The Owen Wister Award is the highest honor given by Western Writers of America. Originally sponsored by Levi Strauss Corporation of San Francisco, the Owen Wister Award was first called the Saddleman Award. It made its debut at the Fort Smith, Arkansas, convention of Western Writers of America, Inc., on June 22, 1961, with the award presented to Will Henry (Henry Wilson Allen).
Originally, the award was given to the author of the best book of the year (from the then five Spur categories: nonfiction, historical novel, novel, juvenile, and “short material”). In 1967 the rules were changed and the award was given for “Outstanding Contributions to the American West” and was presented to non-writers such as John Wayne, John Ford, and Clint Eastwood.
With Levi Strauss’ decision to retire the Saddleman Award after the 1990 WWA convention, a committee chaired by novelist Win Blevins, originated plans for a new award for “Lifetime Achievement” in writing Western history and literature. Owen Wister (1860-1938) is considered the “father” of the Western story and author of The Virginian (1902). The Owen Wister Award was adopted by the Executive Board of Western Writers in time for the Oklahoma City convention in 1991. Glendon Swarthout was a popular choice to be first recipient of the new Owen Wister Award.
The first four recipients of the Wister received a stylized engraved bronze figure of a cowboy until, at the Billings, Montana, convention in 1994, Texas sculptor Robert H. Duffie was commissioned to design an original bronze work to be given each past and future Wister awardee. His magnificent buffalo design continues to symbolize WWA’s highest honor.