Born March 19, 1848
Died January 13, 1929
Los Angeles, California
"He had killed only when he saw no other choice, and his victims had been criminals who deserved bullets, not sympathy. He believed, as strongly as a man can believe, that he had done everything he could to avoid killing."
Carl R. Green and William R. Sanford in Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp was one of the legendary lawmen of the Old West. Though he was a sheriff or marshal in several western towns, he is best known for his role in the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Like many western heroes and villains, Earp's life has become the stuff of myth, and has been distorted and misreported so frequently that it is difficult to sort out truth from falsehood. It is clear, however, that his bravery and skill made him one of the most respected and feared lawmen in the West.
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, on March 19, 1848. The third son of Nicholas and Virginia Earp, Wyatt had four brothers—James, Virgil, Warren, and Morgan—who also later enjoyed some fame for their exploits in the West. The Earp boys spent most of their youth in Illinois and Iowa. Earp's father and two older brothers fought for the Union in the Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery). Earp too tried to enlist but was sent home by his father. As the end of the Civil War approached, the boys moved west with their parents to San Bernardino, California, where, according to biographer Casey Tefertiller, "Wyatt learned to hate plowing, hoeing, and just about everything else connected with farming.... [T]he teenaged Wyatt knew it was time to leave farming and find another way to make a living."
For a time, Wyatt worked as a stagecoach driver making runs from San Bernardino to Los Angeles and across the desert to Prescott, Arizona. In 1868, he and his brother Virgil handled mule teams grading the railroad bed for the Union Pacific Railroad. A smart and enterprising young man, Wyatt soon bought his own mule team for grading and hired himself out to the railroad, earning himself twenty-five hundred dollars. Wyatt and Virgil then rejoined the rest of the Earp family, who had returned to Illinois. Wyatt soon relocated to Lamar, Missouri, where he married his first wife, Urilla Sutherland. In February 1870, just one month after his marriage, Earp won an election for the position of town constable—his first job as an officer of the law and his only elected post. But Wyatt didn't stay long in Lamar. When Urilla died of typhoid fever (a deadly and contagious disease), the disheartened Earp became involved in a scandal. He was suspected of stealing public funds and was charged with horse theft (neither charge has ever been proven, and historians know little about the details). Earp eventually left town under a cloud of suspicion over the charges.
Cow town lawman
According to Tefertiller, "Earp followed his year of misfortune with a period of adventure, serving as a hunter for a government surveying crew one season and a buffalo hunter another." During this period a new phenomenon—the cattle drive—was transforming Kansas. Thousands of cattle from Texas were driven northward to the rail lines that had just been extended westward into Kansas. The cowboys who led the cattle drives were transforming small Kansas towns into hotbeds of gambling, prostitution, and lawbreaking. Wyatt Earp, a steady man who believed in the law, soon found a place in these cow towns.
Wyatt's first taste of cow town peacekeeping came when he helped settle a dispute between the Ellsworth, Kansas, town marshal and a group of rowdy Texans who were preparing to shoot up the town. Though the facts of this encounter are disputed, Earp's reputation as a peacekeeper was strong enough to earn him a job as a police officer in Wichita, Kansas, a town with a reputation for wildness nearly unmatched in a state full of wild towns. Earp worked in Wichita from 1874 to 1876. He had to strike a delicate balance between scaring off the truly dangerous criminals and helping the town win the business of the mere rowdies. Earp, who was more inclined to settle disputes with words or fists than with bullets, proved skilled at the job. He also performed the less glamorous tasks of the policeman—sweeping streets, scaring off wild dogs, and inspecting chimneys.
In 1876, Earp left Wichita to become the chief deputy of Dodge City, Kansas, where two other well-known lawmen, Jim Masterson and Bartholomew "Bat" Masterson, worked as his aides. During his first year in Dodge City there were only two killings, down from seventy in the year before his arrival. But when the cattle season ended Earp grew bored with his job and looked elsewhere for excitement. He thought he had found that excitement when he left for the gold rush in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory in 1877, but he soon discovered that the area had been mined to exhaustion and there was little gold left. Earp didn't mind; he made a small fortune selling firewood to the other miners in the region. When he returned to Dodge City in 1878, Earp wore a badge as the town's assistant marshal (1878–79), and he soon ran into Mattie Blaylock, who would later become his second wife, and John "Doc" Holliday (1851–1887), a famous gunman who would become his lifelong friend.
Tombstone is the wildest of the Wild West
In 1877, a prospector named Edward Schieffelin found silver in a deserted part of the territory of Arizona, and before too long the rush of silver seekers had turned the area into a boomtown. Schieffelin named the town Tombstone, for a friend had warned him that a tombstone was what he would find there. Instead, Schieffelin got rich off the silver he discovered, and the town soon filled with money-hungry miners, con men, gamblers, and gunfighters. Far from civilization, Tombstone became a haven for outlaws and the symbol for the Wild West.
Living the Wild Life in Dodge City
In April of 1876, a reporter for the Atchison Daily Champion (Kansas) penned the following poem about the wild cow town that was Dodge City, Kansas:
Did you ever hear of Dodge City,
Where nearly every house is a shanty,
And the roughs sing this queer little ditty
"Take a hand pard? —quarter ante."
Where killing a man is no sin,
And stealings are branded as jokes.
Where the principal commerce is gin,
And the law is but a terrible hoax.
