Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup
Search Collections
Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Romanticizing Cowboys and Indians

Ross Santee, Illustrator and Writer

While Zane Grey became known for his romantic representations of life in the West, scholars have praised writer and illustrator Ross Santee for his realistic portrayals. Santee was born and raised in Iowa, trained to be a cartoonist at the Chicago Art Institute, and then moved to New York City. Though he sold a few drawings, he became discouraged and went to live with his sister in Gila County, Arizona, in 1915 when he was twenty-seven years old.

Santee himself became a cowboy, working on ranches and participating in cattle roundups and drives. In 1919, he began to return periodically to the East to continue his drawing career, while still working seasonally as a cowboy. A magazine editor convinced him to start writing, and he was regularly producing both stories and illustrations by the time the ranches he had been working for closed in the mid-1920s. Though he lived in Delaware after marrying in 1926, he continued to visit the Southwest regularly and lived there for the final two years of his life in the 1960s.
Critics have found Santee's stories and drawings to "faithfully describe the real West with candor, truth, and feeling" and to give accurate representations of the Arizona countryside and people who lived there, including cowboys and ranchers, miners, and Native Americans. Santee started his cowboy career as a horse wrangler, and he describes the duties and lifestyle of that job in a piece called "The Horse-Wrangler," published in his first book Men and Horses, a 1926 collection of stories and drawings.

He discourages readers from idealizing the wrangler's life in the story's first paragraph, stating that "there is no romance in shoeing horses and being pitched over a corral fence." He goes on to describe the drudgery of their daily routine and the lack of respect given to the wranglers, including anecdotes and illustrations of scenes. Other stories in the collection similarly relate tales of hard work and loneliness among men working with animals in the rough Arizona countryside.

Characters from the stories in Men and Horses appear in Santee's later works, including the 1928 Cowboy, often considered to be his autobiography, but really the life story of a fictional East Texas boy who becomes an Arizona cowboy. J. Frank Dobie wrote in his copy of Cowboy, "I guess this is the best story of the making of a cowboy yet written... It's all so true and natural and genuine."

Click Image to Get a Closer Look
Dobie's
Dobie's "western vocabulary" cards
J. Frank Dobie

Dobie assembled a collection of vocabulary cards including definitions of phrases used in the West, particularly among cowboys. He references Santee's Cowboy in providing a definition of "hold-up" based on managing cattle. Note the many words d...
more information >>

<< previous section | next section >>

Printer-friendly Text