Thursday, July 30, 2015

True Grit Movies and the Fort Smith Connection

True Grit: Based on a Real Place

Was there really a Rooster Cogburn, like in the movie True Grit? Was Judge Parker real? Read on for answers.
John Wayne led the cast in the 1969 movie True Grit
The 1969 version of the movie True Grit starred John Wayne in one of his biggest roles ever, the only one for which he won a Best Actor academy award. In 2010, producers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen (the Coen Brothers), released a remake of the movie. Both times, people in Fort Smith, Arkansas, stood up and paid attention.

You see, the city of Fort Smith plays a major role in the story and its citizens weren't about to let the event go unnoticed. In fact, to celebrate the release of the True Grit 2010 movie remake, they decided to throw a party. They called it Gritapalooza! Many of the most prominent citizens of the city attended the Gritapalooza events in full Rooster Cogburn or Mattie Ross attire and a good time was had by all, as you can see in these pictures.

Ever since 1969 when the original movie was released, tourists have been visiting Fort Smith to see Judge Isaac Parker's courthouse and the famous gallows where Mattie Ross wanted murderer Tom Chaney hanged. They also come looking for more information about United States Marshal Rooster Cogburn, the story's main character. So, what of all this is fact and how much is fiction? You already know that there's a real Fort Smith, Arkansas, but was there a Judge Parker or a Marshal Rooster Cogburn? Read on to learn more about the connection.

Q: Is Fort Smith a real place?

A: Yes!

Fort Smith is the second largest city in Arkansas, located in western Arkansas at the juncture of Interstates 40 and 540, on the banks of the Arkansas River. Across the river to the west is the state of Oklahoma, once known as Indian Territory.

At the time of True Grit, Oklahoma was still Indian Territory and real-life U.S. Marshals often traveled there from Fort Smith in search of criminals such as the fictional Tom Chaney. Fort Smith is very proud of its history and the part that Marshals played in it. In fact, our town was chosen to be the home of the new U.S. Marshals museum. Read more about that below.

Visit the National Historic Site in Fort Smith, Arkansas at 301 Parker Avenue to learn more about our local heritage.
The real-life Judge Parker of True Grit fame. The "hanging judge."

Q: Was there really a Judge Parker and did he really hang his prisoners?

A: Yes and yes, but only the guilty ones!

Judge Isaac Parker presided over the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas in Fort Smith from 1875 to 1896 and became known as the "hanging judge."

From Wikipedia: "In 21 years on the bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases, 344 of which were capital crimes. Guilty pleas or convictions were handed down in 9,454 cases. Of the 160 (156 men and 4 women) sentenced to death by hanging, 79 were actually hanged. The rest died in jail, appealed, or were pardoned."

Read more about Judge Parker from the National Park Service, Fort Smith National Historic Site webpage.

Q: Was there really a U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn?

A: Only in the movies.

John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn starred in Rooster Cogburn, the movie sequel to True Grit.
U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn was introduced in the 1969 True Grit movie, played by John Wayne. His character was so loved that another movie, Rooster Cogburn (...and the Lady), was made in 1975 starring John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.

In the 2010 True Grit, Rooster Cogburn was played by actor Jeff Bridges. In both cases, the character was an aging, hard-drinking "fat man" who rarely took a prisoner alive. He was chosen by Mattie Ross to go after Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father, because she was told that he had "true grit," a character trait she knew would be necessary to capture the criminal.

Visitors to Fort Smith often ask about Rooster Cogburn and where he lived.

Q: What About the U.S. Marshals?

A: Oh, they're real!

A look at what the future United States Marshals Museum will look like in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
The U.S. Marshals Museum:
Soon to be built on the banks of the Arkansas River  in Fort Smith, Arkansas

Although Rooster Cogburn was a fictional character, created by author Charles Portis in his novel True Grit, United States marshals have served the western district of Arkansas for many years, and to the present day. The fact that this district was the most dangerous during western expansion and more marshals have been killed in the line of duty here than anywhere else was one factor in the decision to award Fort Smith the honor and distinction as the home of the new, soon-to-be-built U.S. Marshals Museum.

The Marshals Museum, which will overlook the banks of the Arkansas River, will pay tribute to all of the United States marshals from around the country, past and present. No doubt there will be a space reserved for the fictional Rooster Cogburn and the role of both True Grit the novel and the movies in bringing attention to these brave men and to the city of Fort Smith. I think that's a connection we can be proud of.


  1. I think it is fabulous that there are plans to build a museum to honor the U.S. Marshalls service - our country's first law enforcement agency. And choosing Fort Smith, Arkansas as a location is very appropriate, with the ties to the story of 'True Grit'. I look forward to visiting.

  2. I agree with you about the Marshals Museum, Elf. The community really rallied to show that Fort Smith is very worthy of the honor. The fund-raising and building process for the museum is a very long process which is progressing well. I hope you'll get a chance to visit. I'd love to meet you there!