Poem quoted in Tefertiller, Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend
Always one to seek out adventure, Wyatt arrived in Tombstone in December of 1879, accompanied by his wife, Mattie, and his brothers James, Morgan, Virgil, and Warren. Within a year Virgil Earp had been appointed town marshal, and Wyatt sometimes helped out as a deputy—that is, when he wasn't winning money at the gambling tables of the Oriental Saloon, where he also worked as a guard. The Earp brothers soon began to feud with a gang of outlaws led by Joseph Isiah "Ike" Clanton. The Earps didn't like the Clantons—Ike and his younger brother Billy—or the McLaury brothers—Tom and Frank—who rustled cattle and robbed stagecoaches in the area. The Clantons and McLaurys saw the Earps as a threat to their livelihood. Everybody in town soon knew that these men were headed toward a showdown.
The gunfight at O.K. Corral
The gunfight at O.K. Corral—now a legendary Western conflict—occurred when the lawmen and the outlaws finally met for a showdown in October of 1881. First, Frank McLaury challenged Morgan Earp to a gunfight, but Earp declined. Then the Earps' friend, Doc Holliday, got into an argument with Ike Clanton in a saloon on the afternoon of October 25, 1881—but neither man resorted to violence. Still seething, Ike Clanton waved a gun in town and made threats against the Earps and Holliday. Sensing trouble, Virgil Earp deputized his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, as well as Doc Holliday, and the men arrested Clanton for carrying guns within the city limits. Clanton was fined and released, while outside the courthouse Wyatt Earp solved an argument with Tom McLaury by "buffaloing" him—smacking him on the side of the head with his pistol.
Still, the Clantons and McLaurys were not ready to give up. Later in the day, they gathered near a horse stable known as the O.K. Corral. The Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, who had heard rumors that the outlaws were planning revenge, approached a vacant lot on Frémont Street, where the outlaws awaited them. There the enemies stood, face to face, just feet apart, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Then—suddenly—gunfire spewed from the pistols and rifles of the armed men. Within a matter of minutes, Frank and Tom McLaury and nineteen-year-old Billy Clanton were dead, and every one of the lawmen was injured except for Wyatt Earp. Ike Clanton escaped without harm when he ran for the safety of a nearby building. This short, brutal gunfight has gone down in history as the gunfight at O.K. Corral.
Though the Earps and Holliday had rid Tombstone of three outlaws, some in town felt that the lawmen had committed outright murder. Town sheriff John E. Behan agreed, and he issued warrants for the arrest of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Though the charges against the men were eventually dismissed, they kept the men from being heroes. Virgil Earp was dismissed from his job as town marshal for his part in the killings and was criticized for having deputized his brothers to come to his aid.
The Earps' violent encounters did not end with the gunfight at O.K. Corral. Just one month later, Virgil was ambushed and shot on his way into the Oriental Saloon by an unidentified gunman; he was disabled for life. The next March, Morgan was shot and killed. Wyatt blamed the Clanton gang for the violence and vowed that he would have his revenge. Eventually, Wyatt and Holliday hunted down and murdered several of the men they thought were responsible for the shootings. After killing Frank Stillwell, whom he blamed for Morgan's death, Wyatt told his lawyer, according to biographers Carl R. Green and William R. Sanford, "I let him have both barrels. I have no regrets. I know I got the man who killed Morg."
Branded as a murderer, Wyatt stayed on the run, living for brief periods of time in Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, and Alaska. Though not a great deal is known about his life during this time, historians believe that he gambled, sold real estate, and raised racehorses. In 1888, after Mattie Earp died, Earp married his longtime girlfriend Josephine Sarah Marcus. The aging gambler and lawman eventually settled in California, where he died on January 13, 1929, at the age of eighty—having outlived every one of his four brothers.
A lawman's legacy
Wyatt Earp became a legend during his own lifetime, and he was portrayed both as a hero and a murderer in the many accounts of his life. According to Tefertiller, "Other men had killed and left their pasts behind, but controversy followed Wyatt like a detective in a pulp novel. He could run fast and far, but he could never escape from Tombstone and the five months when his actions stirred the conscience of a nation." His life has since been discussed in numerous biographies and a number of feature films, including Frontier Marshal (1939), Law and Order (1953—starring Ronald Reagan as Wyatt Earp), Wichita (1955), Sunset (1988), Tombstone (1993), and Wyatt Earp (1994). Wyatt Earp, a stern, complex, and brave man, has thus come to symbolize the figure of the sheriff in the Old West.
For More Information
Barra, Allen. Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends. New York: Carrol & Graf, 1998.
Bell, Bob Boze. The Illustrated Life and Times of Wyatt Earp. Phoenix, AZ: Boze Books, 1993.
Erwin, Richard E. The Truth about Wyatt Earp. Carpinteria, CA: O.K. Press, 1992.
Green, Carl R., and William R. Sanford. Wyatt Earp. Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1992.
Lake, Stuart. The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956.
Marks, Paula. And Die in the West—the Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight. New York: William Morrow, 1989.
Nash, Jay Robert. Bloodletters and Badmen. New York: M. Evans, 1973.
Rosa, Joseph. The Taming of the West: Age of the Gunfighter. New York: Smithmark, 1993.
Ross, Stewart. Fact or Fiction: Bandits & Outlaws. Surrey, Brookfield, CT: Copper Beech Books, 1995.
Tefertiller, Casey. Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.
Wukovits, John. The Gunslingers. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1997.
Wyatt Earp Historical Homepage. [Online] http://www.techline.com/~nicks/earp.htm (accessed April 12, 2000).