Weeks after casting announcements for main roles, Yellowstone fans would learn that iconic actor Billy Bob Thornton is to join the show’s period prequel, 1883. Yet Thornton’s role bears an interesting distinction from castmates like Sam Elliott, a fellow Tombstone alum.
Billy Bob is set to give life to Marshal Jim Courtright a lawman who will encounter the Dutton family on their long journey. Unlike Elliott, however, Thornton is bringing a real-life historical figure to the screen in Courtright.
His name may not be as synonymous with the west as Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, or Billy the Kid, but Jim Courtright is as fascinating a man that ever lived through the Wild West.
Meet Legendary Lawman Jim Courtright (1848-1887)
Some called him “Longhair Jim”. Others knew him as “Big Jim” Courtright. But the future lawman was born Timothy Isaiah Courtright via Sangamon County, Illinois in 1848.
According to Jim Courtright of Fort Worth: His Life and Legend, Courtright would lie about his age and enlist in the Union Army for the American Civil War. Many publications cite Jim as a “rootless” young man after the war – a drifter and wanderer who knew no one place for too long.
Eventually, however, Courtright would settle in Fort Worth, Texas. There, the man would serve many roles: jailer, marshal, deputy sheriff, killer-for-hire, private detective, racketeer, and most famously as Deputy U.S. Marshal.
Through it all, Courtright would become known as one of the quickest draws in the Lonestar State. He would even perform his gunslinging skills as part of the infamous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
It’s no coincidence that 1883 is filming in Fort Worth, Texas. In addition, the Duttons’ journey to Montana is to begin in the state. There, they are likely to meet Billy Bob Thornton’s version of Marshal Courtright early in the show’s proceedings. Now back to history.
From ‘Hells Half Acre’ to ‘1883’
As Fort Worth’s marshal, Courtright wound up in charge of the notorious “Hells Half Acre” as it was known. This red-light district was a notorious, crime-stricken landscape where the marshal himself shot and killed no less than four men. All the while, Jim would collect payments from business owners for his “protection.”
It’s his life after Texas, however, that would cement Courtright’s legacy as an outlaw. As a deputy, Courtright would follow his superior officers to enforce the seizure of the American Valley Cattle Company in New Mexico… in 1883.
Things quickly went awry, however, once Jim and his cohorts learned the sheer, seedy scope of the operation. To make a long story short, Courtright sought an easy end to the affair and murdered two men in what would become known as the American Valley Murders.
This would transform Jim Courtright the lawman into Jim Courtright the outlaw. He would successfully flee to Mexico to escape persecution, before winding up back in New Mexico once more some years later.
After one hell of a short life, Courtright would die in 1887 at the draw of fellow gunslinger Luke Short, who managed to outgun him in Dodge City, Kansas. He was 39.
We’ll find out how much of his true story finally makes it to the screen when 1883 hits small screens December 19, 2021.