Cactus Cowboys

I don’t know why J. R. Williams didn’t get a Pulitzer because he came out of the same cartoon mould as Bill Maudlin who received two. For three decades Williams drew a cartoon a day and was syndicated in more than 700 newspapers at his peak.

He was born in 1888 and by 1930 he had 40,000,000 readers. Many of his cartoons later were published in book form, the main titles being: Bull Of The Woods, Out Our Way, Kids Out Our Way, Cowboys Out Our Way, Why Mothers Get Gray and Born Thirty Years Too Soon, and by my count they were reprinted a total of sixty times before he died in 1957.

Williams was most productive during the 1940s when words in the west still were country-spoken and experience was protection. He owned a 45,000 acre ranch near Prescott and knew the lingo of the land. His drawings conveyed a timeless message in a nostalgic way that didn’t need underlining. Most of his cowboy characters, like Curly, Wes, Stiffy and Big Ick had their cow senses honed in tough places where social crops were not yet planted and the easy life was a distant dream.


In the Williams cartoon titled The Rusty King, J. Frank Dobie noted that the king was wearing shoes instead of boots, and was smoking a pipe, a depiction past the stretch where modern cowboy artists might feel at ease. There was no reason for him to imitate a cowboy, he was one. “The ignominious mare he straddles has cholla joints in her tail and is asleep on one hip while he sits sizing up a bunch of cattle that only cow people can see.”

Williams left school at age fifteen and once took a short course in drawing. Guess it didn’t hurt him none.

Chris Claflin