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Will James and the West: Life and Art of a "Lone Cowboy"

Will James Portrait

Will James, cowboy, cattle rustler, and beloved author and artist of the American West, was born Joseph-Ernest Dufault on June 6, 1892, at St. Nazaire de Acton in Quebec, Canada. He came West in 1907 at the age of fifteen, becoming a cowhand and changing his name to William Roderick James. James showed artistic talent from an early age, and gained a reputation for his sketches of life on the range long before publishing his first work.

A turning point in James’s early life came in 1914, when he was accused of rustling cattle in Ely, Nevada and sentenced to the Nevada State Prison at Carson City for a year to fifteen months. During his prison term, he turned to his art for solace, and after his release he became one of the best known Western writers and artists. Between 1920 and his death in 1942, he wrote and illustrated more than twenty books and numerous magazine articles.

James was not without contradictions, both as an artist and as a person. Some criticized as contrived what he defended as an authentic cowboy element in his artistic and literary style. James also created an embellished narrative of his life based on his supposed birth in the West, while hiding his actual roots from everyone around him. Regardless, his authentic love and respect for the West speaks clearly through his work, as does the talent with which he documented what he saw around him.