for Davies’s reticence in stopping the hanging.


According to a collection of notes acquired after Clark’s death, the original draft of The Ox-Bow Incident was not based on any particular event, past or present. The novel merely arose out of Clark’s dissatisfaction with the conventional Western. In a lecture given on the modern American novel, Clark made this admission:

I had become irked at the way the West was treated in popular fiction and the moving pictures, with two-gun cowboys stuffed with Sunday-school virtues, and heroines who could go through a knock-down without getting a curl misplaced.

(Laird, p. 74-5)

Clark originally sought to satirize the entire genre in the hope that “people would stop writing or reading such junk” (Laird, p. 75). In time Clark realized the triviality in his mission and instead chose to deal with a theme very real to American security: the spread of fascism in Europe.

Once Clark had decided on his new topic, he “dumped the stuff [he] had written into the wastebasket and started over” (Laird, p. 75). This time, calling upon people and images from his past, as well as those in the present, he created a new set of characters, each assigned a counterpart based on descriptions received from Nazi Germany. For example, in the novel, the militant leader Tetley is portrayed as a former officer in the Confederate army; in Clark’s mind, he was a combination of Adolf Hitler and Hitler’s predecessor German chancellor Paul von Hindenburg and symbolized the Prussian officer tradition. Clark also modeled his novel on personalities whom he had known from his days in Virginia City, Reno, and Carson. Sometimes he would use real-life sources to inspire characters. Other times, the real-life sources would come to symbolize entire institutions.

Because of his intellectual upbringing, many scholars believe Clark patterned the character Davies upon himself, portraying the author’s own concerns about good and evil.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Fascism and The Ox-Bow Incident

Although written in the Western genre, many readers viewed The Ox-Bow Incident as an allegory for fascism and demagoguery. In their own time, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party, founded in Milan, Italy, in March of 1919, gradually gained recognition for its extreme right-wing policies and dictatorial style of government. At its inception, the Fascist Party served as a movement bent on exposing the faults of Italy’s other parties, though it provided no clear solution of its own to cure the country’s ills. Eventually, as the years progressed, it gained support from powerful industrialists who feared the communist alternative, and from less fortunate citizens such as unemployed war veterans and members of the lowermiddle class. This latter group proved to be extremely supportive of Mussolini.

By the time Clark began his work on The Ox-Bow Incident in the late 1930s, Mussolini’s party was gaining global attention for its aggressive participation in the European arena. In the summer of 1936, Italy had entered the Spanish Civil War on behalf of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, a fellow fascist dictator seeking to assume control over Spain. Additionally, in 1935-36, and later, in 1939, Italian forces initiated attacks on Ethiopia and Albania. These blatant acts of aggression incited feelings of both shock and discomfort, and Clark was one of many who were of the opinion that the events overseas were an


Founded on March 18, 1852, by Henry Wells and William George Fargo out of the back room of a bookstore in Syracuse, New York, Wells, Fargo & Company soon became the premier transportation and banking service in the West. Its original advertisement offered not only to “forward packages, parcels, and freights of all descriptions between the City of New York and City of San Francisco” but also to “purchase and sell Gold Dust, Bullion and Bills of change” (Stone, p. 163). In the decade following 1855, the company expanded its holdings to include a series of stagecoach lines from the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains. In 1866, in what would later be called the “Grand Consolidation,” they gained control of almost all stagecoach and express services west of the Missouri. By the time the novel takes place in 1885, most of the Wells Fargo stage lines had been relegated to secondary routes by the advent of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, although several operations continued to run in remote areas of the region even after 1900.


Of all the characters mentioned in The Ox-Bow Incident, few are as interesting as Ma Grier, the burly proprietor of a boarding house, who is chosen as Tetley’s lieutenant. Like many of Clark’s characters in the novel, Ma was based on a real person.

One day, while riding his bike home from an excursion in the mountains, Clark decided to stop at a roadside diner for a beer. Unfortunately, the diner had been shut down for some unknown legal reason and those present were in the process of loading equipment onto a truck. When the time came to load the huge cook stove used to fry burgers, the owner, a large woman simply known as “Ma”, wrapped her portly hands around its base and, giving it a subtle hoist with her hips, lifted it onto the truck by herself. Later, when searching his mind for a female character who would command the respect of other men, it was the image of “Ma” that popped into Clark’s mind.

enormous threat to both world security and American democracy. Although it would take the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 for America to be lured into war against Italy and its Axis allies of Germany and Japan, the atrocities committed by Mussolini and his supporters prior to Pearl Harbor were grave enough to inspire Clark to begin work on what would later be recognized as his finest literary achievement.


When The Ox-Bow Incident was published in 1940, it was soon regarded as one of the greatest Western novels of all time. Critics lauded it for its crisp storytelling, engaging characters, and courage in dealing with a theme not commonly found in the average cowboy tale. The reviewer G. G. Stevens further praised the novel for its “high grade of psychological insight” (Stevens in James and Brown, p. 176). In the months and years following the novel’s publication, similar positive appraisals could be found in nearly every literary review in the country. Occasionally, some extolled Clark’s work merely for its skillful writing, but more often it was Clark’s mastery in dealing with a complex theme that earned him many accolades.

For More Information

Clark, Walter Van Tilburg. The Ox-Bow Incident. New York: Random House, 1940.

Elliott, Russell R. History of Nevada. 2nd ed., revised. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

James, Mertice M., and Dorothy Brown, eds. The Book Review Digest. Vol. 36. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1941.

Laird, Charlton, ed. Walter Van Tilburg Clark: Critiques. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1983.

Lockley, Fred. Vigilante Days at Virginia City: Personal Narrative of Col. Henry E. Dosch, Member of Fremont’s Body Guard and Onetime Pony Express Rider. Portland: Koke-Tiffany, 1924.

Milner, Clyde A., Carol A. O’Connor and Martha A. Sandweiss, eds. The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Stone, Irving. Men to Match My Mountains: The Opening of the Far West, 1840-1900. New York: Berkley Books, 1956.

Westbrook, Max. Walter Van Tilburg Clark. New York: Twayne, 1969.