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Will James: The Early Years

The man the world came to know as Will James was born Joseph-Ernest-Nephtali Dufault on June 6, 1892, at St. Nazaire de Acton in Quebec, Canada.

DuFault Family
[The Dufault family. Joseph Dufault/Will James sits by his father. UNRS P2270-21]

In 1907, at age fifteen, Dufault left home for the Canadian West and then escaped to the American West after a scrape with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. There he became a cowhand, erasing his past and fabricating the childhood narrative he would carry for the rest of his life.

Cow CampYoung Will James
[Young Will James:Portrait (UNRS P2000-06-347, left) and 15-year-old James at a cow camp in Alberta (UNRS P2270-64, right).]

Dufault changed his name to William Roderick James and invented a life story in which he was born in the West, orphaned, and raised by a French trapper. James attached great significance to his supposed birth in the West, using that "fact" to justify his unique legitimacy to document his experience and image of life on the range through his art and writing.

Cheer of Home Fires
[Will James Illustration: Cheer of Home Fires Not For Wanted. Papers of Will James, Collection No. NC579, Series 8: Art work of Will James]

Despite his true origins in the East, the real story of James's early life—in which he headed west at the age of fifteen with nothing but a spirit of adventure and ten dollars in his pocket—is no less fascinating than the one he invented, nor any less guided by love for the West. He roamed the West as a young man, working as a cowboy.

[Cowboys feeding cattle on the range. UNRS P2270-37]

In 1914, James was accused of rustling cattle belonging to the Swallow brothers' ranch in Nevada. He was convicted of grand larceny in Ely, Nevada and sentenced to the Nevada State Prison at Carson City for a year to fifteen months.

Mug Shot
[Will James's prison mug shots. UNRS P2270-2]

Before going to prison, James already had a reputation as "the cowpuncher who drew pictures of bucking horses and ranch scenes which sometimes covered entire walls of ranch and bunk houses." During his prison term, he continued sketching, and his reputation as an artist grew as he gave his drawings away to everyone around him.

[Description of Prisoners Received in the Nevada State Prison for Will James. Papers of Will James, Collection No. NC579, Series 3: Legal Documents]

James's art from his time in prison conveys a sense of the future as an artist he hoped to create for himself after prison, and in fact was an element in his letters asking for parole (which he was granted a month before the end of his sentence). His prison term was a turning point in his life, and the dreams that he put down on paper through his prison sketches were realized as he became one of the best known Western writers and artists over the years to come.

Turning Point
[Original Will James pencil sketch: The Turning Point. Papers of Will James, Collection No. NC579, Series 8: Art work of Will James]