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True Grit: The Real “Rooster” Cogburn

John Franklin Cogburn’s great-grandson recounts the life of the man who inspired True Grit's "Rooster."

rooster brett cogburn

Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit, has become a staple of Western fiction. In the story, 14-year-old Mattie Ross teams up with Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf to avenge the death of her father. The book has been adapted a few times, famously earning John Wayne an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of “Rooster” in the 1969 film of the same name, while Jeff Bridges reprised the role in the 2010 Coen brothers adaptation that earned him an Oscar nomination. 

While True Grit has clearly left its mark on both the literary and film worlds, it’s mostly unknown that Portis’ character “Rooster” was actually inspired by a real-life gunslinger. John Franklin Cogburn, nicknamed “Rooster” by his uncle, made his own rules in late-1800s Arkansas. Though he never carried a badge of his own, Franklin was out for blood when it came to Deputy Marshal Trammel. Working undercover to identify moonshiners, Trammel had threatened the women in Cogburn’s family—strong-arming them for information—which is something that didn’t sit well with Franklin. On June 21, 1888, Franklin, his cousin Fayette, and a few others attacked lawmen—including Trammel—near Black Springs, Arkansas. The bloodbath that followed would result in a manhunt for Franklin and crew. 

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Brett Cogburn details the life of his great-grandfather, John Franklin Cogburn, in Rooster. While the character Charles Portis made famous is not entirely based on Franklin, there are most certainly elements from his life that inspired the classic story. 

Read on for an excerpt from Rooster, and then download the book.  





By Brett Cogburn

Blood Feud

Black Springs wasn’t much of a town as towns went, even in the backwoods of Arkansas. It might have been more aptly termed a “spot in the road,” as some folks will say, more of a community than a town proper. There was only one building that bore a second look and that was the general store. Even that wasn’t much in the way of opulence, its weathered timbers grayed and lacking a single coat of paint. The store commanded the settlement more by height than by any pretentious display of architecture and beauty, being the only two-story structure in sight. The first floor consisted of the meager offerings of merchandise the poor folks who graced its dark interior might want or afford, and the upstairs served duty as the local Masonic lodge. The large front porch overlooked the hardscrabble log and sawmill lumber buildings scattered along a stretch of dusty road that led west through the mountains into Indian Territory. The mangy old hound lying at the foot of the porch and scratching a flea off its bony ribs was in perfect keeping with the pace and prosperity of the tiny settlement.

The cold wind blowing and the gray clouds sliding over the pine treetops on the mountaintop above town reminded everyone that it was the dead of winter. Most folks were huddled around their fireplaces or standing over warmly ticking stoves, so not many saw the tall young man ride into town. He came up the trail from Fancy Hill on a pretty good horse for a hill boy. He left the animal out of the wind on the leeward side of the store and began to eke his way on foot from one building to the next.

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Many in Black Springs would have known him, or at least recognized him for one of his clan. All of the men of his family were stamped much the same—high cheekbones, square chins, thick mustaches, and brown eyes that glittered like those of an Indian. The fact that he was bigger than most of his clan wasn’t what gave pause to those who saw him on that morning. Every man in the mountains was a hunter in some form or fashion, and it was obvious that Franklin “Rooster” Cogburn was stalking somebody.

It wasn’t unusual for a man to arrive in town with a rifle in his hands, as the roads could be dangerous to travel and leaving your shooter at home was a sure way to run short of meat in the cookpot. An armed man usually stored his gun to pick up later in whatever business or home he visited first if he came on foot, or he left it on his horse. Franklin didn’t leave his Winchester anywhere. In fact, he carried it across his saddle when he arrived instead of having it in a scabbard, as if he were ready to jump shoot a deer or a turkey. And when he started down the street on foot, the gun was still in his hands.

rooster brett cogburn
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  • Left: John Wayne portraying "Rooster" in the 1969 adaptation of True Grit; Right: Jeff Bridges reprising the role in the 2010 adaptation. 

    Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Mountain folk can smell trouble just as easy as smoke on the wind, and the word rapidly spread throughout the settlement that Franklin was on the prowl. And word spread just as quickly who it was that he was hunting. Folks gave him room just like you did a mean old bull when you had to walk across your neighbor’s pasture. Butting into somebody else’s business was always chancy, much less antagonizing one of the Cogburns. There were too damned many of them to risk getting crossways with—not if a man valued his peace and wanted to stay out of a fight. It was best to let the Law handle the matter, and that was bound to happen, considering it was a Deputy U.S. Marshal that Franklin was looking for with blood in his eye.

Franklin made no attempt to hide the fact that he was looking for a fight with J. D. Trammell, and he quietly slandered the man’s name to any who asked. He had heard Trammell was in town, and had ridden seven miles through the mountains to corner him. The rumor mill had it that Cogburns believed Trammell was working undercover either for the Revenue Service or for Judge Parker’s court. Trammell had lived and worked for a while among the Cogburns in their stronghold at Fancy Hill, but had recently fled the community due to tension between him and some of the clan.

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Lots of the citizens of Montgomery County made whiskey, and the Cogburns made more than anybody. The old Hanging Judge and his army of badge packers out of Fort Smith got a lot of press chasing train robbers and murderers in the Indian Territory, but people of the time knew that the marshals’ main job was arresting whiskey peddlers and moonshiners. The Law was bound and determined to stem the distilling of illegal liquor, and especially to keep it out of the nearby Indian Territory. The mountain folks begrudgingly admired craftiness, and the “revenuers,” as they often called the deputy marshals and other government men, could be especially sneaky in locating and busting up a man’s stills. The kind of men brave enough or outlaw enough to break the law making whiskey often didn’t look too kindly on anyone threatening their means of living, and a detective working undercover risked life and limb.

And there were other things that a Cogburn would tolerate even less than a revenuer. Many of the wives of the Cogburns and other families in the area claimed that Trammell was visiting their homes while their men were gone and using strong-arm tactics to force them to inform on who was making whiskey and where the stills were located. Always hotheaded and ready for a fight, Franklin had come to Black Springs to set things right. Nobody, and he meant nobody, was going to abuse the women of his family. A killing was in order.

J. D. Trammell was indeed a Deputy U.S. Marshal, but what Franklin didn’t know was that Trammell wasn’t in Black Springs. However, Montgomery County Sheriff G. W. Golden just happened to be in town on other business. The first thing he came across at a distance was Franklin armed, angry, and hunting a man whom Golden knew to be a fellow officer of the law. He immediately went to seek the help of the local constable, whose name has unfortunately been lost to history. Both lawmen were in agreement that Franklin should be disarmed, but neither of them was anxious to confront him.

Among the people of southern Montgomery County, the twenty-two-year-old Franklin was known as an honest fellow, quick to lend his help, and a fine hand with a team of horses. While he may have been a likable sort, he was also known to be a part of the large moonshining operation run by some of the rougher sort in his family. He had a quick temper and would fight at the drop of a hat, and it was the opinion of more than a few citizens that his wild streak would eventually come to no good end.

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Sheriff Golden knew that most of the Cogburns could be a little hard to handle when they were on the prod, but what most concerned him was the Winchester Franklin was carrying. In a country chock full of squirrel shooters, Franklin had a reputation as one of the finest marksmen in the mountains. Many of the mountain men were fond of whiskey and apt to resist a lawman when in their cups. Franklin wasn’t drinking, but he was a Cogburn. They were notoriously ornery, and taking the gun away from him could be a little touchy if he didn’t want to give it up.

The two lawmen were taking no chances they didn’t have to, and they waited for Franklin outside the door of the store. When Franklin emerged, Sheriff Golden confronted him politely while the constable stepped in behind him with a drawn pistol. Heated words were exchanged, but they had the drop on Franklin and he eventually turned his weapon over to the sheriff.

