I have memories of being told that my Grandma Young’s family had at one point changed the spelling of their last name. You see, for years they had been known as “Earp”, and according to family legend, the “a” was dropped and became “Erp” to distinguish and distance themselves from their infamous relative, Wyatt Earp. I don’t know if that was true or not, but my grandmother’s maiden name was Erp and I share common ancestors with Wyatt Earp. According to my mother’s calculations, Wyatt is my third cousin, three times removed.
Tomorrow is the 132nd anniversary of the shootout at the O.K. Corral (actually in a narrow lot on Fremont Street) in Tombstone, Arizona. On October 26, 1881 at approximately 3:00 p.m., probably the most famous gunfight of the American West began … and less than thirty seconds and about thirty bullets later… it was over. Laying dead were three men: Billy Clanton and brothers Frank and Tom McLaury. Two others had fled, Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne. The lawmen involved were Town Marshal Virgil Earp, Assistant Town Marshal Morgan Earp, aided by Wyatt Earp and John Henry “Doc” Holliday.
First of all, let’s address the misconceptions about the town itself. Because of the legendary shootout in October of 1881, it has been assumed that Tombstone was a violent and dangerous place. However, nothing could be further from the truth. According to historian Don Taylor:
It was extremely sophisticated and massively wealthy. Thirty-seven million dollars in 1880s dollars of silver was mined here; that’s $8.25 billion today. They had everything.
They had fresh seafood every day. They would catch it in Baja California; pack it in barrels of salt, ice and seaweed at dusk; freight it by train to Benson or Contention City, immediately pack it on to wagons and bring it here by dawn every day. It was a very opulent town. But again, people don’t understand – especially if they come today – Tombstone was open 24 hours a day.
Tombstone had been founded in 1879 by prospector Ed Schiefflin, a one-time Indian scout. In 1877 he had set out to find wealth after finishing his service at Fort Huachuca. He eventually discovered silver in the San Pedro Valley. Schiefflin named his claim “Tombstone” because cavalry officers had warned him that his prospecting would likely earn him only a tombstone.
According to the web site “AZCentral.com”, the town in 1879 had 100 residents. Two years later there were 10,000 (another account I found said 7,000). A theater (the Bird Cage Theater), saloon (Crystal Palace Saloon) and gambling halls lined Allen Street. Another fascinating piece of history is the number of Chinese residents in Tombstone. I will do an article someday on that part of Tombstone’s storied past.
Now back to Wyatt. There are so many stories and theories about the life of Wyatt Earp, it simply makes one’s head spin. There are decidedly pro-Earp historians (professional and amateur) and Earp detractors.
On March 19, 1848, Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois (named after his father’s commanding officer in the Mexican War, Wyatt Berry Stapp). At the age of two, Wyatt and his family moved to Pella, Iowa, where his father, Nicholas, was U.S. Provost Marshal of Marion County. Historians depict Nicholas as a drinker and “rough around the edges”, taking his family from place to place in hopes of finding riches.
Because of Nicholas Earp’s experience in the Mexican War, he was called up to train Union Army troops when the Civil War broke out. Wyatt’s three older brothers joined the Union Army while Wyatt stayed behind tending the family farm. Wyatt would get restless and run away to join the Union Army only to be caught and sent back home.
In 1864 the family again packed up and this time they were moving to California, arriving on December 17, 1864 near San Bernardino. Wyatt worked with older brother Virgil for a stage coach line. In the spring of 1868, Wyatt secured a job hauling supplies for the Union Pacific Railroad. For about a year, Wyatt was exposed to the seamy environment that permeated the Western towns that sprung up in advance of the railroad – gambling, saloons, prostitution and anything else to make a buck off the railroad and its workers. Historians relate that during this time he learned to gamble and also refereed boxing matches. Eventually he made his way back to join his family (who had again moved in 1868) in Lamar, Missouri.
In 1869, Wyatt was now twenty-one years old and he had “seen the world”. In an apparent move to settle down and establish some roots, he took the job of town constable. He also courted the local hotel owner’s daughter, Urilla Sutherland. Early in 1870, Wyatt and Urilla married and by summer they were expecting their first child. The newlyweds purchased a lot with a house and began to settle into a respectable, but modest lifestyle. Later that year, Urilla contracted typhoid and died, as did the unborn child.
