Will James was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault on June 6, 1892, in a small town in Quebec, Canada. Infatuated with cowboys from an early age, he left home at 15 and did some wrangling in Western Canada before heading across the border in 1911 to find ranch work in the United States.
There, he changed his name to William Roderick James—a name more befitting a cowboy, he thought—and fabricated his life story, claiming to be born in Montana. It was an alias he maintained the rest of his life.
James moved from outfit to outfit until 1914, when he was arrested for cattle rustling in Ely, Nev., and sentenced to Nevada State Prison at Carson City. There, he took care of the prison’s horses and used the solitude of his cell to hone his artistic and writing talents, primarily sketching horses and scenes from the range. He was released just shy of serving his full sentence of 15 months.
A true drifter, James moved from town to town, job to job. Wherever he was, though, he documented his experience with artwork and stories, often sketching on paper scraps and bunkhouse walls. In 1919, he turned professional when he was paid $50 for a sketch used on posters for the Nevada Round-Up in Reno. The next year, he married Alice Conradt.
More commissions followed, and the gritty authenticity and accuracy of his depictions of Western life garnered quite a following. James and his wife were soon able to buy a small ranch in Washoe Valley, Nev., where he wrote his most famous book, Smoky the Cowhorse (1926). Smoky went on to win the Newbery Medal for children’s literature, enjoyed several film adaptations, and ensured that generations of children would fall in love with the West.
Soon after Smoky, James bought a ranch in Montana and continued to write prolifically, including his fictionalized autobiography Lone Cowboy (1930). He became increasingly popular throughout the 1930s, but the pressures of his mounting celebrity, in addition to keeping his true identity secret, led to binge drinking and eventually alcoholism. He divorced in 1935, lost his Montana ranch to creditors, and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1942. It wasn’t until 1967, when biographer Anthony Amaral discovered discrepancies in James’ will, that James’ true identity was revealed.
In all, James wrote and illustrated 23 books, each a panegyric to the West. Shortly before his death, he wrote his last book, The American Cowboy. The last line written was, “The cowboy will never die.”