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Franklin made no apologies for hunting Deputy Marshal Trammell and readily admitted that he had come to kill him. Sheriff Golden knew that there would have been a fight had Trammell been in town, and he needed something to hold his prisoner on. Franklin had no previous criminal record. He hadn’t bothered any of the townspeople, nor had he caused any kind of a disturbance. However, men couldn’t be allowed to threaten the lives of duly appointed officers of the law, and a crime was quickly attached to Franklin.

A wide array of cutting and shooting instruments could be found upon the persons of many of the hardy citizens of frontier Arkansas—a state where legislators had once dueled with Bowie knives on the capitol grounds. According to a book put out by an Arkansas county board in 1888, “the law of the state prohibits the wearing or carrying of concealed weapons ...” Said law barred the concealed carry upon one’s person of “any knife, dirk, sword-cane, brass knuckles, slung-shot or pistol (except the size used in the army and navy).” The law appears to go as far back as statehood, as the Arkansas Supreme Court had upheld the ban on certain concealed weapons in 1842. Circuit court documents of the late 1880s list numerous defendants charged with “carrying weapons,” which was the term for being found with a hideout gun or hidden blade.

Franklin’s rifle was out in the open, but that didn’t prevent the lawman from charging him with a violation of the weapons law. Perhaps the sheriff just ignored that fact, or perhaps Franklin had a knife or pocket pistol concealed in his clothing. One must remember that during those years in backwoods circuit courts, the actual state or federal laws could be a vague concept left to the notions of local lawmen or the judge and jury’s decisions. Whatever the circumstances were, the sheriff wanted Franklin to face charges and placed him under arrest.

There wasn’t a jail in Black Springs, so Sheriff Golden started toward the county seat at Mount Ida with his prisoner. Cogburn family lore has it that Franklin wasn’t handcuffed on the nine-mile ride, either because the sheriff didn’t have any restraints or because Sheriff Golden wasn’t foolish enough to try to put that indignity on him.

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The court records do not tell if Franklin was jailed when they arrived at Mount Ida or if he was chained to the iron band surrounding a giant shade tree on the courthouse lawn that sometimes served double duty as a tethering point for horses and a temporary place to constrain prisoners. What is known is that during the January/February term of court, a circuit judge dug around in his mental junk box of the Arkansas legal code and found him guilty of “carrying a firearm,” a misdemeanor offense. Franklin was fined fifty dollars, the minimum punishment for such a conviction. Although the judge could have tapped him for the maximum $200 penalty, the indignity of his arrest and the infringement on his right to bear arms wasn’t taken lightly. The Cogburns would later claim that the lawmen of the county were using Franklin as a whipping boy to try to assert their authority and that Judge Silas Vaught, a Confederate veteran, had a grudge against the former Union men of Montgomery County. While these claims may or may not have been true, the reason for Franklin’s fine on such a trivial and questionable crime may have had more to do with the crackdown that had begun on the moonshiners of the county.

The minimum penalty or not, the fifty-dollar fine was truly a hefty one, considering it was two times what most poor mountain folk made in a month if they were lucky enough to have a job or make a good crop. A criminal found guilty of making whiskey might only expect a $100 sentence from Judge Parker’s federal court on a first offense. However, if Franklin was as unapologetic with the circuit judge as he was with the sheriff, perhaps he brought the verdict and fine on himself. Judges tend to frown on those who want to shoot the officers of the court.

What is certain is that nobody who knew Rooster believed that the trouble was over. Everyone in the mountains understood a blood feud, and no lawman was going to stop a killing when Deputy John D. Trammell and Rooster Cogburn met again. What they didn’t know was how the troubles to come would be the talk of western Arkansas and pit the Hanging Judge and the Fort Smith court against an entire family.

Want to keep reading? Download Rooster now. 

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