The death of his wife and child was devastating and appears to be the impetus for the lawless and reckless rampage that I think some believe discredits his reputation as a lawman later. He stole horses in Indian Territory; he was a bouncer for a brothel in Peoria, Illinois – he now had a less than stellar reputation. When his brother James opened a brothel in Kansas, Wyatt headed there.
Dodge City and Wichita were cow towns and when the cowboys came into town they wanted to have a good time. Wyatt had plenty of work to do when the summer cattle drives were at their peak but after the cowboys left there was little to do, so Wyatt began helping an off-duty law officer track down some thieves. He and the law officer encountered the thieves and retrieved the stolen property. The Wichita Daily Eagle wrote a story praising Wyatt publicly so suddenly his profile has been raised.
Every summer he signed up as a deputy marshal in Wichita (and later he moved on to Dodge City). It appears that it was perhaps month-to-month work because I found mentions of his name at City Council meetings regarding approvals for salary (click to enlarge):
Wyatt continued receiving recognition for his work as a lawman:
Being a lawman meant that Wyatt had to shape up and live a more upstanding life (although he was known to have knocked more than a few upside the head with the barrel of his gun). One historian, Andrew Isenberg, remarked (“Wyatt Earp”, 2010 PBS Documentary) that “Wichita is a very important moment in Wyatt Earp’s life. He reinvented himself in Wichita as a police officer, as a kind of symbol of civic respect.” The Wichita law firm of Sutton & Colburn even gave a Bible to Wyatt, with this inscription in the flyleaf:
To Wyatt S Earp as a slight recognition of his many Christian virtues and steady following of the meek and lowly Jesus.
Isenberg continued, “And I think a little memento like that was the kind of thing that meant a lot to Wyatt Earp. It meant that he had transcended that transient upbringing that he’d had. It certainly meant that he had achieved a kind of social acceptance. And I think he wanted that throughout the rest of his life.” Another historian in the same documentary, noted “ I think there came a point where Wyatt simply decided that he’d outgrown all of this. He wanted something more than simply busting heads.”
In 1879, his brother Virgil sent word of a massive silver strike in southeastern Arizona Territory, so in the fall of that year, Wyatt set out again to join his brothers there. Of course, the point of heading out to the boom town of Tombstone was to seek their fortunes, but silver had first been discovered in 1877 and by 1879 the individual prospectors had been bought out by big corporations and capitalists from around the world.
The Earp brothers had wanted to start a stagecoach business but that didn’t work out, so they began looking around for lucrative opportunities, never finding just the right one. Eventually Wyatt landed a job as a shotgun rider on a Wells Fargo stagecoach guarding the strong box. So, in a sense, Wyatt was back to law enforcement. Guarding a stagecoach was a dangerous and precarious business. In 1880, he was offered a job as deputy sheriff in Tombstone.
As with his career as a lawman in Kansas, Wyatt built a reputation as a tenacious lawman. He would ride miles and miles to track down criminals. Virgil became a deputy U.S. marshal and Morgan worked as a shotgun guard. They were now well known but not necessarily well respected or totally accepted, however. Virgil’s application to become a Mason was declined and the wives of the brothers where shunned. Wyatt’s choices of at least one friend was a cause for family contentiousness. Wyatt had met John Henry “Doc” Holliday in Kansas and claimed that somehow Doc had saved his life. Wyatt did have political aspirations (sheriff) and his association with a man of Holliday’s character probably didn’t help. Wyatt is said to have had a common law wife, Mattie Blaylock (a prostitute), during his time in Tombstone. (Mattie died in 1888 in Pinal, Arizona with a cause of death listed as “suicide by opium poisoning”.)
When Tombstone became the county seat of a new county, Wyatt saw that as his chance to run for sheriff. But the political machine had other ideas, and John Behan received the appointment from the Governor. But when Behan’s first term was over he would have to run for election and Wyatt thought that would be his chance to grab the office.
The office of county sheriff paid a nice salary, plus in that day, the county sheriff was allowed to keep a part of the taxes he collected every year – possibly several thousand dollars.
The term “cowboy” at that time was a derisive term, as in “lawlessness”. Cowboys working for ranchers were known to go down to Mexico and steal cattle and run them back across the border to Arizona. For whatever reason, the legal authorities in Arizona looked the other way when it came to these activities, which most certainly perpetuated lawless behavior. In 1881, the situation was about to escalate considerably.
