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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Timepiece: True Grit Trail


By Dr. Curtis Varnell

Always a John Wayne fan, I became more so after watching True Grit and associating it with the
region in which I was raised. Charles Portis’s 1968 fictional novel describes fourteen-year-old
Mattie Ross’s effort to avenge the death of her father. Set in the 1880’s, Mattie leaves her home
near Dardanelle, Arkansas and travels to Fort Smith searching for a person that would exact
retribution on the “worthless scoundrel” Thomas Chaney who had robbed and killed her father
on the streets of Fort Smith. References to Fort Smith “hanging judge” Parker and to his many
marshals’ that patrolled the lawless Indian territory abound in the story. Eventually, Ross hires
the drunken, trigger-happy Rooster Cogburn to assist her in her quest. No doubt, she would have
been better served to have hired the historical Bass Reeves as her guide. Reeves, a former slave,
was the first black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi river and served for 32 years as a
federal peace officer. During that time, he recorded over 3,000 arrests and killed 14 outlaws
while defending his life. It was said that when Reeves was on your trail, you might as well
surrender because he never gave up.
Regardless, Mattie, when given her chose of choosing a marshal, passed up those that were
reputable and chose Rooster Cogburn, portrayed in the movie by John Wayne. Cogburn, the
young Mattie, and eventually Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Glen Campbell) spend the rest of the
movie chasing outlaws through the Poteau Mountains of Oklahoma. The last scenes of the
movie show Mattie, now elderly and back in Dardanelle, visiting the graveside of Cogburn who
had died while participating in a wild west show in Jonesboro, Arkansas. One of the most
popular westerns of all time, it was again filmed and released in 2010, both times to nation-wide
The book and movies were so popular, and perhaps so believable, that many people began
stopping by some of the locations named in the movies. Dardanelle, as central to the plot of the
story, became identified somewhat with the story and, building on its fame, began to promote
visitation in the area. Already an historical city with a past rooted in early exploration, Indian
lands, and civil war battles, True Grit just adds appeal to telling the story of our culture.
Although fictional, Mattie exhibits some of the most admired traits of the pioneer. Some of the
famed quotes from the film share the values and common sense of the people of Arkansas. In
one scene, Mattie quotes, “If you want anything done right, you will have to see to yourself
every time.” In another instance, “What have you done if you have bested a fool?” Each of the
main characters in the book are tested to see if they have “True Grit” which is defined as the
stubborn refusal to quit until a job is done.
The people of the area have exhibited true grit for over one-hundred years and now it serves as
the eastern anchor to the TRUE GRIT trail which follows Mattie’s journey to Fort Smith. Visit
the Arkansas River Valley library in Dardanelle and explore the exhibit about True Grit
including its historical and fictional parts. With more exhibits to follow, Dardanelle is a great
place to begin the journey on the trail. Following Mattie’s journey, pass through Paris and visit
the Eiffel Tower or the 1898 steam locomotive, Charleston and its historical place in school
integration and end at the western terminus in Fort Smith by visiting the new National Marshals
Museum, Judge Parkers courtroom and National park, and stop by the beautiful tribute to Bass
Reeves. All are a part of the new True Grit Trail.

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Tammy Teague
Tammy Teague
Tammy is the heart behind the brand. Her tenacity to curate authentic journalism, supported by a genuine heart is one her many wholesome qualities.
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