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Northwest Travel 2

Tracing the True Grit Trail


When it comes to parsing the Great American Novel, “True Grit” by Arkansas author Charles Portis is right in the mix with the likes of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The book, first released as a serial in “The Saturday Evening Post” in 1968, shone a spotlight on Arkansas’s Western frontier past. When John Wayne took on the role of the book’s U.S. Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 movie, “True Grit” sealed its fate as part of Arkansas’s iconic history. Today that fame lives on with the True Grit Trail.

Charles Portis’s 1968 first-edition cover of True Grit. Credit: Simon & Schuster via Wikipedia

Portis was already a veteran journalist and writer when he returned to Arkansas to focus on writing a novel. His first book, “Norwood” was published in 1966, but it was his second novel that cemented his reputation as an author. “True Grit” is set in 1870s Arkansas and opens in Yell County, near Dardanelle. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross narrates the story with such strong dialogue and conviction that readers are immediately thrown into the adventure. Arkansas is featured in the novel from the second sentence as Mattie says, “I was just 14 years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”

Ross travels from Dardanelle, where she learns the news of her father’s death, to Fort Smith to hire famed Deputy U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. In the book, Ross is convinced Cogburn’s gritty reputation is exactly what she needs to bring her father’s killer to justice. The distance Ross travels from Dardanelle to Fort Smith is just over 75 miles by Highway 22, though in the book, Ross takes the train. While in Fort Smith, Ross views a hanging overseen by “The Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker, buys back her father’s horses and, hires Cogburn to track down the killer, then meets Texas Ranger LaBeouf.

Credit: Fair Use via Wikipedia

From Fort Smith, the trio cross into “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma to apprehend the killer. Even though neither the 1969 film nor the 2010 remake was filmed in Arkansas, both the book and the movies emphasize the Arkansas roots of the story, especially through Mattie’s encounters in Fort Smith with a hanging and meeting U.S. Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Cogburn was based on a combination of famous U.S. Marshals operating out of Fort Smith at the time, particularly Bass Reeves. The stories of these real-life Marshals are now captured in the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith.

The idea for tracing the True Grit Trail through Arkansas belongs to a group of people nicknamed the True Grit Posse. These Arkansans recognize both the value of the story and the potential business it could bring to all of the communities belonging to the fictional trail Portis created by writing Maddie Ross’s journey. Tommy Shay is a posse member who enthusiastically supports the creation of the trail. “The concept of True Grit Trail is to promote people coming to explore Western Arkansas,” Shay says. He and others formed their posse into a non-profit organization and reached out to Mary Bentley, state representative for District 73, which includes Dardanelle.

True Grit Trail postcards at the newly-opened US Marshals Museum in Fort Smith. Photo courtesy of True Grit Trail.

The idea was to designate part of Highway 22 as the True Grit Trail. This Highway runs from Dardanelle to Fort Smith and mirrors Mattie Ross’s journey from her farm outside Dardanelle to Fort Smith. Bentley took the idea to the state Legislature and created HB1628, along with co-sponsors Gary Stubblefield and Matthew Pitsch in the state Senate and State Representatives Justin Boyd, Cindy Crawford, Jay Richardson, Jon Eubanks and Lee Johnson. HB-1628 passed unanimously 135-0 on March 14, 2019, and was signed by Governor Asa Hutchinson the next day.

Passing the bill legally created The True Grit Trail, but creating a trail experience across the seven counties involved in the journey is a community and individual effort. The True Grit posse is here to help any business owners interested in getting involved with the effort. “We have a design,” Shay says. “The name True Grit Trail was never copyrighted. The Posse owns it. Any business can work with us and take this logo and promote it. Everyone is welcome to use it to help promote the trail’s small businesses.”

True Grit Trail map
Courtesy of True Grit Trail

The trail passes through seven counties: Yell, Pope, Logan, Johnson, Franklin, Crawford and Sebastian. Business owners are free to brainstorm and invent connections to the True Grit Trail. For example, True Grit Grounds is a coffee shop in Paris, Arkansas, that serves True Grit-inspired coffee and drinks, including “Rooster’s Roast” and “Trail Dust Mocha.” Another True Grit Trail business, Flatline Spices, sells four trail-inspired spices, including CogBURN, Ross Ranch, LaBoeuf and Ned’s white pepper garlic salt. These are just two examples of the ways small businesses in the area can make the True Grit Trail their own.

True Grit Trail mural in Dardanelle, Arkansas
A True Grit mural on the wall of Front Street Grill in Dardanelle. Photo courtesy of True Grit Trail and artwork by Olivia Gaspard of OG Paints.

“This is how it goes,” Shay says of the partnerships. “Some people call us, sometimes we get in touch with them.” The True Grit Posse supports these businesses by advertising them on their Facebook page and through other interactions with local businesses, business leaders and visitors. When people ask Shay what the posse gets out of their efforts, he jokes, “Bills, mostly. But we are really having a good time.”

True Grit Trail 2023 events
Upcoming events with the True Grit Trail. Photo courtesy of True Grit Trail.

This November, the posse is involved in forming a symposium at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith over Charles Portis and “True Grit.” The Library of America is publishing a book on the author, and the editor, Jay Jennings, will keynote the event. The True Grit Posse is also meeting with Oklahomans interested in launching the Oklahoma side of the True Grit Trail to complete the fictional trail. It’s these connections that the True Grit Posse are excited to see and feel can be replicated across the state. “True Grit” brought Arkansas’s frontier past into the homes of many readers and viewers; the True Grit Trail hopes to take it one step further and bring True Grit fans to Arkansas.

To learn more about the efforts of the True Grit Posse, how to partner with them, and about the True Grit Trail, visit TrueGritTrail.com.

More information on the area:
Places to see, stay and eat in Fort Smith
U. S. Marshall Museum
Bass Reeves ~ From Slave to U.S. Marshal
Mount Nebo State Park
Mount Magazine State Park

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Kimberly S. Mitchell loves journeys, real or imagined. She has hiked the Inca Trail, walked into Panama on a rickety wooden bridge and once missed the last train of the night in Paris and walked several miles home (with friends). She believes magic can be found in life and books, loves to watch the stars appear, and still dreams of backpacking the world. Now she writes adventures to send her characters on journeys, too. Pen & Quin: International Agents of Intrigue - The Mystery of the Painted Book is her debut novel. Find out more at KSMitchell.com.

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2 responses to “Tracing the True Grit Trail”

  1. Judy Goodwin says:

    What a clever idea and a great way to help local small businesses with marketing. Thank you all for setting up the True Grit Trail to help our Arkansas small business owners.

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