The original “True Grit” movie is turning 50.
A film that John Wayne used as a vehicle to win his only Academy Award, “True Grit” was released June 11, 1969.
Wayne, who starred as Rooster Cogburn in the movie, died exactly 10 years later — June 11, 1979.
That’s a coincidence. But how coincidental is this?: Wayne wasn’t the first person to carry the name Rooster Cogburn.
There was a real-life Rooster. The discovery was shared in 2012 by Oklahoma author Brett Cogburn, a Western novelist whose only nonfiction book is titled “Rooster: The Life and Times of the Real Rooster Cogburn.”
Because of the pending “True Grit” anniversary, the author was asked to revisit the book’s findings.
The book is about the author’s great-grandfather John Franklin “Rooster” Cogburn. An 1881 letter written by a family member and obtained by the author confirmed that John Franklin Cogburn was tagged with a “Rooster” nickname when he was a child. Why? Because the kid thought he was tough.
“You know as well as I do that it will come to no good if that continues,” said the letter writer, Rooster’s aunt.
The letter proved prophetic.
The real-life Rooster went down the wrong path before turning his life around. A moonshiner, he was accused of fatally shooting Deputy Marshall J.D. Trammell in Arkansas. Did Rooster murder the deputy? When ordered by “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker to answer the question, Rooster’s response was, “No, but I was damned sure a well-wisher to it.”
That sounds like something Wayne’s character would say.
But the real Rooster was not an eyepatch-wearing, bad guy-chasing lawman like Wayne’s character. The real Rooster was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and was released after serving a year and a day of a two-year sentence. He later became a gun-toting minister.
That’s not the plot of the movie you saw in 1969 or in 2010, when Jeff Bridges starred in a Coen Brothers remake.
That’s not the plot of the novel you read in 1968. (Charles Portis’ “True Grit” provided the source material for the movie.)
But it’s a Western adventure in its own right and one that found the printed page in this century because of this: If your last name was Cogburn, wouldn’t you be curious to know if the Duke’s character was inspired by someone from your family tree?
‘True Grit’ namesake
The real Rooster died in 1912. His family relocated to Oklahoma about two years later.
Brett Cogburn is still here. An alum of Buffalo Valley High School (he was one of 13 in his graduating class) and Southeastern Oklahoma State University, the author lives in Hodgen, which is near the Arkansas border in LeFlore County.
Brett was born into a ranch family in 1970, when “Gunsmoke” was on TV and John Wayne was the reigning king of Western movies. There were early signs that Brett was destined to be a Western yarn-spinner. He said his mother used a recorder to tape him telling stories when he was a child (“I could just barely talk and jabber a little bit”), and he made up adventures that were captured on cassettes.
“Every story that I told as a little kid, it was me and John Wayne doing something,” he said.
Now, imagine that kid seeing Wayne in “True Grit” and, hey, he’s got my last name!
Low-hanging fruit being what it is, people couldn’t resist calling Brett “Rooster” when he was a kid.
“People heard my last name and there weren’t a lot of Cogburns around,” he said. “It wasn’t like being a Smith or a Jones.”
Over time, Brett discovered that other people with the last name Cogburn took pride in the “True Grit” namesake. Some claimed they had an ancestor who was Portis’ inspiration for Rooster.
“There’s a lot of crazy versions,” he said. “Let me put it that way. But let’s just say they simply don’t add up.”
Brett, who loves the “True Grit” novel, decided to investigate possible family ties after being pointed toward Portis’ research by Oklahoma novelist and journalist Stoney Hardcastle.
“I just kind of wanted to put it to rest,” Brett said.
He dove into research in Portis’ home state of Arkansas. Most of it occurred at Fort Smith’s library, where he explored copies of the Fort Smith Elevator newspaper on microfilm.
“Some things I knew for sure I was walking on Portis’ same research,” he said.
Tidbits along the way kept Brett motivated to continue the pursuit.
Brett wrote in his book that he never believed the Rooster Cogburn who appeared in “True Grit” was anything other than a fictional character. He said Portis has long stated that Rooster was a composite or collage of many men and marshals of the era.
However, Brett said he believes Portis was aware of John Franklin “Rooster” Cogburn.
“There were nine jillion newspaper articles about the reward that was put on my great grandfather’s head,” Brett said.
Other names (Pepper, Spurling) from real-life events of the era appear in “True Grit.” Brett documented the similarities (including a snakepit tale) in his book. He wanted to print only what he could back up with sources, and he made it clear in his book that the plot of “True Grit” sprang from Portis’ brain.
Said Brett’s book: “While his Rooster Cogburn bears some resemblances to the actual man, it doesn’t lead me to believe that Portis’ character was anything more than the result of his talent, a feel for the time and place, and solid research on western Arkansas and Indian Territory during Judge Isaac Parker’s time on the bench at Fort Smith.”
Brett said he still gets emails from readers of his book, and some seem “almost mad” that his great-grandfather was not a deputy U.S. marshall like the character in “True Grit.”
“I was at a book signing a few years ago,” he said. “A lady came up to me. She said, ‘What was it like to have John Wayne as a great-grandfather?’ How do you keep a straight face? I don’t know how you reply to that. I’ve been accused of being a BS-er, but that’s a tough one.”
Brett said he has fielded offers to do other nonfiction books, but he prefers fiction.
“I like for it to be kind of factually, historically accurate, but I like to make stuff up,” he said.
Go to the Author Brett Cogburn Facebook page for book updates. Two of his Western novels are scheduled for release this year. “Red Ruckus” (Nov. 20, Five Star) continues the story of Indian Territory lawman Morgan Clyde and the setting is early-day Eufaula from its days as a Katy railroad camp known as Ironhead Station. “Gunpowder Express” (Dec. 31, Kensington Publishing) is the third installment in Brett’s Widowmaker Jones series.
Brett was asked to identify the primary thing he thinks he accomplished by writing the Rooster Cogburn book.
“Answering questions,” he said.
For your personal benefit?
“Yes. I wanted to know. That was it in a nutshell.”
Brett said his father had shown interest in the topic. There were blanks that needed filled in because the full story of the other Rooster — the “real” Rooster — was not passed down from fathers to sons.
“The generation before us was very tight-lipped,” Brett said. “You didn’t air your dirty laundry. My own grandfather, because he was the baby of the family, he didn’t know the truth (about his father). It was told in my family that my great grandfather walked on rose petals. He was a Baptist preacher. He did nothing wrong. He did go off to prison once. He got cited with contempt of court. That was the sum of what we knew.”
Now you know what’s true — and what’s “True Grit.”