The popular cowboy, author and artist made promoting Western ways his life mission.
By William Reynolds
During the first quarter of the 20th century, America was on a headlong rush to modernize. The automobile, the electric light, and the telephone had all contributed to the shrinking of distance and the illumination of the night. The ways of the cowboy West were in danger of being pushed aside or worse—forgotten. More than most, Montana artist Charles M. Russell worked steadily to depict the ways of the West in his paintings and sculpture. He was a bell ringer for Western ways and he attracted a legion of loyal artists, followers and collectors. One of them, a talented young man from Webster Groves, Missouri, would go on to be his only protégé, and after Russell’s death in 1926 would carry the flame of Russell’s passion—lighting the path for many other significant Western artists, writers and filmmakers along the way. Keeping the West alive—this was the mission of Joe De Yong.
Like Russell, De Yong hailed from Missouri, born only a few miles from Russell’s birthplace of St. Louis. De Yong was raised in Indian country and as he stated in his work-in-progress-but-never-finished biography, I, Mine and Me, “My parents moved to the Cherokee Nation of Indian Territory in 1899. In a community where cowboys and Indians were still commonplace, and with a strong personal attraction to horses, it was only natural that I should have become a Kid Cowhand….”
De Yong pursued his love of horses when not in school and started day-working on ranches at the age of 13. He had an almost obsessive passion for the cowboy life and tried very hard to emulate the top-notch cowhands whom he truly admired. He wrote of them, “…some were better hands than others, some were better men, but anybody could read that list forward and back or right down the big middle, and it still means the same thing, they were the real ones.”
Around 1910, De Yong, 16, was working cattle on the Horseshoe L Ranch in Dewey, Oklahoma, when Tom Mix came to town. Mix, the former livestock foreman of the famous Miller 101 Ranch in Bliss, Oklahoma, had found a life in “moving pictures,” and at the time was doing a movie called Ranch Life in the Great Southwest. De Yong got a bit part in the production and after seeing the action, was bitten by the acting bug. He worked again with Mix on a picture in Arizona and it was then that he contracted cerebral meningitis, which in his own words left him, “totally deaf, cross eyed, and without any sense of balance.”