Out West

Ross Santee

Ross Santee horse illustration

Almost forgotten, this artist and author’s books and illustrations rank amongst the most authentic and inventive in Western literature.

“People who know me often talk as though I was from Texas. That is not correct. I was born at Cranwich Hall, Cranwich, County of Norfolk, England, December 17, 1860. But I came to Montana with a herd of Texas cattle in 1883. “

So starts the first page of  Edward Charles (Teddy Blue) Abbott’s recounting of his life as a cowpuncher. Anyone who is fortunate enough to have seen or read a first edition of Abbott’s, before-the-wire, recollections in the 1939 classic We Pointed Them North as told to Helena Huntington-Smith had the chance to see, first-hand the 33, Ross Santee ink-and-wash illustrations, placed throughout the book. Abbott was a “no tarp, no tent, sleep on the ground” cowboy during the 1870s and 1880s, who came up the trail to Montana from Texas with the long-horned herds that would fill the northern ranges.

Ross Santee (circa 1950s) courtesy J.E. Reynolds Booksellers
Ross Santee (circa 1950s) courtesy J.E. Reynolds Booksellers

In later editions of the book,  new publisher arrangements would replace the original illustrations with other artists drawings, eliminating the chance for future readers to see the artwork of artist Ross Santee. The drawings used in the first edition, and many of its subsequent printings, added to the book’s authenticity. They had an immediacy to them that even in their pen and ink simplicity, stood out to the reader – almost like oriental brushwork in their gesture-like appearance, or as a woodcut – their visual boldness filling in the literal meaning.

Ross Santee produced a huge body of work during the grand of book illustration from the turn of the last century through the 1950s. And yet his ongoing presence in so many magazine and books did little to affix him as a prominent artist in a world populated by the likes of Frederick Remington, Charles M. Russell, Maynard Dixon and many others of the era.

His life started simply enough, born in in Thornburg, Iowa in 1889, he had an unrelenting interest in art throughout his childhood and after graduating from high school, attended the Chicago Art Institute from 1907-1912. The publishing business was booming in New York at the time so after his art school training, he spent a “long, hard year” in that city trying to get his work published. But after nothing but rejection notices, he quit the big city for Globe, Arizona to live with family. There he found work on the Bar F Bar Ranch working horses and doing day work. Yet despite his experiences in New York, he resumed sketching while living and working on the ranch. In 1920, with the encouragement of friends and local newspaper publishers, Santee returned to New York City. This time the publishers were not only interested in his drawings but were also interested in his experiences as a cowboy and convinced him to provide stories based on his times as a cowboy that would be accompanied by his illustrations. Santee was not alone in New York at the time as many western artists had come east looking for illustration work including Edward Borein, Dixon and Russell. It was during this time that Santee had the occasion to meet Russell and his wife Nancy at one of Russell’s many “The West That Has Passed” exhibits, this one at the Folsom Gallery in New York. Russell was a bit uncomfortable amongst the attending society crowd and was relieved to find another cowboy type to talk to. Russell found Santee to be the real deal and Russell’s only protégé, Joe De Yong, written notes about the Iowa-born cowboy stated, “Ross Santee is unquestionably a cowboy – and never vain or boastful about it. He is in my estimation a much better writer than an artist; in fact, in this writer’s opinion, he is the best writer in the western field, with a style of drawing so individual, that is could not successfully be copies.”

Illustrations by Ross Santee and tile page from We Pointed Them North– First Edition, 1939 –  Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.

After Santee’s time to New York he would make a home in Delaware with his new wife, Eve, so they could be near her family. He would spend the next fifty-years there writing thirteen books of western fiction along with countless magazine sketches and drawings; he would return to Arizona each year to soak up the cowboy culture and visit with longtime friends – both cowboy and stockmen types and members of the Apache tribe.

Each of his thirteen books was marked with his dry sense of humor and his knowing the cowpuncher ways. Each contained the proper sense of authenticity as described by Joe De Yong and other prominent writers. His 1930 book, titled simply, Cowboy was described by western author, J. Frank Dobie as, “so true to life that the unsophisticated are likely to take it for a straight autobiography, just as old trail drovers I knew in the 1920s insisted on taking Andy Adams, The Log of A Cowboy for actual history. It takes sympathy and understanding and imagination and an easy familiarity with cowboy life to translate the facts of drought and the character of an old cowman into literature as Ross Santee does. Cowboy is more than a recollection, it is life and it is literature.”

Interestingly, Santee’s writing was so widely admired that during the 1930’s – from 1936 – 1941, he became director of the Federal Writer’s Program (part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Works Progress Administration) for the state of Arizona. Carl Dentzel, the Executive Director of the Southwestern Museum in Los Angeles during the mid-1900’s said of Santee, “He is one of a very few American artists through whom eras, places and people may be seen and felt. His art is based on realism balanced with thoughtful emotion.”

And it didn’t hurt that he looked the part, as Santee’s friend and then editor of the Arizona Daily Star, J. F. Weadcock described him as, “Six foot plus of sun-cured rawhide with a face as wrinkled as an old steer hide drying on a fence.”

Amongst  the books written and illustrated by Santee, they include,  Men and Horses, Cowboy, Apache Land, The Bubbling Spring, Lost Pony Tracks and Dog Days. All of these titles are out- of print. But for the determined, they can be found and enjoyed today.

Towards the end of his life, and after the death of his beloved wife Eve in 1963; Santee returned to the town of Globe, Arizona and dedicated his time studying oil painting with his dear friend and fellow artist, Ted DeGrazia. Two years later, in 1965 Santee suffered a heart attack and died shortly thereafter.

J.F. Weadcock said of his friend’s passing, “He had the elusive art of depicting with a brush or a pen, the inner character of his people. He brings them to the printed page as he knew them – the cowmen, the cowboys, the wild horse mustangers, the Apache, the miners, and the habitués of the bars and dance halls of the period whereof he writes. And although the last roundup has come for him, Ross Santee will live on for ages as will the West he won. His saddle is not empty – just deserted.” Lest we forget.

Illustrations by Ross Santee and tile page from We Pointed Them North– First Edition, 1939 –  Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.

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