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Monday, March 1, 2021

The Legend of Will James, Cowboy Extraordinaire by Elizabeth Clements


The Legend of Will James, Cowboy Extraordinaire by Elizabeth Clements

            I first learned about this amazing cowboy and gifted artist from a gentleman in our local historical society. A few years ago during our annual exhibition and stampede, Alan Jensen had a huge collection of his Will James memorabilia on display in a cabin at our pioneer village. A big fan, Alan, at the drop of a hat, could talk enthusiastically for hours about Will James. As I gazed at the newspaper articles, art work and books, I couldn’t believe I had missed reading this author’s stories. As a child, I had reread the Black Stallion series numerous times as well as any other books about horses, so how could I have not read Will’s most famous book, Smoky the Cowhorse and all the amazing illustrations in it? So, let me go back to when it all began….


Will James was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault to French-Canadian parents on June 6, 1892 in Saint-Nazaire-d'Acton, a tiny Canadian village near Montreal, Quebec. His father was a merchant and the family eventually moved to Montreal. Since childhood, he loved to read and was fascinated with the stories he read of the west. Spurred by his imagination, he sketched pictures of wild horses and cowboys on paper, on walls and even in the dirt. When he attended Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show that included Chief Sitting Bull, James knew he wanted to become a cowboy. In either 1907 or 1910, with a bag of biscuits and ten dollars in his pocket, the teenager caught a train west and began learning the cowboy way in the tiny settlement of Val Marie, Saskatchewan. He learned a lot from Pierre Beaupre, a local wrangler, and for a while they had two separate homesteads along the Frenchman River in the Cypress Hills of southwest Saskatchewan. (James's property later became part of the Walt Larson ranch, which has been folded into the new Grasslands National Park.)

            I can’t say for certain what prompted James to drift to Montana and eventually Nevada. There is conflicting research. One source suggests he may have shot someone in a barroom brawl and fled south to Montana while another source states he ran from the law for cattle rustling either before or after he headed for Montana. The cowboy life is a hard life with little pay. A little cattle rustling and rebranding provides quick cash. In 1914 James and a friend came across an untended herd of cattle in Nevada. He and his partner herded them to the train for shipment to the stockyards. James stayed behind, waiting for his partner to return with the money. Obviously, something went wrong because James was arrested and convicted for cattle rustling. He was sentenced and imprisoned in the penitentiary at Ely, Nevada.

Out of boredom and missing the freedom of the cowboy life, he sketched pictures of broncos on paper and when that wasn’t available, drew on the white-washed walls of his cell, stimulated by his ranching experiences. He gave some of his drawings to the prison guards. Perhaps that’s how they became published in The Ely Record with this statement: "with proper training he would soon be able to do first class work." When Will spent the rest of his imprisonment in Carson City, he became serious about working on his drawing skills. As part of his parole application, he made a sketch entitled A Turning Point, with the note: "Have had ample time for serious thought and it is my ambition to follow up on my art." Upon his release, he dreamed of a new life as an artist and the legend of William Robert James began.

            “According to cowboy and folksinger Ian Tyson, James traveled to San Francisco to sell sketches and began working as a stuntman in western movies there.”  Will James served in the U.S. army from 1918 to 1919 and after his discharge, was determined to further his artistic career. He returned to Nevada in time for the First Annual Nevada Round-Up in Reno and got a job as a horse wrangler for the round-up. He also illustrated the program cover and was paid $50. He reconnected with two pre-war friends and performed in their “broncobusting” exhibitions. During one such performance, James was thrown and seriously injured. He spent his recovery time at his friend’s ranch where he met Conradt’s fifteen-year-old sister, Alice. Impressed with his drawings, she encouraged James to pursue a career in art.

            After his recovery, James moved to San Francisco and enrolled in evening art classes at the California School of Fine Arts while earning income during the day taking theater tickets. Through a friend’s connections, James sold a couple of sketches, along with text, to Sunset magazine. The following year, James went back to Reno and married 16-year-old Alice. After a couple of moves, they settled near an artists’ colony in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, he befriended several ranchers who were instrumental in getting James enrolled in Yale University; they even supported James financially. It was not a good fit for James, who loved and missed the wide open spaces of Nevada. After his cowboy sketches were rejected by Life Magazine, the couple left New York and returned to Nevada. They lived in a cabin built by Alice’s father and there he began to seriously write for publication.

