Sunday, December 12, 2010

The "Real" Rooster Cogburn?! - Fort Smith, Arkansas

The Real Rooster Cogburn?
With the coming release of the Hollywood remake of the classic movie "True Grit," one of the most beloved Western figures of all time is seeing a bit of a rebirth as well - Rooster Cogburn.

John Wayne won the only Academy Award of his career for playing the rough and tumble Deputy U.S. Marshal and now Jeff Bridges will take his turn at bringing the character from the pages of the 1968 novel "True Grit" by Arkansas writer Charles Portis. For the uninitiated, the book (and movies) tell the story of a young girl's quest to bring the man who murdered her father to justice in the court of Fort Smith's famed "Hanging Judge," Isaac C. Parker. She goes to Fort Smith, on the western border of Arkansas, from nearby Yell County and hires a man with "grit" - Deputy U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. The two set out into the Indian Nations of what is now Oklahoma in search of the murderer.

Although Portis is a very reclusive man, he has been quoted in the past as saying that the character of Rooster Cogburn was actually created as a compilation of the men who served as Deputy Marshals for the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas. And indeed, some of the events in the story he told were loose adaptations of real events involving several of these famed western lawmen.

There is strong circumstantial evidence - and perhaps a bit more than that - however, that the actual character of Rooster Cogburn was based on a real-life one-eyed Deputy U.S. Marshal from Fort Smith. Descendants of Cal Whitson, a man who served as a frontier lawman during the late 1800s, believe that their ancestor was the "real" Rooster Cogburn.

Whitson, like Cogburn, was a former Civil War soldier who served as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in Fort Smith during the days of the "Hanging Judge." He was the only such lawman in the history of Parker's court known to have lost an eye (his left, which he covered by keeping the brim of his hat intentionally pulled down on that side). And there is more.

To learn the story of Cal Whitson, the "real" Rooster Cogburn, please visit

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