In 1919, a local cowboy who had once done time in Nevada State Prison for cattle rustling, was paid the princely sum of $20 to create artwork that could be used to help promote the first Reno Rodeo.

The artist happily accepted the money and it marked the first commercial sale of artwork for Will James. He would go on to write and illustrate more than 20 books and numerous magazine articles, becoming one of the country's best-known and best-loved western authors and artists.

His artwork graced the covers of early Reno Rodeo programs and remains much coveted today, more than 80 years after his death in 1942.
James as a young man and worked as a cowboy on ranches in the American West. His experiences as a cowboy inspired him to start drawing and writing about the lifestyle and culture of cowboys.

James's works are notable for their realism and attention to detail, as he drew from his personal experiences as a cowboy.

His drawings and illustrations, as well as his books, depicted the daily life of cowboys, including their work, leisure, and relationships with horses and cattle. James's works are considered some of the most authentic depictions of the cowboy lifestyle.
According records, he went to prison in 1914 for cattle rustling and spent 18 months in the Nevada State Penitentiary. This first extended period of thinking helped encourage his concentration on drawing.

James wasn’t born in Montana as he told his jailers in Nevada. In fact, he wasn’t a Westerner at all, or a U.S. citizen, or even a native English speaker.

Will James was baptized Joseph-Ernest-Nephtali Dufault in French-speaking Saint-Nazaire-d’Acton, Quebec, Canada in 1892, where his father was a merchant.

The truth about him was revealed twenty years after his death by his biographer, Anthony Amaral.

James left home at age fifteen and headed West, first to Saskatchewan, then Montana. He was indeed a cowboy and was a popular and cheerful camp mate and a gifted story teller around the evening camp fires. His cronies affectionately called him "Windy Bill" for his talkativeness and ability to spin a yarn.
Drafted into the Army during World War I, James served as a mounted scout with the 21rst Infantry Regiment along the California - Mexican border. His discharge in 1919 brought him American citizenship.

He returned to his cowboy lifestyle but received a near fatal head injury after being thrown by a wild horse just outside of Reno, Nevada.

In 1919 he determined he would give up cowboy life and become a professional artist. In San Francisco he quickly gained success with Sunset Magazine and was first published in January 1920.
In 1991 Will James was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. His third published book, Smoky the Cow Horse, won the coveted Newberry Medal for Children’s Literature in 1927.

Smoky the Cow Horse was made into a movie in 1933 starring Victor Jory, 1946 starring Fred MacMurray and 1966 starring Fess Parker. The 1933 movie was narrated by Will James.

Will James was living and writing in a cottage on the Godshall Ranch in Victorville, California when he passed on September 3, 1942.