Will James

This post highlights the life and work of artist Will James, the famous author of Smoky the Cow Horse. I had the rare opportunity to see a self portrait that James painted on the wall of a remote cabin in the mountains of New Mexico and that sparked my interest in his life and work.

Down The Road with the Original Buffalo Dale

Welcome back.  After a recent excursion to a remote cowboy cabin located in the mountains at an altitude of 10,000 feet on Waite Phillips beloved UU Bar Ranch outside of Cimarron, New Mexico, I became interested in the life of Will James. James was a cowboy who had worked cattle on the ranch at one time and he had stayed in the cabin with other hands. A large self portrait that he drew on one of the inside walls was proof that he had in fact been there, along with other men some of whom simply carved their names on the surrounding timbers. “Chope Phillips 1939” is clearly engraved on the inside of the door as were the names and dates of others who are now just memories to everyone except the occasional guest at this historic cabin which was built in the days of the real cowboys.  There is no electric or running water here and at this altitude summers are short and winters are tough. My guide told me that 60 foot drifts are not unusual but no one stays up here in the winter except for hunters and at times the remote cabin on this part of the ranch can be completely inaccessible. I was also told that this rugged area is used for troop training by our armed forces because it resembles the mountainous terrain in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The ranch contains literally thousands of acres that are untouched by mankind and will probably never be developed in our lifetime.

Now that you have the setting back to just who was Will James?

According to the Will James Society, Will was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault in 1892 in Saint- Nazaire -d’Acton, Quebec, Canada. As a small child he began drawing on the floors of the family home but he always wanted to be a cowboy. When he was grown he moved to the western province of Saskatchewan where he learned to be a western cowboy but around 1910 he was accused of stealing cattle and fled to the United States.

In the states he changed his name to William Roderick James and began drifting from ranch to ranch doing cowboy work. After a brief time in jail for cattle rustling he found work as a movie stuntman and then enlisted in the U.S. Army from 1918-1919. Throughout these years he continued to draw and also to write about his experiences.

His first book, Bucking Horse Riders was published in 1922 and it was followed by several short stories and books, giving him enough money to buy a small ranch of his own and concentrate on writing and drawing full time. His most famous book, Smokey the Cow Horse was published in 1926 and three film versions were made of the story.

James also wrote a fictionalized autobiography, Lone Cowboy in 1930 which became a Book-of-the Month Club bestseller. His last book The American Cowboy came out in 1942, the same year he died in Hollywood, CA. In all James wrote and illustrated 23 books about the west and ranch life.

Till next week I’ll see ya down the road….



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