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Living the Cowboy Way: The Life and Times of Will James

Updated on June 22, 2017
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Ever since reading Drifting Cowboys, I have greatly admired the works of Will James and other authentic voices from the Old West.

In a Bad Way

This Will James painting depicts the risks of roping cattle
This Will James painting depicts the risks of roping cattle

A Working Cowboy

Like Charles Russell before him, Will James spent many years working the Western range before he wrote his first story or created his first drawing. Unlike Russell, James is best known for his storytelling, though he was also an accomplished artist, who could render his Cowboy working days in a very convincing manner. During his literary career, Mr. James provided illustrations for many of his 23 published books, yet still, his main focus was on putting together a good story.

In 1920, Will James began his literary career, when he sold some sketches and stories, to Sunset Magazine, a California periodical. Soon thereafter, Will broke out on a national scale with sales to Scribners Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. From these sales, Will James received enough money to purchase a ranch in Nevada, a financial feat that would be virtually impossible today.

The Turning Point

In this drawing, Will James reflects on how his 15 month prison sentence became a turning point in his life
In this drawing, Will James reflects on how his 15 month prison sentence became a turning point in his life

From Prison To Fame

Will James learned how to be a Cowboy in Saskatchewan, Canada. In 1913, Will James left Canada and fled to the United States mainly to avoid cattle rustling charges, north of the border. However, once in the U.S., his American cattle rustling activities caught up with him and he was imprisoned in Nevada for just over a year. After release from prison, Will James worked as a Hollywood stunt rider, joined the Army during WWI and then got married. At the time of his marriage,James was already experiencing some success with selling his Western-style Cowboy drawings around San Francisco.

Smoky the Cowhorse

The 1946 version of Smoky the Cowhorse starred Fred MacMurray and Anne Baxter,
The 1946 version of Smoky the Cowhorse starred Fred MacMurray and Anne Baxter,

Will James Goes Hollywood

One of the fascinating things about Will James is that he participated in the rapidly expanding Western movie industry of the 20s and the 30s in two very distinct and exciting ways.

In the early 20s, Will James first arrived in Hollywood as a stunt rider, an activity, which apparently he enjoyed and also excelled at. This new livelihood, did not last long, as Will quickly returned to the ranch life, where he easily found gainful employment.

Then in 1926, Will James published a children's story, called Smoky the Cowhorse, which went on to win a Newbury Medal in 1927. Six years later, the first film version appeared, but moviemakers were not done yet with this story about a lonely drifter, who befriends a horse. Again in 1946 and also in 1966, remakes of this timeless story appeared on the silver screen. Today, the film is still available today on DVD, and has consistently received a good rating from both Rotten Tomatos and IMBD.

Alcohol Abuse

Although Will James was able to overcome his prison sentence for cattle rustling, there was another demon and all-too-common American malaise, which would eventually take its toll on the Cowboy artist. The culprit in this case was the empty whiskey bottle, for James had a definite affinity for strong drink that put him in an early grave at age 50. In 1942, after having been divorced from his wife for seven years, Will James died from cirrhosis of the liver. He was only 50 years old and never did complete his Great American Novel that he had been trying to put together for the last several years of his life.


One of Many Illustrations

oil on canvas painting titled Rope Corral
oil on canvas painting titled Rope Corral
Will James's French-Canadian family. Will James is pictured sitting at his father's knee
Will James's French-Canadian family. Will James is pictured sitting at his father's knee

The Strangest Irony of All

When Will James passed away in L.A., those who knew the man, were shocked when a younger brother from Montreal showed up claiming to be one of the heirs. As it turned out, Will James was actually born Joseph-Ernest-Nephtali Dufault on June 6, 1892, at St. Nazaire de Acton in Quebec, Canada. He only changed his name, when he entered the U.S. in his flight from the law. Not even his wife knew about his former life and secret identity.

Will James had even gone so far as to fictionize his auto-biography, Lone Cowboy, a beautifully written, but not-so-true account of how he grew up on a western ranch.

Will James In Song

Will James Today

The memory of Will James is kept arrive today by the Will James Society, a non-profit group in Elko, Nevada, which is active in keeping his books in print and his artwork hanging in museums around the West. The group also donates copies of Will James books to libraries and U.S. military establishments around the world. They also hold conferences every few years to get together and upgrade their activities.

And for those that are interested in viewing the artwork of Will James, there are two places, where numerous samples of James's paintings and drawing are on permanent display. The first is the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, MT and the other is the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko. Since the physical address of the Will James Society is now located in Nevada, the Elko location may hold the bigger draw to avid Will James fans. Nonetheless, both of these western towns played a big role in the adult life of Will James and are well worth a visit.

A Cowboy Song

© 2017 Harry Nielsen

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