            At last success turned in James direction in late 1922 when his article on horse bucking was bought by Scribner’s Magazine for $300.  The editor, Max Perkins, liked the “authentic American vernacular” (likened to western Texas). He published James first story: Bucking Horses and Bucking Horse Riders, complete with James’ illustrations. His editor requested and bought more short stories and books, giving James the finances to finally buy a small ranch in Nevada where he continued to write. His most famous book, Smoky the Cowhorse, was published in 1926 and  the next year it won the Newbery Medal for children’s literature.

            With growing fame and fortune, there also came questions. People wanted to know more about Will James. Since coming to Montana, he had made up a new name and a life for himself that did not include his origins. He wrote to his parents not to reveal his true identity, denying his father the privilege of bragging about his famous son. Even though he irregularly sent money home, guilt ate at his conscience. Thus, sadly, his road to alcoholism probably began in earnest.

            To satisfy the curiosity of his clamoring fans, James wrote Lone Cowboy, a fictionalized autobiography, in 1930. He fabricated that his father was a Texan and his mother was from California and that they moved to Montana where he was born. He wrote that his mother died of influenza when he was a baby and three years later, his father was gored by a steer, leaving Will an orphan. Will claimed he was adopted by “Jean" Beaupré, a French-Canadian fur trapper whom he called "Bopy". No doubt he used Bopy to explain why he spoke English with an accent. (He had worked very hard at adopting an American jargon likened to cowboy slang.

Lone Cowboy became a bestselling Book-of-the-Month selection. Only twenty years after his death did the real truth about Will become revealed in a biography written by Anthony Amaral.  Yet, despite Will’s autobiographical fabrications, the popularity of his books never waned and his creative gift lives on in his books. A search on the internet will give you a list of all his books and the movies adapted from his books.

Will James is a legend in Nevada as one of their most famous cowboys. His depiction of wild broncos and their riders is often compared with Will’s hero, Charlie Russell. Will drew in black and white whereas Charlie Russell’s work was painted in oils. Ian Tyson also wrote a song about Charlie Russell titled: The Gift.  Whenever I listen to that song and see Russell’s paintings, I get a little misty. Ian Tyson The Gift - YouTube

     James enjoyed living on his 8,000 acre Pryor Creek ranch near Billings, Montana as well as his home in Billings. He was a devoted naturalist and truly wanted to preserve the old way of the west. He wouldn’t allow hunting or fishing on his ranch. When Will and Alice separated in 1935, Will sank deeper into alcoholism. Eventually, he lost his ranch. He returned to California and lived on a ranch that overlooked the Mojave River. There, shortly before his death from cirrhosis of the liver on September 3, 1942 at age 50 , James wrote his last book, The American Cowboy, with the memorable line: “The cowboy will never die.” His ashes were scattered by airplane over his beloved Montana ranch.  Will James Middle School, a public school in Billings, Montana, is named in his honor.

Spanning over two decades, James had written and illustrated 23 books, 20 of them published by Scribner Publishing House. Five books were made into feature films. There were several adaptations of Smoky the Cowhorse—the 1933 version included Will James himself, as the narrator.  This classic remains in print all these years since and is available on Amazon.

In 1988, the Canadian National Film Board sponsored a 83-minute biography, Alias Will James, to commemorate his life and legacy.  “This feature-length documentary tells the incredible story of Ernest Dufault, a.k.a. Will James, a French-Canadian man who became one of the most legendary cowboys of the American West. For over 30 years, as he went from cattle rustler to ex-convict, he managed to keep his secret. And when he took up the pen, he became a Hollywood legend.”    

I highly recommend you watch this documentary as the interviews and footage gives you so much more insight into the life and legend of Will James than I can possibly relate here in this short blog. Ian Tyson, the singer and songwriter I wrote about in my December blog, is interviewed in the documentary, which includes the musical score Ian wrote and sings in tribute to James, his hero: The Man They Called Will James. Some of the documentary was filmed on Tyson’s scenic ranch in the Alberta foothills near Calgary. Will James was his inspiration. Tyson’s father gave him many books, but the books by Will James were his favorites and hold a special place on his bookcase at his ranch.

