“One day I was speeding along at the typewriter, and my daughter – who was a child at the time – asked me, ‘Daddy, why are you writing so fast?’ And I replied, ‘Because I want to see how the story turns out!’” ~ Louis L’Amour
The life of one of the most beloved writers of all time was as full of adventure and as many exciting people as the characters he created. Louis grew up in North Dakota. His grandfather came to live in a cabin on the family’s property and Louis loved listening to his stories of the old west. Ironically, the Indians his grandfather once fought came to visit regularly, adding to the wealth of stories, until his grandfather’s death. After the economy of the upper Midwest collapsed, Dr. LaMoore, his wife Emily, and their sons Louis and John traveled across the country for seven years. Louis skinned cattle in west Texas, baled hay in the Pecos Valley of New Mexico, and worked in the mines of Arizona, California and Nevada. He labored in the sawmills and lumberyards of Oregon and Washington.
Louis’s biography states that it was during his travels that he met the wide variety of characters that would later become the inspiration for his writing. “In Oklahoma they were men like Bill Tilghman, once the marshal of Dodge City; Chris Madsen who had been a Deputy U.S. Marshall and a Sergeant with the 5th cavalry; and Emmett Dalton of the notorious Dalton Gang. In New Mexico he met George Coe and Deluvina Maxwell who had both known Billy the Kid; Tom Pickett who’d had a thumb shot off in the Lincoln County War; Tom Threepersons who had been both a Northwest Mounted Policeman and a Texas Ranger; and Elfagio Baca, a famous New Mexico lawyer who had once engaged over eighty of Tom Slaughter’s cowboys for 33 hours in one of the west’s most famous gunfights.
During his years in Arizona, Louis met Jeff Milton, a Texas Ranger and Border Patrolman and Jim Roberts, the last survivor of the Tonto Basin War. But perhaps most importantly, during the years he was traveling around the country, young Louis met hundreds of men and women who, though unknown historically, were equally important as examples of what the people of the nineteenth century were like.”
After the family left Jamestown, Louis became a professional boxer, winning nearly every match and later making money in prizefights. He became a trainer, where he saw the world of fighters, managers, gangsters and gamblers firsthand. He coached several successful Golden Gloves teams and eventually drew from his experiences for many of the boxing stories in his collections.
Later, Louis hoboed across the country, hopping freight trains with men who had been riding the rails for half a century. Recently, while researching my current book. I ran across the term ‘hobo’, a name the men who worked their way across the country gave themselves. These traveling workers were the backbone of our country’s expansion. As they drove spikes, felled trees and harvested crops, the working conditions were often terrible. Louis wrapped newspaper under his clothes to keep warm while sleeping in hobo jungles, grain bins and the gaps in piles of lumber.
His biography says he spent three months on the beach in San Pedro, California and circled the globe as a merchant seaman, visiting England, Japan, China, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, Arabia, Egypt, and Panama, along with the rough and ready crews of various steamships on which he served. In later years, he wrote stories about these times, his own experiences and those of people he had known. Many of these stories were published in collections.
Traveling around the country and working in various remote locations gave Louis an intimate first-hand knowledge of the territory and landscape where the majority of his stories would be set. He hiked through the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, the South Pass area of Wyoming, the boot heel of New Mexico, and the Utah Canyon Lands, to name only a few of the places which would later become the settings for his books. It’s no wonder his stories are rich in character and setting, for he must have been a keen observer of life and locales. In an interview I watched, he claimed to love the mountains and the deserts equally, appreciating our country’s vastness and beauty.
WWII interrupted his writing. Afterward, with many short stories and a few adventure novels published, he attended a party where an editor told him they needed westerns and suggested Louis write one. Louis created Chick Beaudry and wrote Guns of the Timberlands. Louis studied diaries, journals and newspapers of the times, often taking stories right from diaries and always making history and people authentic.
In 1959 Louis L’Amour wrote The Daybreakers, his first novel about his fictional Sackett family. It chronicled the story of two brothers moving west to escape the feuding and poverty of the Tennessee Mountains. They join one of the first cattle drives to Kansas, seek their fortunes on the southern plains, and finally settle in Mora, New Mexico. As they explore the landscape of the west, they learn the cost of friendship, love, and the value of education.
The Daybreakers stands out as one of Louis’ finest novels and was one of his personal favorites. It spans a great deal of western history, from the early cattle drives to the legal battles and racial tension over land distribution in early New Mexico Territory. The Daybreakers also includes some of L’Amour’s greatest characters; the hard bitten Tyrell Sackett and his all too affable older brother Orrin; Tom Sunday, the powerful man who starts as their mentor only to become consumed with hatred and jealousy; the scheming Jonathan Pritts and his lovely daughter Laura, soon to become Laura Sackett; Don Luis, the embattled owner of the Alvarado Land Grant and his feuding lieutenants Juan Torres and Chico Cruz. Amazingly, there are nineteen Sackett stories.
At the time he sold his first westerns, they were not considered literature, and paperbacks were not regarded with any respect, but he defied the norm, writing about something he loved to become a national phenomenon. In 1982 he became the first novelist in American history to receive a Congressional Gold Medal, and less than two years later he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1981 he jumped to being a #1 New York Times Hardback Bestseller. After reading all his books in paperback, I later acquired a collection in leather-bound hardcover – they hold a proud place on my bookshelves.
Louis was one of the first authors to ever have his own section in the stores. He wrote a total of 120 books. All are still in print, and all are still selling. One hundred of his books have sold at least one million copies. There are twenty-eight movies credited to his talented imagination, including The Shadow Riders, The Sacketts, Crossfire Trail and The Quick and the Dead. For television, he’s credited with an episode of Maverick, one of Sugarfoot, ten episodes of Hondo and several Disney programs. Was Mr. L’Amour an amazing man, or what?
“What is attractive to people reading this kind of book is the idea of the freedom of the Western man, getting on a horse and moving on somewhere else. We all have dreams of wanting to be this kind of a free agent. To me there was no period in the world’s history that is so fascinating as the era in which the American West was opening up. And these old characters were tough. If you didn’t shoot them they lived forever.” ~ Louis L’Amour
The Louis L’Amour website is a font of information about this fascinating and gifted man. I recommend checking it out to learn more about his life and his books. You can watch videos, hear interviews, see photos, learn character family trees, read behind the scenes stories, plus more. http://www.louislamour.com/
One of the videos shows him typing with two index fingers! I got a kick out of that, but the thing that really stands out to me when I read about him is the love he had for writing. He took true pleasure in his craft. Perhaps that’s why his stories have brought reading pleasure to generations of western fans. Have you read any of his books? If not, have I enticed you to give them a try?
I’ll bet you can’t read just one.