One spring evening the stagecoach from Benson was making its way toward Tombstone when suddenly a group of cowboys appeared and robbed the stagecoach. The driver was killed, as well as one passenger, and the robbers escaped. Pandemonium ensued … all of a sudden the cowboy problem wasn’t someone else’s … it was now on Tombstone’s doorstep. Wells Fargo put out a notice for the capture of the criminals.
One historian surmises that Wyatt must have been thinking in the back of his mind that this would look good for him to find these criminals and bring them to justice. Wyatt joined his brothers Virgil and Morgan, along with Sheriff Behan, to head into the mountains. It turned out to be a fruitless search, but Wyatt had concocted another plan.
He knew that rancher Ike Clanton often purchased stolen cattle from the cowboys and Wyatt thought he might know something about the robbery. Wyatt offered the entire Wells Fargo reward to Ike if he would give up the location of the criminals, with Ike’s only condition being that no one else was to know about this deal. Ike apparently feared cowboy retribution.
Sounded like a good deal at the time – Ike would get rich and Wyatt would get the credit and banked on winning the election with his reputation for capturing criminals. But as fate would have it, the robbers were killed elsewhere before Wyatt could reach them. The theory is that now Ike was sweating it out, becoming increasingly afraid that Wyatt would reveal the details of their deal. All things began to come to a head on October 25, 1881 when Ike headed into Tombstone to confront Wyatt.
Ike began drinking his way through town, saloon after saloon, and of course this loosens his tongue. Ike almost came to blows with Doc and is said to have warned Wyatt that he would be coming for him and his family in the morning – Wyatt brushed that aside and went home to bed.
Throughout the night Ike continued to drink and carouse, all the while making threats that he would be killing an Earp the next day. Wyatt and Virgil were both awakened and told Ike was causing problems and threatening them. Rumors begin to circulate around town that some cowboys were gathering to ambush the Earps… someone even claimed to have seen Ike in the telegraph office, perhaps sending a telegram for more backup.
Earlier that year, a vigilance committee had been formed in Tombstone and now this group was agitating for something to be done. It put Virgil Earp in a precarious situation with building pressure to intervene. Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt were joined outside a saloon by Doc Holliday, who had heard the rumors that day. The four men headed over to where the cowboys were gathered. Except there wasn’t a mob assembled there – only Ike and his brother Billy, Billy Claiborne (history bonus: after Billy the Kid’s death earlier that year in July, Billy Claiborne now wanted to be referred to as “Billy the Kid”) and two others, ranchers Frank and Tom McLaury. According to historian Gary L. Roberts (Wyatt Earp, 2010 PBS Documentary):
…Virgil says, “I’ve come to arrest you. Throw up your hands.” At this point, the best evidence suggests that Frank says, “We will,” and goes for his gun and, and that Billy Clanton also goes for his gun.
Of course, anytime there is a gunfight there is chaos. Ike is said to have charged Wyatt and grappled for a moment. But, Wyatt seeing that Ike is unarmed said, “the fights commenced – go to fighting or get away”. This is when Ike sees his chance to escape, and he does so, along with Billy Claiborne. Historian Paul A. Hutton commented:
The incredible presence of mind on the part of Wyatt Earp not to shoot that guy, who was running right at him in the middle of a gunfight, is just absolutely astonishing to me.
Approximately thirty seconds later the fight is over and three men lay dead — Virgil, Morgan and Doc had all been wounded. I’ve read conflicting accounts as to whether Wyatt was wounded, but the legend has always been that he was never wounded in a gunfight. Ike Clanton was captured several blocks from the scene of the shootout.
The townspeople were elated with the results. Virgil and his deputies received praise from faraway places like San Francisco. But the local farmers and ranchers didn’t see it that way – to them the Earps had gunned down innocent victims, particularly the McLaurys, who perhaps were just at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong crowd (the Clantons).
The bodies of the deceased were put on display at the funeral parlor underneath a sign that read “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone”. Many people from the surrounding area came to town for the funeral in support of the cowboys. Tensions continued to rise with assassination threats against the Earps and Doc Holliday. This spurred the mayor of Tombstone to ask the Governor for weapons to arm the Vigilance Committee. The Governor then appealed to President Chester A. Arthur for federal intervention.
