Do you recognize this man? Does the name Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault ring a bell with anyone out there? Probably not…but cowboy artist and author Will James is probably familiar to you. James was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, in 1892 in the small municipality of Saint-Nazaire-d’Acton, Quebec, Canada. He worked as a cowboy in western Canada as a teenager, and moved to the United States in 1910 under a newly assumed name: William Roderick James. While working in Nevada, he was arrested for cattle rustling, and served time at the Nevada State Prison, taking care of the facility’s horses (1915-1916). He then moved on to serving in the U.S. Army, and also worked as a stunt man in western movies. In 1920 he married Alice Conradt, a native of Reno, Nevada.
James’ life as a horse wrangler and cowboy in the American West inspired authenticity in his sketches and stories; Alice encouraged him to put his writing and art talents to work to help earn them a better living. He began selling his sketches and sold his first writing, Bucking Horse Riders, in 1922. His short stories began to appear in national magazines like Red Book, Saturday Evening Post, and Scribner’s Magazine. In 1924 Charles Scribner’s Sons took seven of James’ stories first published in its magazine division, along with one published in the Saturday Evening Post, and produced his first book, Cowboys North and South. James had become a recognized writer, allowing him and his wife to buy a small ranch in Nevada where he wrote Smoky, the Cow Horse and some of his other best work.
His most famous book, Smoky, the Cow Horse, was first published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in September of 1926, and has become rare and collectible. Written partially from the horse’s point of view and illustrated by the author, it won the Newbery Medal Award for children’s literature in 1927, rapidly went into multiple printings, and has been in print by various publishers ever since. The book was adapted to film several times; Will James himself narrated the 1933 movie version. It was filmed again in 1946 by Twentieth Century Fox and starred Fred MacMurray; Arcola Pictures brought it back to the screen in 1966 starring Fess Parker.
His fictionalized autobiography, Lone Cowboy, was published in 1930; it was adapted to a movie in 1971 starring Gregory Peck and titled Shoot Out. The book became a bestselling Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Scribner’s published twenty-seven of James’ written and illustrated books. His last book, The American Cowboy, was published in 1942, the year of his death. In 1991, Will James was named a member of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.
For a complete bibliography, visit University of Nevada – Reno’s webpage
or obtain a copy of:
Don Frazier. The Will James Books: A Descriptive Bibliography for Enthusiasts and Collectors. Repr., Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 1999.
The Will James Society, which is “Dedicated to preserving the works and memory of the great Western author and artist” is headquartered in Billings, Montana, where James lived for many years.
Today Will James is revered as much for his art as for his stories. The largest public collection of James’ writings, drawings, paintings and personal effects is at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana, where James had a ranch.
THE WILL JAMES SOCIETY
Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center · University of Nevada, Reno
All book photos from Old Scrolls Book Shop