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Indian Territory marshals had their work cut out for them.

John Wayne, as Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, thunders across the screen, wearing a patch over his left eye, holding a six-gun in his left hand, a Winchester in his right and his horse’s rein between his teeth. No one who has seen the 1969 movie True Grit can forget that image. In the 2010 remake of True Grit Jeff Bridges, as Cogburn, wears a patch over his right eye and seems more self-destructive than the Wayne portrayal, though just as proud and ruthless toward outlaws.

Together the films, based on the 1968 novel by Arkansan Charles Portis, have presented moviegoers with the respective filmmakers’ vision of life as a deputy U.S. marshal in the Western District of Arkansas (which included Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma) in about 1878. How true to the realities of that time and place are the two movies? Well, they do give audiences a touch of authenticity, but they are, after all, both Hollywood productions, and anyone who has ever watched a Western knows to expect a few anachronisms (such as Wayne’s Cogburn carrying a Model 1892 Winchester carbine). Author Portis, exercising his right as a novelist, furnished a few of his own fictional flourishes.

Portis’ novel centers on teenager Mattie Ross (who narrates the tale from her later years) and her quest to avenge her father’s death by “hiring” hard-drinking Rooster Cogburn to find the murderer, Tom Chaney. Soon joining Mattie and Rooster is a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (pronounced “LaBeef”), and the trio forges into Indian Territory to hunt its quarry. Adventure, injury and death mark the journey. In due time they bring Chaney to justice (by way of a gun) and treat his evil cohorts to the same medicine one way or another. Both films follow that basic story line. Western film veteran Wayne brought his own familiar flourishes to the screen in 1969, making the movie a hit and earning him his only Best Actor Oscar. Bridges, who did not try to step into Wayne’s boots when portraying the gruff and gritty Cogburn more than 40 years later, garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Although I was unable to get mediashy Portis, 77, to discuss his novel, he was almost certainly influenced by S.W. Harman’s Hell on the Border, a 728-page reference book published by Phoenix Publishing Co. out of Fort Smith, Ark., in 1898. The first printing found few buyers due to its length and $2 price tag. However, Harman’s tome proved a lasting tribute and composite history of the federal court in the Western District of Arkansas under U.S. District Judge Isaac Charles Parker—known to history as “Hanging Judge Parker.” Harman was a defense attorney in his court.

Ohio-born Parker presided from May 1875 until his death in November 1896. His courthouse was at Fort Smith, but his vast jurisdiction covered all of Indian Territory and a sliver of present-day Kansas. He did not seek to be liked, but people largely respected his decisions. His predecessor’s bad relations with the tribal nations meant Parker had to act more diplomatically than most in his profession. Three years before Parker took the bench, U.S. Commissioner James O. Churchill had committed the heavy-handed act of sending armed deputies into the Cherokee Nation in a heated dispute over jurisdiction. The resulting conflict remains the bloodiest day in the history of the U.S. Marshals Service. Eight deputy or special deputy U.S. marshals were killed in what became known as the Going Snake Massacre (after a district in the nation). Because of the size and unruly nature of his jurisdiction, the sheer number of tribal nations and the attractiveness of the land to outlaws, Judge Parker knew he had to take a disciplinarian stance yet remain somewhat flexible. With his imposing looks and searing gaze, he was the perfect jurist for his time.

In his novel Portis presents Parker as a stern judge. But he was actually more merciful than not. He tried some 14,000 cases, 344 of which were capital crimes, and sentenced 160 people to the gallows, later pardoning almost half of the condemned. The fictional Mattie Ross comments that the judge watched every hanging from an upper window in the courthouse. But that, too, was a fiction. Parker was in court during a number of the hangings, and Fort Smith historian Jerry Akins notes there wasn’t even a window through which the judge might observe the gallows.

Mattie Ross comments that Fort Smith authorities later walled off the gallows and distributed tickets to hangings to curtail the public spectacle. This was true, as the U.S. marshals sought better crowd control. Mattie also mentions “a thin bearded man named George Maledon,” the special deputy U.S. marshal known as “the Prince of Hangmen.” Her description of him is correct, though he was not the only special deputy to perform hangman duties during the days of the Parker court. German-born Maledon’s skills in carpentry and engineering, which he mastered in the Army, translated well to his hangman duties from 1873 until 1891, but he also had other duties. He escorted prisoners out of state at least once—a trip to Detroit undertaken by the U.S. marshal in Portis’ novel. The author probably learned of that incident from an article in the Fort Smith Elevator, while most other segments involving Parker and Maledon appear in Hell on the Border.

