Today In Western History: Wyatt Earp is Born

March 19 —

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp, frontier marshal, ganbler, gunfighter and legend.
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp, frontier marshal, ganbler, gunfighter and legend.

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born March 19, 1848, in Monmouth, Illinois, the third of Nicholas and Virginia Ann Earp’s five sons.   One of the icons of the American West, he worked for the law and helped tame the wild cowboy culture that pervaded the frontier. In Tombstone, Arizona, Wyatt got into a feud with a local rancher that resulted in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, perhaps the most famous gunfight in American history.  Earp died in Los Angeles on January 13, 1929, only one of two gunfighters to die of old age, the other being William Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson.

William Bartholomew "Bat"Masterson, lawman, gambler, shootist
William Bartholomew “Bat”Masterson, lawman, gambler, shootist

The Civil War broke out when Wyatt was just 13. Desperate to leave the family farm in Illinois and find adventure, he tried several times to join his two older brothers, Virgil and James, in the Union army. But each time, the runaway Earp was caught before he ever reached the battlefield and was returned home.  At the age of 17 Earp finally left his family, now living in California, for a new life along the frontier. He worked hauling freight, and then later was hired to grade track for the Union Pacific Rail-road. In his downtime he learned to box and became an adept gambler.

In 1869, Earp returned to the fold of his family, who had made a home in Lamar, Missouri. A new, more settled life seemed to await Earp. After his father resigned as constable of the township, Earp replaced him.  By 1870 he’d married Urilla Sutherland, the daughter of the local hotel owner, built a house in town and was an expecting father. But then, everything changed. Within a year of their marriage Urilla contracted typhus and died, along with her unborn child.

Broken and devastated by his wife’s death, Earp left Lamar and set off on a new life devoid of any kind of grounding. In Arkansas, he was arrested for stealing horses, but managed to avoid punishment by escaping from his jail cell. For the next several years, Earp roamed the frontier, making his home in saloons and brothels, working as a strongman and befriending several different prostitutes.  In 1876 he moved to Wichita, Kansas, where his brother Virgil had opened a new brothel that catered to the cow-boys coming off their long cattle drives. There, he also began working with a part-time police officer on rounding up criminals.

The adventure and the little bit of press Earp received from the job appealed to him, and eventually he was made city marshal in Dodge City, Kansas.  But while he’d reinvented himself as a lawman, the spec-ulative spirit that had driven his father ran in Earp as well. In December 1879, Earp joined his brothers Virgil and Morgan in Tombstone, Arizona, a booming frontier town that had only recently been erected when a speculator discovered the land there contained vast amounts of silver. His good friend John Henry “Doc” Holliday, whom he’d met in Kansas, joined him. But the silver riches the Earp brothers expected to find never came, forcing Earp to begrudgingly to return to law work. In a town and a region desperate to tame the lawlessness of the cowboy culture that pervaded the frontier, Earp was a most welcome sight.

In March 1881 Earp set out to find a posse of cowboys that had robbed a Tombstone stagecoach and its driver. In an effort to close in on the outlaws, he struck a deal with a rancher named Ike Clanton, who

Isaac "Ike" Clanton, outlaw, "Cowboy" and alcoholic
Isaac “Ike” Clanton, outlaw, “Cowboy” blowhard and alcoholic

regularly dealt with the cowboys working around Tombstone. In return for his help, Earp promised Clanton he could collect a $6,000 reward.  But the partnership quickly dissolved. Clanton, paranoid that Earp would leak the details of their bargain, turned against Earp. By October Clanton was out of his mind, drunk and parading around Tombstone’s saloons, bragging that he was going to kill one of the Earp men.  Everything came to a head on October 26, 1881, when the three Earps, along with Doc Holliday, met Clanton, his brother Billy, and two others, Frank McLaury and his brother, Tom, on a small lot on the edge of town near an enclosure called the O.K. Corral.  There, the greatest gunfight in the West’s history took place. Over the course of just 30 seconds, a barrage of shots was fired, killing Billy Clanton and both of the McLaury brothers. Virgil and Morgan Earp, as well as Holliday, all were injured. The only one unscathed was Wyatt.  The battle ratcheted up tensions between the cowboy community and those who were looking for a more settled West to emerge. Ike Clanton went on a ram-page, orchestrating the shooting of Virgil Earp and the assassination of Morgan Earp.   As a result of Morgan’s death, Wyatt Earp set off in search of vengeance. With Holliday and small posse of others, he roamed the frontier on a killing spree that made headlines around the nation, earning the group both praise and condemnation for taking on the West’s wild cowboy culture.

As the American West grew to be more settled, Earp’s place in it became less certain. With his com-panion, Josephine Marcus, he continued to seek out the success that had eluded him most of his life. He ran saloons in parts of California and went after the gold rush in Alaska before settling down in Los Angeles.  During his last years, he became infatuated with Hollywood’s portrayal of the West and his legacy.

In the early days of Hollywood westerns, he befriended a very young ‘gopher’ on the set of Tom Mix’s westerns, a young man named Marion Robert Morrison.  Marion listened to Wyatt’s conversations with Tom and modeled his own screen persona after Wyatt.  You can hear Wyatt’s words in the character Marion portrayed in his last movie, when he plays a dying gunfighter by the name of J. B. Books.  You won’t see the name Marion Morrison listed in the credits, but you will see John Wayne

Wyatt longed for a film that told his story and set the record straight on his accomplishments. But the kind of recognition he craved came only after his passing on January 13, 1929, at his Los Angeles home.

Wyatt Earp in 1929
Wyatt Earp in 1929 at age 81

The Earp story was remade with the 1931 publication Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal by biographer Stuart Lake. In it, the former frontier man was transformed into a Western hero that Hollywood and the American public came to adore.  Hollywood made several movies depicting that famous gunfight, some more realistic than others, several of which only resembled the real thing in name only.  A few of them didn’t even come that close.  “The Hour of The Gun” starring James Garner as Wyatt Earp, was fun to watch but you really had to look closely to find a factual aspect of the story.  The most histori-cally accurate telling of the story would be Kevin Costner’s “Wyatt Earp”, but the most fun and exciting to watch is Kurt Russell’s “Tombstone”.  Watch them both for a stereo-optic viewing of the real story.



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