I n March 19, 1848 a seemingly unimportant event took place in Monmouth, Warren County, Illinois. Although nearly totally unnoticed at the time, the birth of Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp would prove significant to countless individuals interested in the history of the post Civil War, trans-Mississippi West. His name has become commonplace to serious historians and an army of fictioneers alike. Yet, history shows that this man spent little actual time in Monmouth. Just two years after his birth, the Earp family migrated to Pella, in southeastern Iowa. On the beautiful rolling prairies surrounding this small agricultural town, Wyatt Earp grew to manhood. Due to the rigid insistence of his father, Nicholas Porter Earp, Wyatt, his brothers and sisters received a two-fold education. For the sons this included not only classroom studies, but a knowledge of several trades as well. Farm work, however, never appealed to Wyatt who as a small boy craved the more adventurous pursuits of hunting and exploring the local Iowa countryside. With the Civil War beginning its last great campaigns in mid-1864, the Earps joined a wagon train for an overland move to California. In this journey, Wyatt, for the first time, encountered the Wild West that would later be so inexorably linked with his name. In December, 1864 the Earp clan arrived in San Bernardino, California. Since the challenge of adventure had become so entrenched in Wyatt’s character rather early in life, he joined a freighting outfit soon after reaching the Golden State. His resulting journeys included the hauling of supplies to such remote frontier settlements as the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City and the fledgling town of Prescott, in the Arizona Territory. In 1868, Nicholas Earp moved his family from southern California north to Wyoming. Wyatt went along and together with his older brother, Virgil, soon found work with the Union Pacific Railroad during that company’s frenzied drive to link-up with the west coast’s Central Pacific Railroad at Promintory Summit, Utah.
T he year of the transcontinental railroad’s completion, 1869, also saw Wyatt briefly return to his birthplace. But after experiencing the wild frontiers of California, Utah, Wyoming and Arizona, Warren County offered no inducement to a man like Wyatt Earp. He soon left Monmouth and rejoined his family; then living in Lamar, Barton County, Missouri. In 1870 Wyatt won the election as town constable. Thus, at the age of twenty-two, Wyatt Earp began his experience as a frontier peace officer. That same year he also married the first of his three wives, only to see her die within a year. Wyatt’s young bride left him many pleasant but sad memories. Soon after the death of his wife, Wyatt Earp joined a surveying party traveling west into the Indian Nations; present-day Oklahoma.
H e accepted his position with alacrity. The Great Plains offered a wide assortment of game; buffalo, elk, wild turkey, ducks, geese and other animals. Perhaps nowhere else on the continent did there exist such a profusion of wild life. Since part of Wyatt’s duties included the supplying of fresh meat to the survey party, this experience eventually led him into the ranks of the buffalo hunter; a move taken by many of his contemporaries. The professional buffalo hunter, who enjoyed a brief period of importance on the plains, had to be by necessity a frontiersman of some merit, skilled with the use of firearms and, since he intruded upon Indian land, an Indian fighter. Here Wyatt Earp witnessed the sudden, brutal and savage warfare waged by the Indian in the defense of his homeland.
T he driving of Texas cattle up the Chisholm and later the Western Trail, to the mushrooming Kansas cowtowns, became one of the great phenomenons in western history. Wyatt Earp commented often during his long life that he had always wanted to become successful in the range cattle business. Residing at Wichita, Kansas in 1873, he came to the conclusion that rampant lawlessness would eventually destroy the trail drives and render the cowtowns unfit for decent citizens. He took the logical step and became a peace officer. Wild and wicked Wichita, burdened with hordes of young and sometimes dangerous Texas cowboys, gunmen, frontier gamblers, buffalo hunters and Indian fighters, presented monumental problems to the city marshal’s office. Yet here, in this frontier cauldron, Wyatt’s reputation as a resolute and dangerous adversary, with either fist or gun, became a reality. Potential lawbreakers quickly discovered they could not trifle with the slender, muscular, police officer named Wyatt Earp. While in Wichita, Wyatt also became acquainted with a host of now famous western personalities;
B y the mid-1870’s Dodge City took the play away from Wichita as the major shipping point for Texas cattle. Wyatt arrived in Dodge in May, 1876 and assumed the position of policeman. While in Dodge City he made enemies that would plague him later in Arizona. In 1878 Earp’s friend from Wichita days, Bat Masterson, became the Sheriff of Ford County, with Dodge City its seat of government. The association between these two men grew into a close friendship. The low pay coupled with the trials and tribulations of law enforcement in Dodge convinced Wyatt that he must seek an occupation with a larger income if he wished to realize his persistent dream of owning his own cattle ranch.
I n 1879 Wyatt heard from his brother Virgil, living in Prescott; about the possibilities of mining speculation in Arizona; particularly the new silver camp of Tombstone, located in the southeastern corner of the territory. So in the fall of 1879 Wyatt Earp resigned as the assistant marshal of Dodge City, Kansas and together with his second wife, Matilda, headed for Prescott. By setting a slow pace with numerous stops along the way, particularly in New Mexico, Wyatt’s entourage (by then including Doc Holliday and his wife) arrived by November at the home of his brother. A veteran of the Civil War and many a cowtown and mining camp, Virgil W. Earp and his wife joined Wyatt’s party and together they traveled south to Tucson, the “Old Pueblo.”
