Of all the quintessentially Texan books, Lonesome Dove ranks right up there. And while most readers are familiar with its iconic descriptions of the dusty land, many may not know the local spots that gave author Larry McMurtry the inspiration to write his historical epic.
Published in 1985, the book was followed by the acclaimed television miniseries, which starred Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call respectively. McMurtry based these characters on Oliver Loving (for McCrae) and Charles Goodnight (for Call), the 19th-century Texas ranchers who are the namesakes of the Goodnight Loving Trail, the famous route for Longhorn cattle drives.
For those unfamiliar, the story chronicles former Texas Rangers McCrae and Call and their ragtag pack of cowboys (called the “Hat Creek outfit”), who embark from the fictional South Texas town of Lonesome Dove to Montana, where they hope to set up a cattle ranch. Along the way, they confront the brutal forces of Texas weather, ruthless outlaws, and their own deeply flawed natures.
The following locales are some of the real places along the trail that any devotee can visit. A word of caution: There are spoilers ahead.
The Trailhead: Lonesome Dove Baptist Church
While the trailhead of the Hat Creek Outfit’s route begins in the fictional Lonesome Dove, a small town at the Texas-Mexico border, the real starting point for the book is in Southlake, about 25 miles from Fort Worth. Here stands the church from which the novel derives its title.
Established in 1846, the Lonesome Dove Baptist Church is the oldest church in Tarrant County and has humble origins. Settlers to the area originally hailed from Missouri, and eventually built homes in the Southlake area. They were so impressed with the land’s abundant game that they wrote back to their families to convince them to join.
Members held the first meeting of the congregation in the log cabin of Charles Throop, and by 1847, a dedicated building was erected for the pious evangelical Christians. Although the original structure burned down in 1930, the current building remains on the original site.
Back in 1987, McMurtry told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he saw the name Lonesome Dove Baptist Church painted on the side of a bus while he was eating at the Ponder Steakhouse. “I knew Lonesome Dove would make a great title,” he said. In the preface of the 1985 edition, he even wrote that after many years of writer’s block, he saw the name and went straight back to his house and began writing.
February marked the 177th anniversary of the church, and visitors can see the church at 2380 Lonesome Dove Road in Southlake.
Hell’s Half Acre/White Elephant Saloon
Along the windswept, violent route that the Hat Creek Outfit traveled, a principal stop was in Fort Worth. During the 1870s, the city was severely depleted from the Civil War, but the members of the outfit would have seen the courthouse under construction, a handful of general stores, a few banks, and saloons.
Because the novel specifically mentions that “[t]he crew came back from Fort Worth hung over and subdued,” it is likely that they would have gone to Hell’s Half Acre, Fort Worth’s red-light district that emerged in the early 1870s. There they would have had their pick of dozens of gambling parlors, bordellos, and saloons.
The “half acre” comes from the approximate area of a section of the “Queen City of the Prairies,” running rom 10th to 15th streets while intersecting with Houston, Main, and Rusk streets, and Throckmorton and Calhoun streets established as the boundaries.
One of the most famous saloons was the White Elephant, which offered gentlemen (and only gentlemen) gambling accommodations and drink services. The saloon was located just outside the boundary of the infamous half acre. Despite the proximity to the red-light district, the owners of the White Elephant sought to establish themselves as a legitimate business, wanting to serve exceptional whiskey to thirsty customers. The Hat Creek men, who would have paid 5 cents for a beer, received a free lunch, a common courtesy from saloon owners of the time.
You can visit the Texas historical marker located at 12th and Houston streets in Fort Worth.
Old City Greenwood Cemetery
The Old City Greenwood Cemetery holds significant meaning for the plot of Lonesome Dove: It is the final resting spot for Bose Ikard and Oliver Loving, whose personalities provided McMurtry with the inspiration for the characters of Joshua Deets (played by Danny Glover) and Gus McCrae.
Although in the novel Deets was killed in Wyoming, fans do not have to travel outside of Texas to pay their respects to Ikard, the real-life Black cowboy who was inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame at the Fort Worth Stockyards and Hall of Great Westerners in Oklahoma.
Ikard, who was born into slavery in 1843 in Mississippi, joined Goodnight and Loving on their trip to Colorado in 1866. Like the character Deets, he worked as a tracker and cowboy for many years for the cattle driving duo.
It is easy to see Ikard’s legacy both through the importance of Deets’ role in the book and with the plaque Goodnight dedicated to his former employee, which reads: “Served with me four years on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, never shirked duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with Comanches, splendid behavior.”
In the novel, Call erects a sign over Deets’ grave, and McMurtry took ample inspiration (and a dose of creative, intentional misspelling) from Goodnight’s marker to Ikard: “Served with me 30 years, fought in 21 engagements with the Commanche and Kiowa. Cherful in all weathers. Never sherked a task. Splendid behaviour.”
You can see the plaque and graves at the Old City Greenwood Cemetery at 400 E. Water St. in Weatherford.