OK, I have finally posted the true story behind the Sons of Katie Elder in the Katie Elder area. It's long, but it's a very complex story. I'd recommend reading the referenced publications for the whole story. If anyone here will be at the Wild West History Association convention in Cody, Wyoming at the end of the month, I'll be there, too. Look me up.
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I've promised this for a long time so here it is: the true story of the REAL Sons of Katie Elder. Warning - this is a complex story, so it's a long post. This is a much shortened version of an article I did for the Ridgway, Colorado Chamber of Commerce.
The Sons of Katie Elder is a western classic. Who can forget the tale of four brothers falsely accused of the murder of a popular sheriff, chained together while fighting off a vicious mob. What is not generally known is that this movie was very loosely based on the story of a real family that later lived near Ridgway, Colorado, where they were well-liked and served as lawmen for many years. Their story reads like fiction, but this tale of courage and gunplay is all true. Their name wasn't Elder, though, it was Marlow
The full story of the Marlow brothers is complex. To get the full story, read The Marlow Brothers' Texas Ordeal and Life in Ouray County, by Jim Pettengill, in the Ouray County Historical Society Journal Vol. 4, available online from Mount Sneffels Press at www.mtsneffelspress.com; Life of the Marlows: A True Story of Frontier Life of Early Days, Revised by William Rathmell, reprinted recently (2004) by University of North Texas Press; and The Fighting Marlows: Men Who Wouldn't be Lynched, by Glenn Shirley, Texas Christian Press 1994.
This is still a controversial subject, and you are likely to get different versions of the story depending on where you ask. The following is as accurate as I can determine from the available publications, information from the family, and newspaper accounts of the day.
In 1888 the Marlow family was living in Indian Territory - present-day Oklahoma. There were five brothers: George, Charley, Alfred (Alf), Boone and Llewellyn (Epp), and their mother, Martha Jane Marlow. While George was visiting his friend "Doc" Shores, sheriff of Gunnison County in Colorado, the other brothers worked on Oklahoma ranches. One day in September they were arrested by a Deputy US Marshall from Texas named Ed Johnson on false charges of stealing horses near Trinidad, Colorado and taken to jail in Graham, Texas for trial. When George returned, he took his mother and his brother's families to Texas to seek his brothers' release.
When they arrived in Graham, George was also arrested. The brothers were eventually released on bail, and went to work on a nearby ranch as they awaited their day in court. One day the local sheriff, who was friendly to the Marlows, and his deputy arrived at the Marlows' rented cabin with an arrest warrant for Boone, who had killed a cowboy in another part of Texas several years previously in self-defense. The deputy entered the Marlow home at dinnertime, drew his pistol and fired a shot at Boone while the rest of the family sat in disbelief. Boone ducked, grabbed his nearby Winchester and fired two shots at the deputy. Both shots missed, but the second shot struck the sheriff, who had just walked into the line of fire from outside.
While the rest of the family cared for the mortally wounded sheriff, Boone fled and Epp was sent to town to bring a doctor. Epp was arrested in town, and when the doctor arrived, the deputy and a posse arrested George, Charley, and Alf as well, even though George and Alf had been a couple of miles away.
Graham, Texas had a reputation for treating prisoners badly, with more than one recent lynching, so the brothers attempted to escape. When they were recaptured, they were chained together by the ankles, two by two, and returned to jail. The next night a mob of about 40 people walked into the jail and tried to take the Marlows out to be lynched. The brothers fought off the mob that night, and the next day the Deputy Marshal was ordered to move them to Fort Worth, where they would be safe and get a fair trial.
That evening Deputy Johnson took his prisoners out to a trio of wagons, which were manned by many members of the previous night's mob. The brothers knew thay would be attacked again. About a mile outside of Graham the wagons stopped and the mob attacked, The brothers jumped out of the wagon, grabbed weapons from their guards and fought back. The battle lasted almost a half hour, and when the mob finally fled the scene, several of the attackers lay dead, Alf and Epp Marlow had been killed, and George and Charley had both been seriously wounded. To make their escape, George and Charley had to cut the feet off their dead brothers to remove their leg irons.
They returned to the family cabin and held off a posse from Graham, declaring that they would surrender to the regional US Marshall and no one else. The marshal came and took the wounded brothers to Fort Worth.
The members of the mob were arrested and charged with murder. George and Charley were tried and acquitted. Once they were free, they headed to southwestern Colorado in 1889 where George had made friends, and settled outside the new town of Ridgway in Ouray County.
