True Grit – Life In Arkansas

We are currently living in a new travel trailer in an RV park in Russellville, AR.  We are only partially living out of our minivan.  Not sure what we will do with this travel trailer when the contract runs out on this job, as we presently do not own a truck.  We are in Arkansas because sweet husband has a temporary position (six-plus months) with a large, national utility company.  During his brief tenure on this project/cost position at the Arkansas Nuclear Plant (ANO), our goal is to get to know Arkansas, really be the tourist we have grown to enjoy being and share with you all the cool stuff you NEED to see.

Our first outing (in January) was to Ft. Smith, AR on the state line between Arkansas and Oklahoma.  I didn’t expect a feeling of the historic “Old West” in a state I consider to be part of the “Old South”, but there it is.  Ft. Smith feels and looks like an old west town.  It doesn’t try to be, it just is.  You feel it when you drive in.  The city is celebrating its bicentennial this year.  200 years!  Oh, if those old buildings could talk.  

There is a museum in the old courthouse featuring the famous hanging judge, Isaac C. Parker.  The town’s primary population by U. S. Army and Marshalls and was an outpost for the Indian Territory.  I have so much more on this subject, but time and space won’t allow that rabbit trail.

Yell County is the county right next door to our temporary home in Pope County (Russellville, AR.).  Yell County is also the fictitious home of sweet Mattie Ross (True Grit) who went to Ft. Smith in pursuit of a U. S. Marshall to capture the man who killed her Paw.  The story of Mattie and Rooster Cogburn made our first discovery trip so much more exciting, and this is the rabbit trail I have chosen to take.

In the Coen Brothers 2010 release of the Hollywood remake of the classic film “True Grit” brings the famed story of Old West justice and a rough and tough one-eyed deputy marshal named Rooster Cogburn back to life.  I loved the remake of this movie and I’m not a fan of “Westerns”…but I digress.

The name “Rooster Cogburn” was famous even before John Wayne brought the character to the big screen in the first of the two productions of this film classic “True Grit” (1969).  John Wayne, however, would win his first and only Academy Award for playing this role.  I will note, this role was a departure from his many other “good guy” roles.

Rooster Cogburn originates from the novel True Grit (1968) by Arkansas author Charles Portis. The book, written from the perspective of young Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who hires a deputy U.S. marshal named Rooster Cogburn to hunt down a man named Tom Chaney who had been charged with the murder of her father. The two, joined by a Texas Ranger, set off into the wilderness to find Chaney.

Although he rarely talks about his work, Portis has said that Rooster Cogburn was a composite of men. Growing up in Arkansas and later studying at the University of Arkansas, he heard many stories about the deputy marshals that worked from Fort Smith under “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker to bring law and order to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, which had been overrun by outlaws during the years following the Civil War.  This is a side of post-civil war I wasn’t aware of.

Appointed U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Arkansas by President Ulysses S. Grant, Parker opposed the death penalty but became known as the “hanging judge” of Fort Smith because he sent more men to their deaths on the gallows than any other Federal judge in U.S. history.  He was quoted as saying, “I did not hang them, the LAW did”.  The law he was required to follow offered no other penalty than death for many of the crimes that adjudicated in his court. His courtroom restored gallows, and the infamous “Hell on the Border” jail is preserved today at Fort Smith National Historic Site.

The story told in the book True Grit is fictional, but solidly based on the exploits of such lawmen as “Heck” Thomas, “Cal” Whitson, Bass Reeves and others. All were noted shooters who battled outlaw gangs along the western frontier (then the border of Arkansas and Oklahoma) to save the decent residents of the Indian Nations from these criminals.

Parker’s court was unique for its day in that it hired deputy marshals of various races and backgrounds. In addition to white lawmen like Thomas and Whitson, there were also Indian and black deputy marshals. Among the latter was Bass Reeves, who shot down fourteen men during his lifetime.


The man that many believe was the real Rooster Cogburn, however, was Deputy U.S. Marshal Calvin Whitson, the only one-eyed deputy marshal to serve in Judge Parker’s court.

Born in 1845, Cal Whitson grew up in the Plumerville area of Arkansas. On October 24, 1863, one month shy of his 18th birthday, he went against the grain of many men from Arkansas and enlisted in the Union army.


Federal troops then controlled parts of the state and Whitson enlisted in Company B, 3rd Arkansas Cavalry at Lewisburg. He had served about one year when he received a grievous wound to the left side of his face that resulted in the blinding of his left eye. As a result, he was declared disabled by the U.S. Army on October 13, 1864, and discharged two days later. For the rest of his life, he wore his hat pulled down over his left eye to hide the injury.

On January 16, 1890, six convicted outlaws – Harris Austin, John Billy, Jimmon Burris, Sam Goin, Jefferson Jones and Thomas Willis – were all hanged at the same time on the gallows of Fort Smith. Judge Parker convicted all six men of murder.  Judge Parker, initially sentenced nine men to death that day, three of them, however,  were saved by judicial procedures.

According to his military pension records, Cal Whitson died on February 18, 1926, in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

As noted, Portis has said that the character Rooster Cogburn is a composite of real lawmen. It seems undeniable, however, that Cal Whitson provides much of the inspiration for Cogburn.

He was Fort Smith’s only one-eyed Deputy Marshal. He had served in the Civil War and a man named Whitson, possibly a relative, was killed in an incident similar to that described for the murder of the father of Mattie Ross in the book “True Grit.” 

On our way back to our temporary RV home, we stopped in at a couple of the wineries mid-way between Ft. Smith and Russellville just off I-40.  Arkansas has a wine country – who knew?  More to follow.

We will return to Ft. Smith, tonight for the bicentennial symphony, pops concert featuring “Western” film scores and Heritage songs.  Yee-Haw!

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