Wyatt Earp: The Legend
The legend of Wyatt Earp is one story that has been told time and time again, and with each varying story, the man behind the legend of Wyatt Earp is cast in a different light. A plethora of topics come to mind when excavating the exciting life of the man remembered as a fearless frontier lawman. While Earp is most widely known for being the best law marshal to ever wander the paths of the Old West, his life encompassed much more than simply gun-slinging and cleaning up the streets of Dodge Coty and Tombstone. Often, people become engulfed in the legendary aspects of Earp’s life and overlook the fact that much more about this famous man is waiting to be discovered. Wyatt Earp was a man who dabbled in many different occupations throughout his life, but he is most famous for his career as a lawman who rode with such men as Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson.
Wyatt Earp’s story begins in Monmouth, Illinois, where he was born on March 19, 1848, to parents Nicholas Porter Earp and Virginia Cooksey. When the Civil War broke out and the Earps were living in Pella, Iowa, Wyatt’s older brothers James and Virgil, and his half brother Newton, went off to war. After failed attempts by Wyatt to run away and join the army, the family headed to California in 1863. On the way to California, Wyatt discovered what it was like to assume the role of a man and defender; he hunted game for the family and also helped protect his family from Indians during two different raids on the wagon train. (Tefertiller 3) This trip to California would help Eatp determine what kind of life he wanted to lead. “…[T]he taste of life he had enjoyed during the covered wagon journey made him loath to return to books…By spring he had set his own mind definitely against any vocation that might hold him from adventuring” (Lake 11).
After realizing in California that farming was not the occupation for him, Wyatt decided to seek work elsewhere. “He joined Virgil working on freight wagons between southern California and Salt Lake City, and on another line to Prescott, Arizona…[He] worked as a swamper, doing the menial tasks, helping with loading, and probably took a few turns at driving the teams” (Tefertiller 3). After Wyatt’s contract was fulfilled with the freighting business, he returned to his family, who had moved back to Missouri to a town called Lamar. Wyatt married in Lamar and put on his first badge as a constable. Less than a year had passed after Wyatt’s marriage when his wife died suddenly. The causes of her death are not certain, although popular belief suggest she died of typhoid.
Earp left Lamar for eastern Oklahoma, where researchers suggest he may have stolen horses after also being accused of pocketing money from a fee for an execution of the court in Lamar. Records of this time in Earp’s life are scarce, but they do exist. Many publicists, along with writers and Wyatt Earp himself, tend to avoid this segment of Earp’s life, probably because this information taints the legendary story. This was a time in Earp’s life that he wanted to bury. Some writers, such as Casey Tefertiller believe that “the records are too ambiguous to be conclusive…but it seems likely that 23-year-old Wyatt Earp found himself bound for a career that would have landed him inside a jail cell instead of guarding one” (Tefertiller 5). But according to Wyatt Earp: The Untold Story, “the legend seemed always to be trying to gather grapes from the thorn thicket, and snatching victory from defeat, but little could be done in this way with the meat of this particular matter” (33). This quotation explains that many writers focus on only good aspects of Earp in order to depict an image of a man on a high horse, but the skeletons in Earp’s closet are impossible to conceal.
After Earp’s run-ins with the law, he decided to embark on a life of adventure. For one season, Earp was a hunter for a government surveying crew; he then became a buffalo hunter for another season. It was during this buffalo-hunting period that he met Ed and Bat Masterson, who would become good friends with him and eventually be lawmen as well.
After spending a couple of years in the buffalo-hunting business, Earp was arrested for stealing horses in Indian Territory. “[Earp] then increasingly turned to gambling, most frequently in Hays City” (O’Neal 101). Sources obviously indicate that Earp was not always fighting for justice, as his own legend suggests.
Earp eventually did turn to the good side of the law, and is renowned today for his dutiful work as a police officer in Wichita, Kansas. Earp lived in Wichita in the early 1870s. Being a lawman during Wyatt Earp’s time in cow towns was not so much about solving crimes or pursuing criminals as it was about keeping the peace. Cow towns were prone to outbreaks of disorder rather than being a hot spot for criminality. (Tefertiller 11) “Deputy Earp piled up an impressive list of achievements during his tenure as a Wichita lawman; and, most important, there were no major outbreaks of violence or rowdyism” (Tefertiller 13). One intriguing facet of Earp was the fact that in his time as a lawman in Wichita, he never had to kill a man. Earp used alternative tactics to enforce his authority with violators of the law. He was almost always able to enforce the law without shedding any blood. Earp preferred to intimidate people, sometimes beating them over the head with his gun. According to Professor James Hoy, Director for the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University, this intimidating tactic that could knock a man out is known as ‘buffaloing’ (Hoy).
