|Cal Whitson, the Real Rooster Cogburn|
True Grit, first brought to the big screen by John Wayne, is the story of a young girl who enlists the help of a one-eyed Deputy U.S. Marshal from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to hunt down the man accused of murdering her father. The original book by Clinton Portis was something of a tongue in cheek portrayal of the heroes and outlaws in the Old West. But on the big screen, those same characters suddenly become larger than life. Whether in the original Wayne portrayal or in the new Jeff Bridges version, Rooster Cogburn leaps from the screen as the real deal, a rough and tumble frontier lawman with a deep sense of justice.
Although Portis said he based the character on a compilation of the deputy marshals who rode out from Fort Smith under the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court of "Hanging Judge" Isaac C. Parker, there can be little doubt that Cal Whitson was the "real" Rooster Cogburn.
Cal Whitson had been a hard-fighting Union soldier during the Civil War and had lost an eye in battle in Arkansas. He became a deputy U.S. marshal in the years after the war after learning that his son had been killed while helping to apprehend an outlaw. He served in the Indian Territory, which fell under Judge Parker's jurisdiction, helping to bring wanted men back to Fort Smith to stand trial... and often stand on the gallows as well.
Parker hanged more men than any federal judge in U.S. history, but few know that he was opposed to the death penalty. Many of the laws governing crimes in the Indian Nations gave him only one sentence: death.
Cal Whitson, the real one-eyed deputy U.S. marshal of Fort Smith, was every bit as colorful and tough as the Rooster Cogburn of the movies. To learn more about him, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/roostercogburn.
To learn more about Judge Parker's tenure as the "Hanging Judge" of Fort Smith, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/ARFS6.
And if you haven't seen the new version of True Grit, I strongly recommend it. I am a huge John Wayne fan and love the original, but the new one tells the story in an entirely different way and is well worth viewing.