I can’t help but think of the parallels between Will James and Ian Tyson’s lives. Just like Will, Ian was an avid reader, fascinated at a very young age with tales of cowboys and horses when he read the books Will James had written and illustrated. Ian, too, had left home at age 15 to take up the cowboy life (in Alberta), was active in the rodeo circuit and later studied art in California before switching to songwriting. Gathered around the campfire after a hard day in the saddle, James’s creative mind entertained the cowboys, spinning yarns he made up, thus earning him the nickname, Windy Bill. On the other hand, Ian Tyson had the gift of putting stories to music, just as entertaining. In their early days on the rodeo circuit, the two hard-drinking cowboys also earned the reputation of being womanizers. And they both ended up famous, owning a ranch, and living the cowboy way. No wonder Ian participated in the documentary.

Will James was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 1991. In 1992, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, Will James was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1992. The Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana, has preserved the largest public collection of James' writings, artwork, and personal effects.   

Excerpt: Beneath A Horse Thief Moon

Someone’s behind me.

Chase Reynolds dipped his head to block the campfire with his hat brim while inching his hands toward his holsters. Better to die fighting than be shot in the back by a yellow-bellied bushwhacker.

“Touch ’em and yer dead,” snarled a guttural voice.

Chase froze. He risked a glance over his shoulder. Moonlight outlined a rifle aimed at his back. Teeth clenched, Chase raised his hands.

 “Git up.”

Chase rose slowly, turned and took satisfaction in towering over the bastard, who scooted back three steps. So much for knocking away his rifle.

But I still have my knife stashed in my boot.

A floppy hat shadowed the man’s face. Kinda puny, yet the menace in his voice was as real as the aim of his rifle. Light on his feet and good enough to sneak past his horse without Blaze snorting a warning. Could this man be a member of Billy Cranston's gang? The fact he hadn't been already killed gave Chase hope. And if I get real lucky, I might even be taken to your hideout. Alive.

First, he had to be sure. “What brand do you ride for?”


You’re an outlaw, all right. No name, no trail.

“Drop yer guns.”

Chase hated giving up his Colts. Felt naked without them. “Trust me, I won't try to shoot.”

“Do it.”

Grimly, Chase unbuckled his gun belt and slid it to the ground. You’re not gonna shoot me. Yet. So, what the hell are you up to? “Butch Cassidy's got his eye on a payroll shipment into Billings next week. He needs some extra guns to rob the train. You interested?”

The man went still. “Keep talkin’.”

Chase smiled inwardly. Good. This fool doesn’t know things got too hot for Butch and he’s headed east.

“I gotta lie low till things cool off in Montana,” he went on. “Butch says the Frank Jones gang is holed up here in the Cypress Hills. Frank's looking for a quick gun. Can you take me to him?” With a little luck, you'll lead me straight to Jones. Or better yet, Billy. Thieves tend to hang together.

“Why should I trust yuh?”

“Guess you're gonna have to trust me…like I trust you.”

The man snorted and whistled. “Fang,” he called out.

A wolf-like dog materialized from the darkness. Firelight gleamed on its shaggy gray fur and glittered in its pale eyes. The creature stopped in front of Chase and growled.

“Aptly named,” Chase muttered, his gaze riveted on the animal's sharp teeth.

The outlaw jerked his rifle at the flames. “Douse it.”

Warily, Chase bent and dumped his coffee pot. The fire sizzled, sputtered, and died. A plume of acrid smoke spiraled into the air, lighting a spark in the dry grass. The man stomped it into the ground. Interesting. Most outlaws wouldn’t give a damn.

“Call yer horse.” The outlaw picked up Chase's gun belt.

Chase smiled grimly. Somehow, I’ll get my guns back. And I’ll get you, too.

If his hunch was right, he was close to capturing Billy Cranston. Hell, the reward alone for recovering the robbery will put Big Jake back on his feet.

Chase whistled. A few moments later his big black trotted into view. The outlaw reached out and snagged the dragging reins, all the while speaking in a soothing voice too low for Chase to make out. Slowly, he extended his hand to the horse. Blaze snuffled the man's palm, then with a little nudge, allowed his nose to be rubbed.

Chase’s eyebrows shot up. You damn traitor. No rations for you.

