Artist and author Will James is beloved by readers for his life-like drawings and illustrated stories of horses in the American West and the cowboys who work them. His books are comprised of story and essay collections, novels, an autobiography, and children's books. All depict aspects of the cowboy life, including detailed descriptions of the people, places, animals, equipment, and work involved in cattle operations.
Born Joseph-Ernest-Nephtali Dufault in 1892 into a French-speaking merchant family in Quebec, he left home at age fourteen. He changed his name to William Roderick James, and headed west to pursue his dream of becoming a cowboy, first in Canada, then in the United States. James, now in his early twenties, was considered a top hand by his fellow ranch hands and bosses. They particularly admired him for breaking tough mustangs and range horses, turning them into fine and useful cow horses. James was a popular and cheerful camp mate and a gifted story teller around the evening campfires of his cowhand days. Some of his cronies affectionately called him "Windy Bill" for his talkativeness and ability to spin a yarn.
An innately talented artist, James began drawing animals at the age of five. Horses and bears were favorite subjects in his earliest years, followed by more horses, ranch animals, and cowboying activities. To improve his skills and for sheer enjoyment, James left drawings on any surface he could find—bags, old catalogs, even bunk house doors and floors. He considered becoming an artist as early as 1916 when he spent time as an inmate in the Nevada State Prison at Carson City. While incarcerated for cattle rustling, James made a three-part sketch entitled "The Turning Point." The "Past" shows James roping a Texas Longhorn; the "Present" depicts him sitting behind bars, thinking; and the "Future" places him standing before an easel, painting a picture of a cowboy on horseback. The caption reads, "Have had ample time for serious thought and it is my ambition to follow up on my art."
Nevertheless, after his release from jail, James returned to drifting and range work until 1919, when he was bucked off a horse in Reno, Nevada, and seriously injured. After the incident, he was determined to become successful as an artist. While in Reno, James sold his first piece of art work—the cover illustration for the July 1919 Reno Rodeo Catalog, for which he was paid fifty dollars. His next success in his newly chosen profession came when he sold six full-page drawings to the popular West Coast magazine Sunset, which ran one per month from January through June 1920.
In 1920, James, then twenty-eight, married a sixteen-year-old Reno rancher's daughter named Alice Conradt. Troubled by their limited income, Alice encouraged Will to combine his illustrating abilities with his gift for story telling. By the end of 1922 several magazines were buying James' illustrated short stories, including the highly regarded Scribner's Magazine. With his efforts now turning a profit, the couple bought a few acres in Washoe Valley between Reno and Carson City, and his in-laws helped him build a four-room cabin in the pines with a small separate studio out back where he completed much of his best work for a number of years.
In 1924 the great publishing house Charles Scribner's Sons took seven of James' stories first published in its magazine division, together with one published in the Saturday Evening Post, and produced his first book, Cowboys North and South. At the time this book appeared, most people knew very little about the actual West and were hungry to read authentic stories of ranching and cowboys. James went a long way toward filling this void, and his stories and pictures have been treasured by readers young and old for generations. Interestingly, despite the fidelity of his renderings of western range life, his autobiography, The Lone Cowboy (1930), contains a good deal of fiction and self invention, a fact that was discovered by biographer Anthony Amaral twenty years after James's death.
In 1926, James wrote and illustrated his most famous book, Smoky, a tale about a great cow horse, told mostly from the horse's point of view. It was introduced in September of that year and reprinted ten more times before Christmas. Smoky won the Newbery Medal as the year's best contribution to American literature for children and has remained in print almost continuously to the present day. In all, Scribner's published twenty-seven of James' written and illustrated books, nearly every one a bestseller throughout the Great Depression years of the 1930s.
Loved for his stories and books, James is today even more revered for his art. He continues to receive acclaim for his outstanding illustrations of horses in action, particularly bucking horses. James loved wild horses, too, and his illustrated mustang stories are among his finest.
James, who died in 1942, left a legacy of stories and wonderful line illustrations of the actual working western range land as it really was, and—in a few places in Nevada—still is. His efforts were not the bang-bang, shoot-'em-ups of Hollywood and the pulp magazines. James recognized that there is plenty of day-to-day drama, conflict, and excitement on a working ranch. His books and drawings preserve the vitality and action of that more accurate, but no less fascinating story.
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