Portis adequately explains the wide jurisdiction of the U.S. marshal. In the novel Rooster Cogburn answers for his arrests in court and, in a roundabout way, answers the question, Why couldn’t the sheriff do this? In a territory the U.S. marshals maintained federal jurisdiction. The book also alludes to the fact that Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, limited to that state’s jurisdiction, could not simply ride from there and directly take jurisdiction but that he could be deputized as a posse member. In Texas the U.S. Marshals Service and the Rangers worked together on many cases, including the 1878 pursuit of outlaw Sam Bass.

During Parker’s tenure the U.S. marshals at Fort Smith employed more than 100 deputies. When Mattie seeks out the best deputy U.S. marshal for her purposes in the novel and films, the Sebastian County sheriff rattles off the names of William Waters, a half-Comanche tracker; L.T. Quinn, who usually brings in his quarry alive; and Rooster Cogburn, described as “pitiless” and “double-tough.” Mattie instantly takes to Rooster, perhaps because, in the sheriff’s words, “fear don’t enter into his thinking.”

Was there really a Rooster Cogburn in the Old West? Not exactly. Cogburn is reportedly a composite of several reallife lawmen. Parker-era Deputy Calvin Whitson did lose an eye, though he probably didn’t wear an eye patch. (As a matter of fact, the fictional Cogburn of Portis’ novel had only one eye but did not wear an eye patch; Wayne’s big-screen Rooster introduced that accessory.)Whitson’s son was in the business first and served as a posse member in June 1888 when Deputy U.S. Marshal John Phillips went to arrest two outlaw brothers near Eufaula, Indian Territory. The fugitives shot down both lawmen, and in 1889 the devastated Cal, then in his mid-40s, joined the U.S. Marshals Service. Just as the fictional Cogburn had suffered an eye injury during the Civil War, Whitson had suffered his while serving in the Union cavalry in 1864. It calcified, growing worse until a Fort Smith physician removed the eye in 1890. Whitson, one-eyed like Cogburn and grieving like Mattie, served at Fort Smith no more than five years.

Cogburn’s reckless but fearless nature calls to mind real-life lawman Deputy U.S. Marshal Henry “Heck” Thomas. Serving from 1893 to 1902 in Indian and Oklahoma territories (they were separate jurisdictions for a time), Thomas tracked down outlaws Bill Doolin and Al Jennings and became one of the famed “Three Guardsmen” of Oklahoma (along with Chris Madsen and Bill Tilghman). Thomas, like many of his contemporaries, was a field (not administrative) deputy, earning fees in lieu of a regular salary. Yet by 1901 he was pulling down more than any other field deputy in Oklahoma Territory—even approaching the $2,000 salary made by Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal William D. Fossett.

A possible model for the 2010 film portrayal of Cogburn was Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, an ex-slave who worked as a federal peace officer in Indian Territory for 32 years. Reeves was a crack shot known to wear disguises and collaborate with the tribal nations, especially the Creek. He pursued outlaws relentlessly and was considered one of the bravest marshals. Had he been a character in Portis’ novel, perhaps Mattie would have chosen Bass over Rooster. Though Portis made no direct reference to Reeves when penning the novel during the 1960s, recent years have seen a surge of interest in the fearless black deputy U.S. marshal.

Indian Territory, as the book and films made clear, was a place for wanted men to hide out. The Dalton, Younger and James brothers frequented the “Outlaw Trail” that ran through the southeastern section of the territory and likely spent time at “Robbers Cave” in the Creek Nation. Train robber Bill Doolin, the man Heck Thomas tracked down, was an Arkansan with a notable hooked nose and drooping moustache and was a perpetual drifter like Tom Chaney.

Indian Territory itself does take on a new, more picturesque look in the two films. Director Henry Hathaway shot the 1969 version mostly in southwestern Colorado and in the Sierra Nevadas near Bishop, Calif. (thus the decidedly non-Eastern snow-covered rocky peaks, which had also co-starred in the 1960 Wayne movie North to Alaska), while directors Joel and Ethan Coen shot the 2010 film in New Mexico and Texas. The Coens chose Granger, Texas, to stand in for old Fort Smith, Ark. While Granger had perhaps too many later brick buildings, it also had empty lots on which set hands could construct wood buildings. Watch the hanging scene in the 2010 True Grit, and you’ll spot a two-story brick wall of 20th-century design behind the gallows. No matter. The engaging plot and gritty portrayal of a deputy U.S. marshal made that movie a delight—as was the case with the earlier movie and the novel that inspired them both.


Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.