Jimmy Cairns, with whom Earp worked as deputy, said of him, “Wyatt Earp was a wonderful officer. He was game to the last ditch and apparently afraid of nothing. The cowmen all respected him and seemed to recognize his superiority and authority at such times as he had to use it” (Tefertiller 15). Earp’s career as a lawman in Wichita came to a halt in 1876, after he became too actively involved in an election for town marshal. (Tefertiller 14)
West of the city of Wichita, a small town in the southwest corner of Kansas began to boom as cattle trade in the area increased. It was in Dodge City, Kansas that Earp became assistant marshal and offered W.B. Masterson, more commonly known as Bat Masterson, a job as a police officer. Earp and the Masterson brothers had previously hunted buffalo in two separate bands, but they met one another during their buffalo-hunting days. The Masterson headed to Dodge City, Kansas after their hunting career, where they met up with Earp once again. Bat Masterson accepted his position as a policeman, but the job did not suit him well. According to Forty Years on the Wild Frontier, Bat despised his job as a policeman because too much conflict existed in his new job description (Breihan 101). No solid records exist that suggest that Earp was ever more than an assistant marshal in Dodge City. Earp left Dodge for a short stint of time, only to return to a town that wanted him to join the force once more. “He had quite a way of taking the most desperate characters into custody which invariably gave one the impression that the city was able to enforce her mandates and preserve her dignity” (Tefertiller 17). Earp was a valuable asset to a town like Dodge City; a town where crime ran rampant and law enforcement was referred to as a “terrible hoax” (Teffertiller 16). No official records indicate that Earp returned to the force, and in October of 1877, Earp left Dodge.
Earp left Dodge in pursuit of two train robbers, who led him through the town of Fort Griffin, Texas. It was in Fort Griffin that Earp met legendary Dr. John Henry Holliday, also known as Doc Holliday. In Tombstone, a movie starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, Holliday is portrayed as an ailing surgeon with tuberculosis who lives for drinking and gambling. (Tombstone) Holliday was shown as a man with a quick wit and a deadly draw. In reality, Holliday was a dentist, but he was truly ruthless, loyal, and gentlemanly, although he was known to change temperament often. (Tefertiller 18). Holliday was well educated and clever, but often found himself in sticky situations. “He would no sooner be out of one scrape before he was in another, and the strange part of it is he was more often in the right than in the wrong, which has rarely ever been the case with a man who is continually getting himself into trouble” (Tefertiller 18). This aspect of Holliday was well-portrayed in Tombstone, for the legendary character played by Kilmer is capable of instigating any scuffle in the movie. Not surprisingly, Holliday left Fort Griffin after an incident playing poker where he pulled a knife on a man, and he was off to Dodge City, where Earp had recently returned.
But Masterson had been appointed sheriff in Dodge, and after his brother, Ed Masterson, was killed during service, Earp assumed the role of assistant marshal. Dodge City had outlawed the carrying of firearms at this time, and the peace officers in Dodge, among them Wyatt Earp, had a reputation that greeted most men entering the town. Upon their arrival, the newcomers were warned not to cause any trouble, because the lawmen in Dodge were always prepared for a scuffle. The new law the banned firearms was very detailed.
Any person who is not engaged in any legitimate business, and any person who has ever borne arms against the United States, who shall be found within the limits of the town of Dodge City bearing on his person a pistol, Bowie knife, dirk, or other deadly weapon, shall be subject to arrest upon a charge of misdemeanor…(Bartholomew, The Untold Story 176)
The law called for a fine of no more than one hundred dollars or three months in jail to the perpetrator, or possibly both if the court felt the sentence necessary. Thankfully, the law was not strictly enforced among cowboys. A lot of trouble in Kansas cow towns at the time arose from laws such as this. Had the law been enforced, every cowboy, cowman, and drover who arrived in Dodge would have been disfranchised. (Bartholomew, The Untold Story 177)
The cowboys in Dodge were often allowed to rebel against the firearm ban. Dismissing these violations saved lawmen in Dodge a lot of hassle. When troubling situations did arise, Earp and his contemporaries enforced the law by knocking men out instead of killing them. Earp was not known to kill a man until later on in his life when he arrived in Tombstone.