O n November 27, 1879 Virgil received an appointment as deputy U. S. marshal for southern Arizona. Several months later Pima County Sheriff Charles Shibell would appoint Wyatt Earp his deputy with jurisdiction in the Tombstone mining district (Cochise County had yet to be created). The Earps arrived in Tombstone on December 1, 1879. At that time it was a small dusty village perched on a wind-swept plateau some seventy-two miles southeast of Tucson. Yet uproarous Tombstone soon became the largest community between El Paso, Texas and San Francisco.
F or the Earps, this sun-drenched town in southeastern Arizona would prove a battle ground that tried their patience on more than one occasion. Wyatt Earp’s first contact with the active outlaw element came in October, 1880 when he arrested Curley Bill Brocius for accidently killing town marshal Fred White. Although Curley Bill later gained his freedom in court, this incident initiated a series of events that kept the Earp brothers in a state of constant turmoil. They had become locked in a struggle of supremacy with a dedicated and ruthless band of outlaws which terrorized the countryside at will.
No greater host of frontier characters ever assembled in one location as those who walked the streets of Tombstone in the early 1880’s; the Earps, Doc Holliday, John Ringo, the Clantons, the McLaury brothers, Buckskin Frank Leslie, John Behan, Luke Short, Frank Stilwell, Curley Bill, Bat Masterson and many other names now famous throughout the world.
The West’s most celebrated gunfight took place in Tombstone on October 26, 1881 in a vacant lot adjacent to the O.K. Corral’s rear entrance on Fremont street. This battle, near the corner of Third and Fremont. catapulted the Earp brothers into western immortality. Fictional versions of this fight have been told and re-told by Hollywood writers and pUlp authors alike. Due to this approach the event itself still remains one of the most controversial and misunderstood in western history.
When Tombstone City Marshal Virgil Earp gathered his brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, together with Doc Holliday, little did he realize that the results would become such a “cause celebre.”
W alking west along Fremont street, past the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral, they entered a small vacant lot just beyond C. S. Fly’s photograph gallery and shielded from Third street by a wooden frame building on the southeast corner. In this small space they faced Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, Billy Claiborne and Wesley Fuller. Virgil ordered them to surrender their arms and throw up their hands; they refused to do either. Frank McLaury and Wyatt Earp fired the first shots. Unlike McLaury, Wyatt did not miss. The fight lasted only half a minute claiming the lives of the McLaury brothers and William Clanton. Ike Clanton, Clairborne and Wesley Fuller had deserted their companions and fled the scene. Although not fatal, Virgil and Morgan Earp received painful wounds. After a lengthy trial for murder, the court exonerated the Earps and Doc Holliday by ruling they had done their duty in defense of Tombstone’s city ordinances. On the evening of December 28, 1881 a group of concealed assassins attempted to murder Virgil Earp as he crossed the intersection of Fifth and Allen streets. Shotgun blasts shattered his left arm and left it nearly useless. In mid-march, 1882 the assassins struck again, this time with fatal success. They killed Morgan Earp while he played pool at the rear of Campbell and Hatch’s saloon. Wyatt, realizing that foul play would see each of the Earps assassinated in turn, retaliated by killing Frank Stilwell, one of Morgan’s murderers, when he found the accused stage robber and former Cochise County deputy sheriff in the Tucson train yard. Wyatt Earp, leaving Tombstone with Doc Holliday and several friends, rode westward to the Whetstone Mountains. There he found Curley Bill encamped with a group of his fellow border outcasts. In a duel to the death, Wyatt Earp ended the outlaw leader’s career. Earp and his party then rode out of the Arizona Territory and into the mountain fastness of southern Colorado. Yet, in another sense, he also rode into popular legend.
F rom Colorado to Utah and then to California, for a brief visit in San Francisco, Wyatt Earp continued his lonely odyssey over the face of the American West. Determined to make the fortune thus far denied him, Wyatt went to Los Angeles and from there to San Diego. In San Diego he invested heavily in property and realized a sizeable fortune. The year 1890 found him once again in San Francisco; racing horses at local tracks, as well as, in 1896, refereeing the controversial prize fight between Tom Sharkey and Bob Fitzsimmons. The following year he joined the great Alaskan gold rush -visiting Wrangel, Dyea and Rampart. In 1899 he arrived in Nome and stayed there until 1901 before returning to southern California. From Los Angeles he traveled overland to Tonopah, Nevada and registered several mining claims in the area. In 1905, after once again outfitting in Los Angeles, he traveled over the Mojave Desert to the Colorado River country. South of Needles, California, Wyatt located a series of gold mines that would demand his attention until his death. Spending the winters in the Whipple Mountains and the summers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Indian summer of his life passed quickly.
On a foggy Sunday morning, January 13, 1929, Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp died in Los Angeles after a long illness and passed into history. He had finally departed the West that he knew and loved so well. His many contributions to his own era have been grossly misunderstood. Yet, Wyatt himself said many times; “As a peace officer I did my duty and I would not change it if I had it to do all over again.”
His fame in the years since 1929 has spread to all parts of the world. The name Wyatt Earp is now firmly identified as one of the West’s most interesting and controversial personalities.