Louis L’amour was more than just a prolific writer of Western novels. He was a boxer, a hobo, a round the world traveler, a merchant seaman, a soldier and a vagabond.
Louis Dearborn LaMoore, better known as Louis L’amour was born in Jamestown, North Dakota, in 1908. He was the seventh child of Dr. Louis Charles LaMoore and Emily Dearborn LaMoore. He was of French and Irish ancestry and the son of a large-animal veterinarian, local politician and farm-equipment broker who had arrived in Dakota Territory in 1882.
The area around Jamestown was mostly farm land but cowboys and livestock often traveled through Jamestown on their way to or from ranches in Montana and the markets to the east. Like most future writers, L’amour spent plenty of his boyhood free time at the local library reading, particularly G. A. Henty, a British author of historical boys’ novels during the late nineteenth century. L’Amour once said, “[Henty’s works] enabled me to go into school with a great deal of knowledge that even my teachers didn’t have about wars and politics.” In addition to history and the natural sciences, the young Louis was captivated by the fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs and others … letting them carry him away to the south seas, the gold fields of the Yukon, the Spanish Main, the center of the earth and the dying red planet of Mars.
In 1923 the family fell on hard times and over the next seven or eight years, they skinned cattle in west Texas, baled hay in the Pecos Valley of New Mexico, worked in the mines of Arizona, California and Nevada, and in the saw mills and lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest. It was in colorful places like these that Louis met a wide variety of people, upon whom he later modeled the characters in his novels, many of them actual Old West personalities who had survived into the nineteen-twenties and -thirties.In Oklahoma he met Bill Tilghman, once the marshal of Dodge City; Chris Madsen who had been a Deputy U.S. Marshall and a Sargent 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 and later Marshall of Jerome. 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.
While still only a teenager, he set out on a journey which took him around the world (you can find out more about it and see plenty of photos at www.louislamourgreatadventure.com/. It was a ten month vagabond adventure that was to shape the rest of his life. He hoped to create a series of stories that would document these times because, even as he experienced them, they were fading. The free, wandering, days of the hobo disappeared with the financial pressure of the depression and, as the world responded to the growing tensions that led to World War Two, customs and immigration officers began cracking down on all travelers. The sense that the world was full of unknown possibilities was vanishing as telegraph and telephone, radio, fast steam ships, and aircraft shrank people’s sense of the world and brought the most remote corners under the supervision of control mad governments. He circled the globe as a merchant seaman, visiting England, Japan, China, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, Arabia, Egypt, and Panama with the rough and ready crews of various steamships on which he served.
Ultimately, Louis wrote about a world in transition, not a place where anything was possible but a place where the last things were possible, a world that was becoming the world we know now. Like the old west that he would eventually write about, Louis was around at a time when he could experience the last vestiges of a vanishing age and meet the people who had been a part of that age in its prime.
Back in the USA, he hoboed across the country, hopping freight trains with men who had been riding the rails for half a century. He wrapped newspaper under his clothes to keep warm while sleeping in hobo jungles, grain bins and the gaps in piles of lumber. He spent three months “on the beach,” in San Pedro, California
Many of these stories are now published in the collection “Yondering” and there are more in “Off the Mangrove Coast, “”West from Singapore,” “Night over the Solomons,” “Beyond the Great Snow Mountains”.
He changed his name to Louis L’Amour and settled down to try to make something of himself as a writer in the 1930’s. His stories about boxing got him a bit of notice but most of his other stories were ignored and rejected until finally, L’Amour placed a story, “Death Westbound,” in a magazine that was very much the Playboy of its day.
“10 Story Book” featured quality writing alongside scantily attired, or completely naked young women but aside from that, it was hard going until 1938 when his stories began appearing in pulp magazines fairly regularly.
Surprisingly, given his later career, L’Amour wrote only one story in the western genre prior to World War Two, 1940’s “The Town No Guns Could Tame. During World War II, he served in the United States Army as a transport officer with the 3622 Transport Company. After World War II, L’Amour continued to write stories for magazines; his first after being discharged in 1946 was Law of the Desert Born in Dime Western Magazine (April, 1946). L’Amour’s contact with Leo Margulies led to L’Amour agreeing to write many stories for the Western pulp magazines published by Standard Magazines, a substantial portion of which appeared under the name “Jim Mayo”. The suggestion of L’Amour writing Hopalong Cassidy novels also was made by Margulies who planned on launching Hopalong Cassidy’s Western Magazine at a time when the William Boyd films and new television series were becoming popular with a new generation. L’Amour read the original Hopalong Cassidy novels, written by Clarence E. Mulford, and wrote his novels based on the original character under the name “Tex Burns”. Only two issues of the Hopalong Cassidy Western Magazine were published, and the novels as written by L’Amour were extensively edited to meet Doubleday’s thoughts of how the character should be portrayed in print.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that L’Amour began to sell novels. His first novel, published under his own name, was Westward The Tide, published in 1951. The short story, “The Gift of Cochise” was printed in Colliers (July 5, 1952) and seen by John Wayne and Robert Fellows, who purchased the screen rights from L’Amour for $4,000. James Edward Grant was hired to write a screenplay based on this story changing the main character’s name from Ches Lane to Hondo Lane. L’Amour retained the right to novelize the screenplay and did so, even though the screenplay differed substantially from the original story. This was published as Hondo in 1953 and released on the same day the film opened with a blurb from John Wayne stating that “Hondo was the finest Western Wayne had ever read”. During the remainder of the decade L’Amour produced a great number of novels, both under his own name as well as others (e. g. Jim Mayo).
L’Amour’s career flourished throughout the 1960s and he began work on a series of novels about the fictional Sackett family. Initially he wrote five books about William Tell Sackett and his close relatives, however, in later years the series spread to include other families and four centuries of North American history. It was an ambitious project and several stories intended to close the gaps in the family’s time line were left untold at the time of L’Amour’s death.
L’Amour eventually wrote 89 novels, over 250 short stories, and sold more than 320 million copies of his work. By the 1970s his writings were translated into over 20 languages. Every one of his works is still in print.
L’Amour died from lung cancer on June 10, 1988, at his home in Los Angeles, and was buried in Glendale, California. His autobiography, Education of a Wandering Man, was published posthumously in 1989.