During his stay in Dodge City, Earp claims that Doc Holliday saved his life. One night Earp was trying to quiet down a drunken quarrel and had Holliday not yelled and pulled his gun, Earp would have been shot in the back by a drunken Texan. (Tefertiller 23)
While Earp was still serving as a lawman in Dodge, his brother Virgil reached him with news of a booming town in Arizona known as Tombstone. Ready to get out of Dodge, Earp packed up and left for Arizona with his significant other, Mattie. In Tombstone, Earp would again meet up with Doc Holliday, along with his brothers, Virgil and Morgan. It is in Tombstone that much of the Wyatt Earp legend lies. Not only is Tombstone the locations for important events that occur in Wyatt Earp’s legend, but it is also the stage for much controversy regarding the legend.
The town of tombstone, Arizona was born from an influx of hardy souls hoping to find a significant mineral strike that would make them rich. Tombstone was an interestingly named town. A miner by the name of Ed Schieffelin had searched for gold in the area in 1877. He was told that the only thing he would find was his tombstone. After Schieffelin made a silver strike, he named the town Tombstone, and thus began the immigration of people into the town. (Blake 5)
According to the movie Tombstone, when Earp arrived in Tombstone, he had no intention of becoming a lawman. Earp yearned to make it big and possibly start a new business and lead a whole new life in Arizona with his family. On December 1, 1879, Earp arrived in Tombstone with his wife, brothers James, Morgan, and Virgil, and their wives. (Blake 6)
Tombstone was troubled by a faction called the “Cowboys.” “This group had free rein when it came to cattle rustling and stage robberies, and many of the cowboys – a loose-fitting term to describe a group of drifters, primarily from Texas and New Mexico – formed an unofficial band of thugs” (Blake 8). The unofficial leaders of the gang were Curly Bill Brocius and John Ringo. Other families involved in the illegal activities of the gang were the McLaurys and the Clantons. Tensions between the Cowboys and Earp arose when Earp recovered military mules from the Mclaury place that had been stolen. Shootings in the town were common incidents, and problems further escalated when Marshal Fred White was fatally shot in the groin by Curly Bill Brocius. Because the shooting was an accident, the charges against Curly Bill were dropped. After the death of White, carrying a weapon on the streets of Tombstone became prohibited.
A strange turn of events marked the fueling of the fire of the legendary showdown on October 26, 1881 at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt Earp’s new aspiration was to become the county sheriff over John Behan, who also happened to be the potential future husband of Josephine Sarah Marcus, with whom Earp would eventually have an affair. “The Earps while in tombstone appeared not to have been generally respected, were not widely known, and certainly had no political power or standing in the area until the last few months of their stay in Arizona” (Bartholomew, The Man and the Myth 94).
Earp knew that he did not have much political influence, so he worked out a deal with Ike Clanton, a member of the Cowboy group that Earp so often butted heads with. Clanton was familiar with the wanted outlaws who had been involved in a stage robbery in 1881 that involved the death of a stage driver. (Blake 9) Earp agreed that if Clanton would bring the three robbers to a specific location, he would reward him with the $6,000 bounty. Clanton agreed, but he became increasingly paranoid that Earp would rat him out as a snitch. Despite attempts to reassure Clanton that his secret was safe, Clanton’s paranoia escalated, causing him to believe that Earp had told Holliday of the deal.
Early morning of October 26 found Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury drinking and gambling in the Occidental Saloon in Tombstone. Doc Holliday, John Behan, and Wyatt and Virgil Earp were also present. Before leaving, Clanton warned Virgil that he and Holliday had a storm brewing over them. (Blake 10)
After an eventful morning that included Ike Clanton being fined for carrying a weapon through the streets, members of the McLaurys and Clantons headed to the O.K. Corral. Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan, and Doc Holliday also made their way to a vacant lot next to a photo studio., armed with weapons. Here, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were killed, and Ike Clanton was only wounded. “It happened in less than a minute, and has since been billed as the greatest ‘gunfight’ the West has ever known. It was murder” (Bartholomew, The Man and the Myth 223). Much controversy exists over who pulled the first gun in this infamous showdown. In the portrayal of the movie Tombstone, the Earp gang was instigated to pull their guns, but they were charged with murder afterwards. According to Wyatt Earp: The Man and the Myth, the jury reported four indictments for murder, fifteen for grand larceny, several for robbery, assault, and for perjury and forgery, and some of these bills of complaint were pertaining to the Earps and their associates.
