There aren’t any real cowboys among my close ancestors, but there are plenty of pioneers and they exhibited true grit of the kind that got it done. Those with the pioneer spirit on my dad’s side showed true grit when they left Germany and Finland with what they could carry – seeking something better. Those with the pioneer spirit on my mom’s side showed true grit when they left Scotland, Ireland and Germany with what they could carry – seeking something better. And those early English colonists among my ancestors showed true grit and a pioneer spirit by taking charge of their lives and telling the Crown to take a hike.
My ancestral milieu includes farmers, nurserymen, steamboat engineers, blacksmiths, railroad engineers, Civil War captains and generals, housekeepers, wood carvers and ministers with names like Will, Gugin, Bird, Coughlin, Logan, Kangas, Myers. They came to this country and exhibited the pluck and stick-to-it/can-do attitudes that define true grit. And yet, before thinking about it today, amidst all the hype surrounding the Coen brothers’ remake of the classic western movie True Grit, I missed the fact that you don’t have to be a cowboy to possess the virtues associated with grit and the pioneer spirit.
As a kid on the prairies in North Dakota, I was blissfully unaware of the true grit and determination that made my little life mostly bearable and even fun at times. I was also unfortunately unaware that my own ancestry offered plenty of heroes – expressing pride about one’s family definitely was not a common practice at that time and place. So I looked for my heroes elsewhere and found them among the gritty men portrayed in western novels and movies.
Characters like Rooster Cogburn, Josie Wales, Jacob McCandles, Ransom Stoddard and so many others were bigger than life to me, and that they somehow managed to find resolution, if not reconciliation, in a topsy-turvy and often quite violent world, was compelling. I rode with all of them across the vast prairies of my mind – chasing cows, living off the land, drinking out of springs, chasing bad guys and taking my lumps. My heroes have always been cowboys ...
When novels turned into movies, John Wayne became a favorite western hero. He taught me to swagger with my double rig cap guns and taught me a few smart aleck lines. He made me into the lever-action rifle fan that I am today. Through his characters, Wayne showed me what the pioneer spirit and justice was about – in a naïve and grossly idealized kind of way. Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name (aka Joe, Manco, Blondie) offered an almost believable glimpse of surviving life’s harsh realities at the periphery – a place I sometimes inhabited.
I now wish I might have known my grandparents and great grandparents – every one of them. I might not have learned to swagger or to shoot the bad guys with a two-handed quick draw, but I’d have understood much earlier that true grit and genuine pioneer spirit have nothing to do with silver screen cowboys.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.