The historical accuracy of ‘Lonesome Dove’

Though Capt. Woodrow F. Call and Gus McCrae share some attributes with Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, author Larry McMurtry said the book was never meant to be a faithful depiction of the era.

By W.F. StrongAugust 3, 2023 10:38 am, , , ,

“Lonesome Dove” is one of the most popular Texas novels of all time with many millions of copies sold since it was first published in 1985. The miniseries that followed in 1989 was the second most popular mini-series of all time, behind “Roots.”

Larry McMurtry himself called it “the ‘Gone with the Wind’ of the West,” though he was never as much in love with the book as his fans were. He told John Spong in an oral history interview that he didn’t understand all the admiration.

Larry McMurtry. Photo by Diana Lynn Ossana, courtesy of Simon & Schuster

“You know, most writers come to dislike their most popular books,” he said. “Henry James hated ‘Daisy Miller,’ which is what he is known by. He’s probably written 35 other books. I feel a little that way about ‘Lonesome Dove.’”  

Which of his 40+ books did McMurtry personally like the most? He said in his interview with Spong that he believed “Duane’s Depressed” was his best book, but just a few years before he died he said he believed that “In a Narrow Grave” was his best. Writers are fickle about which of their literary children are their favorites.  

Whether or not McMurtry felt that “Lonesome Dove” was his best work, the general public would certainly vote in its favor, based on the millions of books and CDs sold over the past 40 years, and the number of bars, hotels, and restaurants named “Lonesome Dove,” not to mention all the children named for LD characters.

McMurtry said he never saw the miniseries. Maybe if he had he would have better understood how endearingly Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Diane Lane, et. al., brought their characters to life and made them iconic. They live on today vibrantly as popular memes in social media.  

» RELATED: The Top 12 Quotes From ‘Lonesome Dove’

As “Lonesome Dove” has characters that seem to be modeled after real-life, historical Texans, many people can’t help but wonder if McMurtry endeavored to make this book a genuine history? It’s unlikely, and he makes it clear that that was not his aim.

Texas cattle rancher Oliver Loving. Public domain image.

Though Call has some attributes of Charles Goodnight and Gus has some attributes of Oliver Loving, they were not modeled precisely after them. McMurtry said the book is not meant to be a faithful history of the era, but rather one that has echoes of those times. He wanted it to reverberate with an authenticity that would ring true.

» RELATED: The Real Texan Who Inspired Captain Woodrow F. Call

In fact, if he wanted any real accuracy at all, it was to demythologize the life of the cowboy so people could see how brutally difficult their lives were. He said, “A lot of bad things happen in ‘Lonesome Dove.’ And a lot of them are not nice. They are not civilized… The whole book is permeated with criticism of the Old West from start to finish.”  

Nonetheless, McMurtry confessed that somehow Woodrow and Gus became celebrated heroes for many readers. He said that he didn’t understand it, but assumed that a lot of people “were nostalgic for the culture of the Old West, though it was a terrible culture.” He said the true model for Gus and Woodrow was Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with Gus being the romantic adventurer and dreamer and Call being the pragmatic realist.  

Certainly one biographical event in the lives of Goodnight and Loving that is enlarged within the book is the death of Loving from a Native American attack. Goodnight returns his body from Fort Sumner, New Mexico to Weatherford, Texas. In the novel, Capt. Call takes Gus’s body all the way from Montana to Texas where he buries him in an orchard in San Antonio, a much longer journey with far more drama and mishaps worthy of Ulysses.  

Blue Duck was a real Native American chief, but McMurtry said that was coincidental. He chose the name without realizing he was a real person, but that is where the similarity stops. All the rest of the Blue Duck character is fictionalized, though his death is without question similar to that of the Kiowa Indigenous Chief Satanta. He was incarcerated in the Huntsville penitentiary and committed suicide by diving head first through a third story window of the prison hospital.  

» GET MORE NEWS FROM AROUND THE STATE: Sign up for our weekly ‘Talk of Texas’ newsletter

Joshua Deets was inspired by Bose Ikard, a longtime cowboy and friend of Goodnight. Though Ikard didn’t die from an unexpected spearing by an Indigenous boy, Goodnight did carve a fervent epitaph for him when he died of natural causes in Texas. McMurtry used quite similar words, and some of the exact ones, when Capt. Call carved his epitaph for Deets. McMurtry perhaps felt that he couldn’t much improve on that earnest sentiment so poignantly expressed.

He wrote:

“Josh Deets: Served with me 30 years. Fought in 21 engagements with the Comanche and the Kiowa. Cheerful in all weathers, never shirked at task. Splendid behavior.” 

As we read on through the entire LD tetralogy, we do encounter more genuine historical figures, though their biographies are massaged a great deal – people like Judge Roy Bean, John Wesley Hardin, and the ubiquitous Charles Goodnight, who shows up randomly many times in the entire 4-book saga. He’s never very chatty, though, as he’s always on the move. 

One historical moment overlooked in “Lonesome Dove” was the Transcontinental Railroad. The herd would have been driven across it at some point and it would have been a big moment for the young cowboys.  

A line near the end of the novel concerns a reporter exclaiming to Capt. Call that people are saying he’s a man of vision. He responds with, “Yes, a hell of a vision.”

This was something that Charles Goodnight actually said in a similar circumstance, referring to all the tough times and horror he had seen as a Texas Ranger and rancher on the frontier.  

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on and Thanks for donating today.