Due to the shooting, Virgil Earp was suspended from his job as chief of police. Wyatt was the only man involved in the shooting who remained uninjured. Although a second barrage of fighting would not ensue with the Cowboys, the Earps and Holliday would lose much of the respect of the public. The bodies of the three men who were allegedly “murdered” were displayed in the window of the Tombstone funeral home, with a banner above them reading: “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone” (Blake 14).
The evidence of the shooting held greater support for Wyatt and Virgil’s side of the story, and the men were released from custody. News of their release reached members of the Cowboy faction, and the men made two separate attempts at the Earps’ lives after warning them to get out of town. Virgil’s left arm was severely mangled, and Morgan’s wounds were fatal. One bullet just missed Wyatt’s head. Earp was deputized by authority of U.S. Marshal Crawley Dake, and decided to take matters into his own hands, but he realized that chances of finding his brothers’ attackers would be slim to none. (Blake 16)
Whether it was vengeance or justice Earp was seeking, he went after members of the Cowboy gang. Earp killed Frank Stilwell, who was lying in wait on the train platform for members of the Earp family who were returning to California. Earp sought out other members of the faction at a known Cowboy hideout, but his mission went awry and Earp retreated, never to pursue them again.
Earp left Tombstone after this incident. He was wanted for the murder of Frank Stilwell, so he moved to Gunnison, Colorado. In 1882, he moved to San Fransisco, where he was reunited with Sadie Marcus, with whom he had had an affair in Tombstone. The two never married, but they stayed together for almost fifty years. Earp continued to be a restless wanderer, moving from one booming town to another. Before he died at the age of eighty, Earp would get his life story down on paper.
Near the end of his life, Earp worked with a biographer in an attempt to clear his name of any misconceptions and to convey the true tale of his life.
I am not ashamed of anything I ever did. Notoriety has been the bane of my life. I detest it and I have never put forth any effort to check the tales that have been published in recent years of the exploits in which my brothers and I have or are supposed to have been the principal participants. Not one is correct…My friends have urged repeatedly that I make the truth known in print. Now you and I shall do that and correct many mythic tales. (Bartholomew, The Man and the Myth, 3)
Wyatt Earp’s story has been told numerous times, and with every account, discrepancies arise among the sources. While Dr. Jim Hoy knows that Earp was sometimes on the other side of the law, as a folklorist, he still believes Earp to be a cultural hero. “To become a cultural hero you have to have some single-mindedness, some character flaws that help you do greater good for a greater number” (Hoy). Earp will continue to be known as the outstanding law marshal who wandered the dusty paths of the Old West, and whether or not he deserves this title as a hero of the Wild West, he will continue to go down in history as a legend.
Bartholomew, Ed. Wyatt Earp: The Man & the Myth. Toyahvale, TX: Frontier Book, 1964.
Bartholomew, Ed. Wyatt Earp: The Untold Story. Toyahvale, TX: Frontier Book, 1963. Print.
Blake, Michael F. Hollywood and the O.K. Corral: Portrayals of the Gunfight and Wyatt Earp.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2007. Print.
Breihan, Carl W., and Wayne Montgomery. Forty Years on the Wild Frontier. Greenwich, CT:
Devin-Adair, 1985. Print.
Hoy, James F. “Wyatt Earp.” Personal interview. 7 Apr. 2011.
Lake, Stuart N. The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956. Print.
O’Neal, Bill. “Earp, Wyatt Berry Strapp.” Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters. Norman:
University of Oklahoma, 1979. 100-03. Print.
Tefertiller, Casey. Wyatt Earp: the Life behind the Legend. New York: J. Wiley, 1997. Print.
Tombstone. Dir. George P. Cosmatos. Hollywood Pictures. DVD.
Kristen Sponsel is a sophomore at Emporia State University. She is planning on majoring in Biology for the purpose of attending medical school. She is also planning on attaining a minor in Spanish.