Cowboys In The Twentieth Century
Some say the Cowboy’s life ended with the advent of barbed wire and the demise of the big cattle drives that occurred in the first half of the 19th century. However, if you read any of Will James’s short books, you will learn that there was plenty of horse breaking, cow roping and fence mending still available during the early years of the 20th century. It was even possible for a skilled ranch hand to travel the western states on horseback, searching for available work, even after the advent of the automobile.
Will James, the Author
Born in 1892, Will James began his rough and rowdy western experience as a working cowboy, when he was still a teenager. From 1920 until his death in 1942 , Will James penned over twenty books and many magazines articles about the Wild West that he knew as a young man. His illustrations often adorned the covers, of these books. One particular story, Smoky the Cowhorse (1926), not only won the Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature in 1927, but was also incorporated into a movie of the same name in 1933. Even today, books by Will James are treasured by readers with a deep interest in the American West.
Will James, the Artist
In 1914, Will James was sentenced to the Nevada State Prison near the town of Ely. His crime was cattle rustling. During his one year incarceration, Will James took to drawing and painting as a source of consolation. After his release, James continuing his visual depiction of horses and cowboys. Today, his artwork can be seen in various museums and public collections across the West. Such venues include the Yellowstone Museum of Art in Billings, MT, the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko, NV and the University of Nevada at Reno.
Separating Fact from Fiction
James’s autobiography, Lone Cowboy, tells the enthralling story of how Will James grew as an orphan in the Old West and learned the art and craft of being a real cowboy from a French-Canadian trapper. Though a very popular and widely read book, this tall tale is pure fiction. Biographers now know that Will James was born Joseph-Ernest Dufaul in St. Nazaire de Acton in Quebec, Canada. At age 15, Joseph-Ernest left home for the prairies of Saskatchewan, where he learned his cowboy skills. However, a run-in with the Canadian Royal Mounted Police over cattle rustling, forced the Easterner to change his name, flee to the American West and lie about his past.
A Colorful Life
When Will James died in 1942, not even his wife, Alice Conradt (of Reno, Nevada), knew of his true identity. However, a dispute arose over the estate, which lead to the appearance of Auguste Dufaulte, who consequently proved that Will James and Joseph-Ernest Dufaulte (spelling varies) were one in the same. It is no wonder that the colorful author was also known as the “Pied-piper of the West“. Unfortunately, alcohol played a major part in James’s death at age 50.
Will James Today
The books of Will James are still in print today. Original hardcover copies are most valued, but recently-printed paperbacks are also available, courtesy of the Mountain Press Publishing Company of Missoula, Montana. Also of importance is the Will James Society , a dedicated group of readers that actively promote the literature of the Western author, even though the man died almost seventy-five years ago. Perhaps the noted Canadian folksinger, songwriter and working ranch hand, Ian Tyson, summed up Will James best when he wrote (from the song titled Will James):
“Like coyote always looking back
He left no tracks behind
So I’ve memorized those pictures boys
There still the very best
If whiskey was his mistress
Then his true love was the west”.