Wyatt, along with Virgil, Morgan and Doc Holliday were put on trial within days of the gunfight, following the coroner’s inquest. By November 30, however, the group had been found not guilty by Judge Wells Spicer.
People sensed that the cowboys would strike again, and Ike Clanton most certainly had revenge on his mind. An attempt on Virgil’s life was made but he was not killed — seriously maimed though. Wyatt immediately applied to become a deputy U.S. Marshal and then he and his posse set out to find Ike Clanton. In the meantime, Ike Clanton turned himself into Sheriff Behan. Ike’s trial for attempted murder began soon afterwards, but Ike was somehow able to convince the judge and jury that he had an alibi the night Virgil was shot and Ike was freed by the judge.
Tensions continued to build until on March 18, 1882 Morgan is gunned down while playing a game of pool. This appears to be the last straw for Wyatt and revenge is definitely in order. On his own 34th birthday, Wyatt sent Morgan’s casket to his parents’ home in California and then a few days later also sends away Virgil and the Earp wives.
While waiting for their train to pull out, Wyatt spotted a couple of men with rifles laying in the distance. He recognized them as Ike Clanton and Frank Stillwell. Ike Clanton is again able to escape, but Wyatt pins down Frank Stillwell and shoots him more than once. The next morning a railroad worker finds the body and is said to have remarked that he [Stillwell] was the most shot up body he had ever seen.
Wyatt is now wanted for the murder of Frank Stillwell, but he headed into the mountains with a posse which included Doc Holliday to capture the rest of the suspects in his brother’s murder. Gary L. Roberts, historian, relates:
Essentially after the death of Morgan Earp, Wyatt had a blank check from the powers in the territory of Arizona. He’s getting money from banks, he’s getting money from some of the mine owners, he’s getting money from Wells Fargo, he’s getting money from the federal government.
The business establishment was backing Wyatt Earp, but Sheriff Behan had issued an arrest warrant and formed his own posse to track down Wyatt. The morning after heading out from Tombstone, Wyatt came upon a notorious cowboy, Indian Charlie, and shot him in cold blood. It’s theorized that Wyatt perhaps didn’t know exactly who had killed Morgan, but in his own mind he had a list of possible suspects and perhaps felt like he did indeed have carte blanche to exact revenge for his brother’s killing.
Curly Bill Brocius was another suspect. The day after killing Indian Charlie, Wyatt gunned down Curly Bill. These killings were now not sitting well with the press and the public. Now the papers who had praised his actions in Tombstone in October 1881 begin to turn against him, daily reporting on “Earp’s Vendetta”.
In mid-April 1882, Wyatt quietly returned to Tombstone, but finds that he is no longer welcome – he has carried his vendetta too far. On April 13, Wyatt left the Arizona Territory, heading for Colorado to wait out the possibility of being pardoned so he could return and run for sheriff. The pardon never came. That fall he eventually made his way to San Francisco.
Wyatt probably felt like he’d lost everything, but waiting for him was the ex-wife of Sheriff Behan, Josephine Marcus. Neither would say how their relationship began but she remained with him until his death. He and Josephine, much like his father and mother, wandered near and far in search of golden opportunities – running saloons in Idaho, off to the gold rush in Alaska, back to San Francisco and then finally to Los Angeles, where Wyatt died on January 13, 1929 — reportedly uttering “suppose, suppose…” as his last words.
It is said that Wyatt loved cowboy movies and he thought that William S. Hart, one of the great cowboy actors of the day, should play him in a movie and “set the record straight” about his life. He even wrote to Hart, but a movie such as that wasn’t made in Wyatt’s lifetime. Wyatt once remarked, “The good Lord owes me an explanation for the things that have happened in my life.”
Sources for this article include:
- “Wyatt Earp”, 2010 PBS Documentary
- Pella (Iowa) Historical Society Web Site
- Public Member Stories – Ancestry.com
- Dodge City Times, Wichita City Eagle and Tombstone Epitaph
Note: As long as today’s article is, I could have written much, much more. There are many layers of complexity (and controversy) to Wyatt’s life and actions, so I didn’t cover each and every detail of his storied life.
- So what about the legendary status accorded to Wyatt Earp via Hollywood — deserved or undeserved?
- Agree or disagree with the premise and facts of this article?
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2013.