With careful movements, the man removed Chase's rifle from its holder. He gestured with it. “Walk.”

Huh? Why not shoot me and take Blaze? “What do you want from me?”

“Shuddup. Walk.”

Sunburned grass whispered against his boots as Chase was ordered north toward the stretch of dense forest the Blackfoot called The-Thunder-Breeding-Hills. Full moonlight flooded this stretch of flat prairie sparsely dotted with pines. In the distance spanning east and west, the dense forest lurked, holding in its secrets. Any thought of making a run for it was hampered by the mongrel padding so close that the heat from his breath fanned Chase's leg. Nearby, an owl swooped from a cluster of pines and captured its prey in an explosion of squeaks.

The outlaw was nobody's fool and kept back a safe distance, holding onto the reins as Blaze plodded beside him, the well-oiled saddle creaking rhythmically. His voice suited a bigger man and he was clean, no stench of sweat on the breeze. Not your run-of-the-mill outlaw.

“Have you been with Jones long?” Chase said.


Real friendly, too.

They'd walked about fifty yards when the outlaw let out a low whistle. A horse whinnied. Chase glanced back. A dark horse emerged from a shallow gully screened by tall bushes. It trotted over and nudged the man's shoulder. Speaking softly, the outlaw patted his mount's neck, swung easily into the saddle and again pointed his rifle at Chase. “Mount. No tricks.”

Cunning bastard. Chase was glad he’d first stopped at the fort to identify himself and state he was here to recapture Billy Cranston. The major had mentioned there had been reports of ranchers missing cattle, but the hilly area was too big and the border to Montana too close for the small detachment to patrol. Chase had a strong hunch Billy was behind the rustling.










  1. What an extraordinary life! And I get the feeling that there were a few more extraordinary moments hidden away, which he hoped would never be told, by concealing his real background and past. Thanks for a very interesting read.

    1. I wanted to post some of his amazing drawings but for some reason I couldn't upload them into the blog, so I hope interested people will check him out. He so badly wanted to be known as a cowboy and I'm sure that's why he took on an alias and fabricated the French-Canadian origins of his birth because it didn't fit with the image of a cowboy. It was so interesting to read about him. Thank you for stopping by, Christine.

  2. As it so often happens with multi-talented creatives, they have a complicated backstory. Will James certainly lived a life of adventure, success, and dark pitfalls. It is amazing that a man who aspired to be a cowboy ended up an artist and a writer of note.
    What a shame his run in with the law led him to choose a new identity. I think people would have forgiven his crime since he paid for his indiscretion. I wonder what ever happened to the other guy involved in that theft.
    I was hoping you might have some of the artwork from Will James because I don't think I've ever seen it. Until now I had never heard of him.
    I have the "Moon" trilogy and have read the first book so far which I liked very much.
    Great post, Elizabeth.

    1. Will James was so gifted, both as an artist and a storyteller. The action in his sketches are amazing. He was quoted as saying he wanted people to "feel" what it was like riding a bronco. If you watch the video, there are some illustrations shown on camera from his book, Smoky the Cowhorse. I would love to buy that book. I never found further information about his partner in crime, but assume he drew suspicion at the stockyards and was arrested, too, and spilled the beans on James. Like so many creative people, it was sad to see this gifted man sink into alcoholism. I believe the devils that drove him to drink were a result of concealing his true heritage. All those deceptions and angst took its toll. Thank you for stopping by, Sarah. And I'm so glad you are enjoying my trilogy. Jolene and Mike's story has quite a different "feel" to it from Sarah and Chase's story. I have to smile...'oh the webs we weave when we first practice to deceive'.

  3. You learn such a lot on this blog! Never knew about Will James and his story is both intriguing and sad.
    I felt to be right with Chase in your tense exerpt, Elizabeth, thank you

  4. Lindsay, I replied to your post, but don't know why it went off into Cyberland. Will James was an amazing artist. He focussed more on the "feel" of riding a bronc rather than true accuracy, but you can feel the "movement" just be looking at his drawings. I wanted to post a couple of sketches but the blog just wouldn't allow me to, so I hope you'll check him out on-line. So glad you like my excerpt. I always try to tie in an excerpt with the subject of my blog. Thanks for stopping by, Lindsay. I admire your medieval writing.