They quickly proved to be hard-working and popular citizens. When two Texas Rangers came to town in 1890 with a warrant to take Charley back to Graham for another trial related to the murder of the sheriff, a large crowd gathered and told the Rangers that it would take 2000 Rangers to arrest the Marlows. Unknown to the Ridgway folks, these were not just any rangers - they were Captain William MacDonald and Sergeant A. J. Brittan, the two top Rangers in West Texas. MacDonald became one of the four most famous Rangers in history, the man who inspired the phrases "One riot, one ranger", and "He would charge Hell with a bucket of water". The governors of Colorado and Texas got involved and determined that the Marlows were important witnesses in the trial of the mob and were outside of the Rangers' jurisdiction. the Rangers went home empty handed.
In 1892 Ouray Judge William Rathmell ghost-wrote a book of the brother's adventures. George and Charley became highly respected, and both served as lawmen in Ouray County until the early days of the 20th Century, as Ridgway town marshalls, Deputy County Sheriffs, and Deputy US Marshalls.They served on the school board and George joined the local Elks lodge. In 1905 they bought a large ranch 10 miles north of Ridgway, which is now part of the Billie Creek Special Wildlife Area, administered by the Department of Wildlife. Martha Jane Marlow is buried on the ranch, and some structures remain.
George and Charley both had large families, and many descendants still live in western Colorado. Both men lived well into their eighties and were remembered at their deaths as gentle, caring members of the community.
In the 1950s, a Hollywod scriptwriter discovered a copy of Rathmell's book in a used book store and paid the descendants for the film rights to the brothers' remarkable story. Several years later it became the basis for The Sons of Katie Elder.
Artifacts form the Marlow family are on display at the Ouray County Historical Museum, and at the Museum of the Mountain West in nearby Montrose, Colorado.
The Ridgway (Colorado - located 10 miles north of Ouray) Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center has a handout with info on the movies shot here - True Grit 1, a couple of scenes from How the West was Won, and James Cagney's last western, Tribute to a Bad Man. We also have the true story behind The Sons of Katie Elder, which was loosely based on the lives of a family who moved here in 1889. The hand out is free. The visitor center is located at the intersection of routes 550 and 62 (at the county's only traffic light), in the same building as the Ridgway Railroad Museum, which is also worth a look. If you happen to stop in on a Wednesday, chances are that I will be the volunteer on duty at the visitor center.
To check out the museum, visit www.ridgwayrailroadmuseum.org.
I promise to put up a summary of the story behind the Sons of Katie Elder before long.
Thanks - I don't post a lot on most of the forums I belong to, just when I think I have something to say - but I check them all daily. I just posted to the Colorado film location thread, and will post to the thread on Sons of Katie Elder soon, but then I'll probably lay back and listen to others for a while.
Glad to be aboard.
Some more info on True Grit locations:
The Ouray County Courthouse was used, but only for the interior scenes - and some of the film didn't turn out, so a replica had to be built in California to re-shoot a few shots. The exterior of the courthouse in the film was a set built next door to the "fire house" in Ridgway. It was just an exterior shell and removed after completion of the film shoot. The Ouray Courthouse is a beautiful building - I've sat jury duty in there during a snowstorm, and it's a unique feeling of being in the 1880s.
The actual name of the meadow where the final shootout takes place is Katie's Meadow. The US Forest Service used to have a sign there, but the signs were stolen by tourists just as fast as the USFS could put them up, so there is no sign anymore. Some sources refer to it as Debbie's Meadow, but they have their films confused - Debbie Reynolds was in How the West Was Won, which partly shot in "downtown" Ridgway and (I'm told) out on Last Dollar Road west of town. Her mother bought property near Ouray and I'm told the house is still in the family.
The snake pit/mine at the end is on private property just southwest of Ouray. The fiberglass rocks and log bed frames in the cave are still there - I was up there last autumn. There is no public access to this site, but sometimes it's opened up for tours or special events.
The Ross Ranch is on Last Dollar Road, which is about 12 miles west of Ridgway. The ranch is about 2 miles down the road from highway 62, on the right. It's private property, too, and the ranch house is VERY run down. The scenes were shot from the far side, so the house doesn't look quite right from the road.
The True Grit Cafe in town was built around the exterior wall that had a sign for a grocery painted on it, and that sign is still visible on the wall. It was painted by Montrose Western artist Bob DeJulio, who did a lot of painting of sets for the film.
I live in Ridgway (yeah, tough assignment, but someone has to do it) and took the photo labeled Kate's Meadow in the original post in this thread. It's copyright 2003, James Pettengill, used by permission, all rights reserved.
I'm a new forumite from Ridgway, Colorado, looking forward to sharing an interest in the American West and Wayne films. Glad to meet you all.