A Cowboy Author from the Old West

book cover on Will James
cover featuring a Will James painting from a book about the cowboy artist

Twentieth Century Cowboys

Contrary to popular belief, the “Old West” did not die with the beginning of the 20th century. If you ever saw the opening scene from the movie, “Seabiscuit”, there is a wonderful part, where a mounted rider chases down a wild horse. The brief spurt of action is set against a stunning backdrop of mountains. After reading Will James intriguing memoir, “The Drifting Cowboy”, I now know that there is more truth to this picture than I first realized.

6am339 by Will James
painting entitled 6 a.m. by Will James

Who was Will James Anyway?

Will James is the alias of Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, who was born in 1892 in Saint-Nazaire-d’Acton, Quebec, Canada. As a young man Joseph traveled west to Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned to be a cowboy, but Joseph had to leave Canada and change his name ( to Will James) because he was wanted for cattle rustling. In the U.S. Will James traveled round the west working as a cowhand at various places, especially Montana. He even drifted south and worked in Hollywood as a stunt reader. This fascinating experience is well detailed in The Drifting Cowboy.

Learning to Draw

Will James learned to draw and paint at the early age of four when he was still known as Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault. Joseph grew up in a French speaking household, where such activities were encouraged at a very young age. Today, James artwork is scattered across the West with a large proportion held by the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, MT. This high plains Montana enclave is where Will James retired to after he finished his cowboy years. Part of his drawing and painting collection is on permanent display at the Montana museum.

portrait of will-james_117143925_std

Perhaps His Most Challenging Accomplishment

Not only was Will James an accomplished artist, but he could tell a good story as well. This is quite an accomplishment, for someone who learned English as a second language. In fact, Will James writing success brings to mind another famous Francophone, who also excelled when writing in English. That person is none other than Jack Kerouac, who was raised in a French-speaking household in Lowell, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, Will James shared some of Kerouac’s  undesirable traits such as alcoholism, a transient lifestyle and death at an early age. Even though Will James published a score of books, had one successful Hollywood movie (Smoky the Cowhorse) and sold many drawings and paintings, he stilled died at age 50 from alcohol abuse. Today, his books are still available through the Tumbleweed Series put out by the Mountain Press Publishing Co. of Billings, MT. Check one out; you will enjoy the read.

Maynard Dixon painting
Navajo Land by Maynard Dixon

Artists of the Old West

Around 1920, James studied art at the California School of Art and Design. It is here that he met another painter, Maynard Dixon, who would go on to achieve much success with his painting. Despite Dixon’s dramatic artistic style, his personal experience with the “Cowboy Life” cannot match that of Will James. All in all, Will James was a very talented interpreter, who revealed many wonderful things about the life of the American cowboy in the not-so “Old West”.