Desperation pushed Louis L'Amour out of Jamestown, into life of travel and adventure
Louis L'Amour's comfortable childhood in Jamestown, in a house brimming with books and conversation, ended in financial distress, launching his life of travel and adventure that shaped the career of one America's most beloved Western writers.
JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Louis L’Amour thought the time was ripe to introduce himself. After years as a vagabond laborer that included stints as a merchant seaman, cattle skinner, circus roustabout and miner, he was establishing himself as a writer.
It was May 1939, as the Great Depression was finally ebbing, and L’Amour was 31 years old. He’d published a book of poetry and several short stories and wanted to get his name before the reading public.
As a native of Jamestown, where his parents had been “pioneer residents,” it was natural for him to contact the Fargo Forum with news of his early successes as a writer, including publication in Story magazine, which L’Amour noted had published works from Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, among other luminaries.
In a touch worthy of a western for which he would become known, he noted a great-grandfather had been killed near Crystal Springs in Dakota Territory while fighting Sioux Indians in the 1860s.
L’Amour struck a more boastful tone in introducing himself by letter to the literary editor of the Minneapolis Tribune, archived at the Minnesota Historical Society. Once again, he noted his recent publishing success, including some prizes.
“I believe the stuff is sufficiently good to warrant notice,” he wrote, describing himself as a professional writer. “I’m 31, and I believe headed for the top, and getting close.”
L’Amour’s prediction proved accurate. He would become one of America’s bestselling authors, famous for his western novels and stories, with more than 320 million books in print. He won a National Book Award and was honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Thirty-three years after his death, more than 100 of L’Amour’s books remain in print, and many of his stories were made into Hollywood movies.
In his letters, L’Amour neglected to mention that he was living at an older brother’s home in Choctaw, Oklahoma. His rise to success and fame was more gradual than he might have predicted. He accumulated more than 200 rejection letters before he achieved commercial success in the 1950s.
Arguably, his big breakthrough came in 1953, when his story, “The Gift of Cochise,” was expanded into a novel and made into the hit movie “Hondo” starring John Wayne and Geraldine Page. Also in the 1950s, he’d ghost-written four volumes of the Hopalong Cassidy series but never claimed them as his own.
The story of how L’Amour overcame early adversity to become one of America’s best-known writers begins in Jamestown, where a comfortable childhood took an abrupt turn, and his struggling family was forced to take to the road in search of financial stability.
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The LaMoore household — Louis adopted what he said was the original French spelling when he became a writer — was full of books and dinner table talk.
“Ours was a family in which everybody was constantly reading, and where literature, politics, history and the events of the prize ring were discussed at breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he wrote in his memoir, “Education of a Wandering Man.”
His father was a veterinarian who tended cattle and horses and turned to selling farm machinery in the early days of mechanized agriculture.
At age 12, L’Amour got his first job as a messenger boy for the Western Union telegraph company. During idle moments, he plucked away on typewriters in the office, using a two-fingered typing method that he continued to use as a professional writer.
L’Amour spent a lot of time at Alfred Dickey Public Library in Jamestown, where his older sister Edna worked as a librarian. He read voraciously, devouring books about history, biology, aviation and other subjects.
“Reading was as natural to us as breathing,” L’Amour wrote in his memoir, noting every family member had a library card. The LaMoore house was filled with more than 200 books, and the names of authors came up in family conversations, mixed with names like Teddy Roosevelt, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.
Because young L’Amour was so widely read, he chafed at school requirements. He thought he’d read sufficiently about ancient history and general science, subjects he wanted to skip, and wanted to take chemistry instead at age 12, but the rules didn’t allow it.
He had a growth spurt in early adolescence, reaching his adult height of 6 feet, 1 inch by the time he was 13½.
His long reach gave him an advantage in the boxing ring, a sport he took up, following his two older brothers and father.
Misfortune befell the LaMoores. The 1920s saw a sharp economic downturn, causing some banks and businesses to fail and thrusting people out of work.
It was a time of transition in the farm machinery industry, which began with horses pulling harvesting machines that evolved from steam power to gas power.
L’Amour was circumspect about his family’s financial difficulties but said he had to end his formal education in the 10th grade at the age of 15, when his family left Jamestown due to “economic necessity.”
The LaMoores left in December of 1923, taking all of their possessions in their car as they traveled south to find warmer weather and a way to scratch out a living. L’Amour left his family in New Mexico to visit an older brother in an Oklahoma hospital, and by the time he returned they had moved on.
