J.R. Williams must have confounded the cowboys who read his one-panel cartoons from the 1920s through the 1950s. By that time, Charlie Russell was long gone, and the misrepresentation of the authentic cowboy in mainstream culture was hitting high gear. Though lionized in dime novels and Hollywood Westerns, the realities of being a day-wage hand on a ranch rarely saw the light of day in pop culture.
J.R. Williams’ “Out Our Way” cartoons were the exception. Williams’ drawings revealed an accurate picture of the life of a ranch hand in a humorous, poignant, and even philosophical way. But what must have left cowboys scratching their heads was seeing Williams’ other cartoons of urban dwellers and workers. How could anyone so adept at capturing the spirit of Arizona ranch culture capture the spirit of a Detroit machine shop just as well?
Williams, like many great Westerners, was born in the East, Nova Scotia, in 1888. As an infant, his family moved to Detroit. After fifth grade, he dropped out of school to become a machinist’s apprentice, but the lure of the West called and he left, first becoming a mule skinner in Arkansas, and later a cowboy in the Indian Territory. He bounced back East, shoveling coal on a railroad, had a two-year stint in the U.S. Cavalry, boxed, and gave tattoos. Along the way, he met and married Lida Keith, and went back to Michigan to settle down and work in a machine shop.
All along, he drew cartoons, and did his best to sell them. In 1922, the Newspaper Enterprise Association finally took notice. At its peak, “Out Our Way” was syndicated in 700 newspapers across the country. In his 35-year career, Williams penned nearly 10,000 cartoons and at one point it was estimated that his work was seen by 56 million readers weekly. He worked until his death in 1957.
From his work, it’s clear that Williams was a keen observer of humanity, from the trappings and dress of a particular subculture to their manners of speaking, points of etiquette, and ways of looking at the world. From horse wrecks to bunkhouse antics, Williams’ take on the cowboy was spot-on.
Larry McMurtry, in a footnote of his book, In a Narrow Grave, wrote, “With Teddy Blue (We Pointed Them North), Haley’s biography of Goodnight (Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman), Erwin Smith’s book of range photographs (Life on the Texas Range) and a volume of J.R. Williams’ cowboy cartoons, one can figure out just about anything one might need to know about the nineteenth century cowboy.”
The cowboy lifestyle called Williams so strongly, in fact, that after his ship came in in1930, he bought a 45,000-acre spread in Prescott, Ariz. His most vibrant cowboy-themed work came during his time on the ranch, but his family wasn’t comfortable there. In 1940, he sold the ranch and permanently settled in Southern California. He never lost his cowboy soul, though.
Algrove Publishing has compiled much of his cowboy work into a four-volume collection and also sells his Bull of the Woods and U.S. Cavalry-themed work.