Best Westerns of the 20th Century

By Candy Moulton

Roundup Editor


It's been done before, twice, in 1985 and again in 1995, both times with similar results in several areas. Nevertheless, as we sit on the brink of the 21st Century it seemed time to reprise the Best Western Survey. So with that in mind during the past year we asked WWA members to tell us what they thought.

     A panel of fifty-five individuals from twenty-two states and one Canadian province provided us with their votes for the best work and authors of the 20th century. On the lists were 83 authors, 112 novels, 122 nonfiction books, 86 films, 64 short stories, 41 television series, and 22 television mini-series. Several authors who wrote during the 19th Century also appeared on the lists, some of them garnering multiple votes, but they are not included on this year's survey.

     There were two categories where the top vote getters were a landslide--Lonesome Dove for Best Western Miniseries, which also topped the same category in 1995, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, for Best Nonfiction book, which led that category in both 1985 and 1995.

Elmer Kelton, as he did in 1995, led the number of votes for Best Author, receiving twice as many as either Willa Cather or A.B. Guthrie, who followed him in the category. And he had two books on the list of Best Novel. No other author repeated among top choices in that category. Mari Sandoz had two nonfiction books among the top choices.

Among the survey panel, there is little question that Dorothy Johnson is the best short story writer of the century. The Montana writer penned four of the top five stories in our survey.

      Some respondents returned their forms saying they did not like to complete such surveys, and in many cases they didn't necessarily provide choices in every category. Several said their lists might change if asked to complete the survey at a later date. One included choices for Best Song: "The Strawberry Roan," "High Chin Bob," "El Paso," "Tyin' Knots in the Devil's Tail," and "The Tennessee Stud." We didn't have a category for "Best Western Poet" but know there are some fine folks who could make up such a listing.

     These are the survey results, listed in order of votes given.



Best 24

Best Western Authors

Elmer Kelton

Willa Cather

A.B. Guthrie

Louis L'Amour

Dee Brown

Dorothy Johnson

Zane Grey

Owen Wister

Larry McMurtry

Will Henry

Max Evans

Jack Schaefer

Glendon Swarthout

Mari Sandoz

Wallace Stegner

Norman Zollinger

Don Coldsmith

Richard S. Wheeler

Loren D. Estleman

Ernest Haycox

Tony Hillerman

Robert M. Utley

Cormac McCarthy

Benjamin Capps


Best 21

Best Western Novels

Shane (Schaefer)

Lonesome Dove (McMurtry)

The Big Sky (Guthrie)

The Time It Never Rained (Kelton)

The Virginian (Wister)

The Shootist (Swarthout)

Death Comes for the Archbishop (Cather)

Riders of the Purple Sage (Grey)

Monte Walsh (Schaefer)

The Ox-Bow Incident (Clark)

Hondo (L'Amour)

All the Pretty Horses (McCarthy)

Centennial (Michener)

The Sea of Grass (Conrad Richter)

Riders to Cibola (Zollinger)

The Homesman (Swarthout)

True Grit (Portis)

The Searchers (LeMay)

The Rounders (Evans)

The Day the Cowboys Quit (Kelton)

Call of the Wild (London)





Best 12

Best Nonfiction Books

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Brown)

Across the Wide Missouri (DeVoto)

Charles Goodnight (Haley)

Cheyenne Autumn (Sandoz)

The Longhorns (Dobie)

Old Jules (Sandoz)

Undaunted Courage (Ambrose)

Men to Match My Mountains (Stone)

Triggernometry (Cunningham)

Black Elk Speaks (Niehardt)

And Die in the West (Marks)

Pat Garrett (Metz)












Best 10

Best Western Films


High Noon

The Searchers

Dances with Wolves

Red River

The Shootist


Ride the High Country


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance


Best 5

Best Western Short Stories

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (Johnson)

"A Man Called Horse" (Johnson)

"To Build a Fire" (London)

"Lost Sister" (Johnson)

"The Hanging Tree" (Johnson)







Best 9

Best Western TV Series





Have Gun Will Travel

The Virginian

Little House on the Prairie

High Chaparral

The Rifleman




Best 8

Best Television Mini Series

Lonesome Dove


The Good Old Boys

How the West Was Won

The Sacketts

Lewis & Clark

The West

The Rough Riders



Western Writers of America, Inc., will permit reprinting of this article, in whole or in part, providing the full organization name is used as the source of the information. For permission to reprint, write to Candy Moulton, Roundup Editor, Box 29 Star Route, Encampment, WY 82325


The Panel:

Judy Alter����Texas

Starley Anderson�..Wyoming

D. L. Birchfield���Wisconsin

Mike Blakely����Texas

Johnny D. Boggs�..New Mexico

Matt Braun����Connecticut

Corinne Brown��.Colorado

Larry K. Brown��Wyoming

LaVerne Harrell Clark�.Texas

L.D. Clark�����Texas

Rita Cleary����.New York

Robert Conley���Oklahoma

James A. Crutchfield�.Tennessee

Nancy Curtis����..Wyoming

Patrick Dearen����Texas

Stev Donev�����.California

David Dortort����.California

Fred R. Egloff����Illinois

Loren D. Estleman��..Michigan

Max Evans�����..New Mexico

W. Michael Gear���.Wyoming

Charlie Goodman���.Texas

Nancy Hamilton����Texas

R. C. House������California

Connie Hubbard����Texas

Charlie Hunt�����.South Dakota

Kirby Jonas������Idaho

Elmer Kelton�����.Texas

Gregory Lalire�����Virginia

Page Lambert�����.Wyoming

Steven Law������.Missouri

Preston Lewis�����.Texas

Doris Meredith�����Texas

Leon Metz�������Texas

Rod Miller�����.Utah

Deborah Morgan����.Michigan

Candy Moulton�����Wyoming

Gary McCarthy�����Arizona

Gene Mullins������Texas

P.G. Nagle������.New Mexico

John Nesbitt�����..Wyoming

Nancy M. Petersen���Colorado

Robert Randisi�����Missouri

Dusty Richards�����Arkansas

Joyce Gibson Roach���Texas

Lou Rodenberger����.Texas

Hazel Rumney�����.Maine

Douglas Sharp���..Calgary, Canada

Cotton Smith�����..Kansas

Kathryn Swarthout���..Arizona

Miles Swarthout����..California

Rod Timanus�����..Connecticut

Lori Van Pelt�����.Wyoming

Dale L. Walker����..Texas

Richard S. Wheeler���.Montana




Many thanks to our upcoming sponsor for the 2008 WWA book signing in Scottsdale, Arizona


NY Times Bestsellers 468x60

Copyright 2000-2008 Western Writers of America, Inc. All rights reserved.


The Spur and ROUNDUP are both registered trademarks of Western Writers of America

Created and managed by Steven Law's Web Studio, L.L.C. Part of the ReadWest Network