As a kid, I wanted to be a cowboy. That seems desperately old-fashioned, but as a suburban adolescent I yearned for that simple and passionate life, riding rimrock country on a trusted horse, amongst sagebrush and arroyo. While my contemporaries built youthful fantasies around Superman and GI Joe, mine were drawn from my father’s bookshelf, where I found Western novels, including those of the artist and writer, Will James.
Immensely popular in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, James was a folk hero to my father’s generation. He was not an author who chanced to write about cowboys; instead, he cowboyed, and then wrote it down. His heartland was the open range, and his twenty-six novels contain glorious sketches and paintings of wild mustangs, lone horsemen, and sagebrush. I fell headlong into his book Smoky, written in 1926, as well as The Lone Cowboy, penned in 1930.
In time I woke from my cowboy dream, lost track of the novels, and forgot about Will James for about forty years, until a meandering journey to Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park brought it all back again. The trip was a quest to understand the core elements of that part real, part mythical region we know as the West. The Park seemed an excellent place to start.
Well off Canada’s Highway One and near the small community of Val Marie, the Park was created in 1988 to represent the Canadian prairie biome. The solitude and spectacular ecology of Grasslands make it a haven for seekers, romantics and avoiders of the beaten tourist track. If you chose Grasslands as the spiritual heart of the Canadian West, you wouldn’t be far wrong.
Walking the Park’s interpretive trail above the historic Frenchman River, with Seventy-Mile Butte in the distance, I was struck by an intriguing sense of déjà vu. What was it about the subdued pastels of grass, rimrock and badland, the endless horizontal vistas under a dome of prairie sky, that made them so familiar? A subsequent tour of the local historical museum gave me the answer: the paintings of Will James.
My western quest had taken a sudden new turn. Returning home, I searched out the old novels and began to research my forgotten childhood hero. A truly amazing story emerged.
Will James was actually Ernest Dufault, born in St. Nazaire, in the Province of Quebec, in 1892. He too was smitten by the cowboy life, and spent all his spare time dreaming about and sketching imagined life in the West. Leaving his home at the tender age of fifteen, he got off the train in Saskatchewan, and began working on cattle ranches in the wild south country. His learning curve was enormous: within two years, the young Ernest had mastered English, horseback riding and cowpunching. And he continued to sketch, on envelopes, bunkhouse walls, on anything he could lay his hands on. Horses dominated his art, and that love affair would continue to for all of his short life. Slowly, young Dufault began to invent his own western image, both in his mind and on sketch paper; ten gallon hat, black vest, scarf knotted around the neck, pointed boots, pant cuffs turned up, a Bull Durham roll-your-own held casually in the side of the mouth. Always mounted on a horse, or standing next to one. With jet-black hair, hawk nose and chiselled features, this young man was as handsome in real life as he was in his self-portraits.
Name has much to do with image, and during this time Ernest began experimenting with anglo, western-sounding handles for himself, eventually settling on the monosyllabic Will James. That was a prophetic early step along a journey towards fame, fortune, and an early death.
As I researched further, I found references to Ernest Dufault/Will James popping up in various Canadian prairie communities during his six-year stay in Western Canada. One of his trademarks was to leave a signed and dated sketch or photograph of himself wherever he went. These artifacts, together with local histories and rancher accounts, have him passing through or working in communities like Maple Creek, Ravenscrag, and Gull Lake as well as Val Marie. A sole postcard the young man sent to his family was postmarked at Sage Creek, in the isolated Milk River country of southern Alberta.
As he drifted from one ranch to another, Ernest found an older mentor in Pierre Beaupre, a fellow Quebecois, who helped him learn English and the ways of the Western cowboy. In 1911 they filed adjacent homestead claims in what would become the Grasslands Park, nearly a century later. “Bopy,” as Will affectionately called him, was to become a seminal figure in James’ autobiographical novel, the Lone Cowboy.
A scrape with the law followed by a stint in the Maple Creek jail nourished James’ fugitive tendencies. Upon being released he fled south across the Montana border, leaving literally everything behind–his homestead claim, his partner, his family ties, his real name and his Canadian identity. He was now fully remade as Will James, Montana cowpuncher, rodeo rider, storyteller and itinerant artist. Legend has it that James met the great cowboy painter Charles M. Russell, who encouraged him in his work and got him started writing his stories down. Those early works came to the attention of the popular New York magazine Sunset, and soon Eastern readers were devouring James’ short stories and sketches.
Will James literally embraced the American West, cowboying and rodeoing through Montana, Utah and Nevada, working as a stunt rider in Hollywood, sketching, and writing everything down. He saw himself as indestructible, but bronc riding and a habit of binge drinking were taking their toll. His marriage to Alice Conradt, daughter of a wealthy Reno ranching family, brought some temporary stability to his life, and his stories lengthened into novels. These were wildly successful: Smoky, The Lone Cowboy and several others were bestsellers, reprinted over and over again.
All the James books are written in a slangy western vernacular which now seems dated and a bit silly, but which captivated readers at the time. They held particular appeal to boys, and my father admitted to being under the James spell as an adolescent, just as I was. This speaks to the power of myth, as it passes unchanged from one generation to the next.
America in the 1930’s was a nation undergoing rapid urbanization and industrialization, but Will James’ novels reflect none of that. They were about frontier: cities, factories, even automobiles found no place in the James books, and that was part of the secret of their success. In spite its passionate embrace of the Machine Age, American identity was still rooted in the rugged, independent frontier cowboy, and James reinforced that belief. Writing about an unfenced, free-range ranching lifestyle that was largely gone, Will James gave Eastern factory workers, straphangers and intellectuals alike the opportunity to fantasize that era back to imaginary life.
The Lone Cowboy, James’ “autobiography,” is a fascinating fabrication. In it he makes no mention of his Quebec roots, offering instead this fantasy origin: born on a remote Montana cattle ranch, both Will’s parents are killed in an accident when he is a child. He is subsequently adopted and raised by the French-Canadian cowhand Bopy. Later on, Bopy drowns in an ice-filled Montana river. This clever fabrication provides a logical explanation for Will’s lifelong French accent, while at the same time eliminating any possibility for story verification. All possible loose ends in the Lone Cowboy have been carefully snipped off.
Will’s newfound celebrity status was both a blessing and a curse. Book royalties allowed him to buy a Montana cattle ranch that was to be a romantic haven for himself and Alice. He landed movie contracts for both Smoky and the Lone Cowboy, but was soon shut out of any significant role in either film because of his drinking habits. With fame came increased scrutiny, and people began to question the gaps and inconsistencies in Will’s life story. Like his famous contemporary Grey Owl (real name Archie Belaney), he lived an elaborate lie. The resulting psychological pressure on James was enormous. Paranoid about having his real origins discovered, he swore his Quebec family to absolute secrecy, and then cut all ties with them. Not even his wife knew the true story. An obvious outlet for all this pressure was booze, which his celebrity status provided him with in abundance. Will’s binges and blackouts became more and more common, and his artistic output finally ceased altogether. When he died at age 50 of cirrhosis of the liver, the world lost a mythic—and tragic–hero.
I still have my father’s well-thumbed copy of Smoky, which was given to him by an aunt in 1929, when he was eleven. The book now occupies a proud place on my bookshelf, and serves to remind me of that adolescent dream. Although I never became a cowboy, my life has been somehow tied to grassland, sagebrush, badland and butte. Will James had something to do with that.
(A previous version of this article was published in Western Living magazine.)