ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Real Rooster Cogburn & Real True Grit, Arkansas
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Real Rooster Cogburn & Real True Grit, Arkansas
Gallows at Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Cal Whitson was a Deputy U.S. Marshal when six
men were hanged at once on the Fort Smith gallows
on January 16, 1890.
The Real Rooster Cogburn?
Descendants believe that
Deputy U.S. Marshal Cal
Whitson of Fort Smith was the
"real" Rooster Cogburn.
Judge Parker's Courthouse
The old barracks of Fort Smith
held both the courtroom of
Hanging Judge Isaac Parker
and the infamous "Hell on the
Border" jail.
Real Rooster Cogburn & Real True Grit - Fort Smith, Arkansas
True Stories Behind the Legend
Outlaw Country
Rugged terrain and isolation
made Oklahoma's Sans Bois
Mountains ideal hideout
country for Old West outlaws.
Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.
The late 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.

The name "Rooster Cogburn" was famous
even before the great actor John Wayne
brought the character to the big screen in the
film classics "True Grit" (1969) and "Rooster
Cogburn" (1975). Wayne, however, would win
his first and only Academy Award for playing
the role.

The legend of Rooster Cogburn originates
from the novel
True Grit (1968) by noted
Arkansas author Charles Portis. The book is
told in the voice 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 is
accused of murdering her father. The two,
joined by a Texas Ranger, set off into the
wilderness to find Chaney.

Although he is reclusive and rarely talks
about his work, Portis has said that Rooster
Cogburn was actually 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.

Appointed U.S. District Judge for the Western
District of Arkansas by President Ulysses S.
Grant, Parker actually 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. The law
he was required to follow offered no other
penalty than death for many of the crimes that
were prosecuted in his court. His courtroom,
restored gallows and the infamous "Hell on
the Border" jail are preserved today at Fort
Smith National Historic Site.

The story told in the book
True Grit is fictional,
but strongly based on the exploits of such
lawmen as "Heck" Thomas, "Cal" Whitson,
Bass Reeves and others. All were noted
gunmen 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. For more on
his story, please read Juliet L. Golanska's
fascinating article:
African-American Deputy
Marshals in Arkansas.

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

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.
Cal Whitson had quite a life for his day. His
descendants report that he was married four
times and had five children. He may have
spent some time as a lawman in Texas, but
spent much of his life in the Arkansas towns
of Bloomer and Fort Smith. He became a
Deputy Marshal in 1889 after his son, Billy,
was killed the previous year in a gunfight with
the outlaws Wesley and Watie Barnett.

By 1890 Cal Whitson was experiencing
severe pain in his blinded left eye. A team of
doctors in Fort Smith removed the organ.

Whitson had a brave career as a lawman,
helping to bring outlaws to justice in Judge
Parker's courthouse. Like all of the men who
served as Deputy Marshals from Fort Smith,
he was an expert with a gun. He also saw at
least one mass hanging like the one shown
in the movie "True Grit."

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. All had been
convicted of murder. Judge Parker had
originally sentenced nine men to die that day,
but three 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."  

In addition, it is curious to note that some of
the notes in Whitson's military service record
were made by a National Archives employee
named Daggett. That name is familiar to all
fans of the John Wayne film "True Grit" as the
Mattie Ross character often speaks with
reverence of "Lawyer Daggett."

The evidence is circumstantial but strong that
Cal Whitson was the "real" Rooster Cogburn.
Lawmen and Outlaws
Old West outlaws rest at Fort
Smith's Oak Cemetery, along
with seven Deputy U.S.
Marshals killed in the line of
Robbers Cave State Park
Historic Robbers Cave is said
to have been used as a
hideout by outlaws hiding
from Deputy Marshals.
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