According to McMurtry, Gus and Call were not modeled after historical characters, but there are similarities with real-life cattle drivers Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight. When Goodnight and Loving's guide Bose Ikard died, Goodnight carved a wooden grave marker for him, just as Call does for Deets. Upon Loving's death, Goodnight brought him home to be buried in Texas, just as Call does for Augustus. (Goodnight himself appears as a minor but generally sympathetic character in this novel, and more so in the sequel, Streets of Laredo, and the prequels Dead Man's Walk and Comanche Moon.)
Other books of the Lonesome Dove series feature more-prominent historical events and locations such as the Texan Santa Fe Expedition, Great Raid of 1840 and the King Ranch, and characters such as Buffalo Hump, John Wesley Hardin, and Judge Roy Bean.
Several years ago, McMurtry mentioned in a newspaper interview that he first thought of the name for his epic while at a restaurant in Oklahoma. On that day, he saw a van which was owned by Lonesome Dove Baptist Church in Southlake, Texas. Lonesome Dove has existed as a Baptist church and cemetery in Southlake since 1846. That left an impression on him. According to McMurtry, Newt Dobbs is the "lonesome dove".
The sidearm Gus McCrae carries in the book is a Colt Dragoon, while in the Miniseries he carries a Walker Colt, designed by Texas Ranger Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker, and produced by Connecticut gun-maker Samuel Colt in 1847. It was first issued to the Texas Rangers, who praised the pistol for its durability as well as its accuracy and dependability. It was the most powerful black powder revolver ever made, and became as much of a legend as the early Rangers who carried it.
The sign for Gus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call's Hat Creek Cattle Company includes a Latin motto, "Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia Fit," which appears to be a reference to a proverb first attributed to Juvenal. The proverb, "Uva Uvam Videndo Varia Fit" is translated as "A grape (uva) other grapes (uvam) seeing (videndo) changes (varia fit)." Some readers think McMurtry's substitution of "vivendo" for "videndo" is an artifice used to underscore Gus's lack of education and unfamiliarity with Latin; but later, when Call asks Gus about the motto, he is interrupted while explaining "uva, uvam, fit, double fit, ..." while pointing to the sign (or the crew, perhaps). Having established that, McMurtry gains nothing by adding a spelling error that only Latin scholars would catch. Likewise, it seems unlikely — as other readers have suggested — that the substitution was simply a typographical error. Although the substitution is ungrammatical, "vivendo" means "living," turning the phrase "A grape changes when it sees other grapes" to "A grape is changed by living with other grapes" or, since we are not really concerned with grapes after all, to "We are changed by the lives around us." The author's alteration takes on greater significance in light of the larger themes of the narrative that deal with how one leads one's own life, and with living itself. These themes are underscored by other remarks that characterize their journey, such as: (1) "you ride with an outlaw, you die with an outlaw" when Jake is found with the horse thieves; and (2) a comment Gus made to Call: "It ain't dyin' I'm talkin' about ... it's LIVIN!"; all best understood as parabolic references to the true vine and Vinedresser from Jn 15:1.