Unable to find his family, L’Amour was forced to work to support himself and thus began a period as an itinerant worker. As a seaman, he traveled to the Far East, Africa, Europe and Central and South America.
Although his exotic travels and unusual work history might give the impression that L’Amour was searching for material to mine as a writer, he made clear that he had to travel to find work in order to survive.
“I worked at those many jobs because work was hard to find and one took what was available at the time,” he wrote.
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As the rejection slips from magazines piled up, L’Amour realized he had to rethink his approach. He studied old masters and successful contemporary writers and altered his approach, adopting a more direct style.
He started selling, and his predicted climb of the literary ladder began in earnest.
L’Amour sold his first story, in 1935, for $6.54. Early in his writing career, he sought publication in the reputable literary magazines.
But it was hard to earn a living. The slick magazines often held stories for months, withholding payment until publication. The pulp magazines, on the other hand, paid on acceptance, making it easier to survive financially.
World War II interrupted L’Amour’s writing career when he enlisted in the Army in 1942, serving as a lieutenant.
The war changed the fiction market, said his son Beau L’Amour, who is the caretaker of his father’s literary legacy. Adventure stories no longer were in high demand. Readers began cultivating an appetite for western stories.
“The west was comfortably in the past and comfortably at home,” he said.
L’Amour moved from the Oklahoma City area, where much of his family settled, and moved to Los Angeles to advance his writing career. Joined by his wife, Kathy, and later their two children, L’Amour traveled extensively throughout the American West, studying the landscape and stopping to interview old-timers, whom he called a “rich repository of history and legend.”
“He might very well have been the last living fiction writer to experience much of what remained of the Old West,” Beau said. Earlier, for instance, while working in New Mexico, L’Amour knew a handful of people who had been friendly with Billy the Kid.
He went on to write a long list of popular western novels and short stories, many of which were made into movies, including “The Sacketts,” “The Shadow Riders,” “Conagher,” “The Quick and the Dead” and “Crossfire Trail.”
Apparently, none of L’Amour’s works were obviously set in North Dakota. In a 1981 interview, L’Amour said he planned two books that were set at least partly in his native state, one that would be about steamboats on the upper Missouri River and another about the army campaign against the Sioux in Dakota Territory that resulted in his great-grandfather’s death.
At the time, L’Amour said he had 34 planned writing projects in various stages. He died in 1988 at age 80.
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L’Amour wouldn’t return to Jamestown until decades after his family left in desperation. He came back triumphant in 1972, the year he was inducted into North Dakota’s Roughrider Hall of Fame and given an honorary doctorate by Jamestown College.
His hometown honors his connections. Louis L’Amour Elementary School opened in the late 1970s. L’Amour’s widow, Kathy, remains in periodic touch with her husband’s namesake school.
“She stays in contact with the school and even has provided us with some support over the years,” including a donated collection of L’Amour’s books, kept in shelves near the school’s entrance, said Robert Lech, superintendent of schools.
A few of his sayings are enshrined in stones placed in downtown sidewalks.
“He’s still very much embedded in the history of Jamestown,” Lech said.
A room at Alfred Dickey Public Library is dedicated to L’Amour’s legacy. Photographs of the author hang on walls, shelves hold copies of his books and movies, and an interactive kiosk details his roots in Jamestown.
“Louis L’Amour’s legacy is very, very important to Jamestown,” said Joe Rector, library director of the James River Valley Library System. “We’re proud he grew up here.”
At the Frontier Village, inside an exhibit called Louis L’Amour’s Writing Shack, a recording of an interview with L’Amour when he stopped in Fargo to accept an honorary doctorate from North Dakota State University continuously plays.
A Louis L’Amour walking tour, guided by a brochure, directs visitors to important locations, including the library and Franklin School, which the author attended. The L’Amour home site, behind which his father’s veterinary barn stood, now is occupied by an electrical substation.
Searle Swedlund, executive director of Jamestown Tourism, said there’s a desire among local leaders to have a more substantial way to remember L’Amour’s beginnings in the town.
“The legacy of the L’Amour name, it needs a place,” he said. “It needs to be more significant and suitable. We need to step up our game, and we have every intention of doing that.”
As L’Amour himself once wrote, in words embedded in stone in his hometown: “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished; that will be the beginning."