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September 19: Artist “Cowboy Joe” Breckenridge

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On this date in 1917, Williston had a bit to boast about within the walls of its county jail. The Williston Graphic reported: “It is not every county jail in the state that can boast of an artist (yes, a really truly [good] artist that paints color and pen and ink sketches that sell on their own merit), [but] Williston can.”

A young man by the name of Joseph R. Breckenridge had been arrested for violating the “Bone Dry Law,” enacted on July 1 that year. Basically, both federal and state laws combined to virtually eliminate transport, delivery, and use of liquor.

The Williston Graphic seemed to pooh-pooh the law, calling Breckenridge’s infraction “unimportant.” Regardless, the crime landed him in jail with a 90-day sentence, time the paper noted was put to good work as the prisoner was “developing a latent talent for art.” He was painting scenes of “the last west” and “the end of the trail.” The art was selling to locals and also to “tourists inspecting the jail.”

Breckenridge would develop a pattern of not staying in one place. Born in Michigan, he seemed to travel back and forth between North Dakota and Montana as a young adult. He enlisted and joined the Marines in 1918 and served a year. By 1935, he was back in prison again, this time in Montana, serving a year for stealing a car in Glendive. His prison file noted a wife, Elsie, lived in Sentinel Butte, and that his parents had lived in Minot. He had a third-grade education, and claimed no religion.

Breckenridge continued to travel around the country, Canada, and Mexico, though he claimed Idaho as his home. He continued to pursue art, becoming known as “Cowboy Joe.” Perhaps listeners may even discover some of his artwork in their own collections.

Even during that early arrest in 1917, his work was creating an impression. The Williston Graphic commented that his art was “vivid and graphic,” with elements reminiscent of other famed painters’ work. The paper wrote that his work had “been seen and … appreciated. They sell, and that proves something.”

Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker

Below are links to view some of Joe Breckenridge's art. One site notes that his pieces go for about $50 to $125. Another article below discusses that he was paid to paint in a store and the artwork is now covered up.


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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