Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wyatt Earp, and one Cold, Blustery Afternoon at the OK Corral, Part I

It was 3 p.m. and a cold afternoon in Tombstone, Arizona. A bitter, blustery, cold afternoon on October 26, 1881. On this day, the most famous gunfight in the history of the Old West would take place near the O.K. Corral between the Earp brothers and a group of cowboys they'd been fighting for years. 

According to The History Channel, the fight took all of 30 seconds. When the last gun was fired and the fight had ended, three cowboys were lying in the wind-blown dust with mortal wounds--Tom McClaury and Frank McLaury died quickly. Billy Clanton, 19 years old, received medical care, but died later that evening. Virgil Earp was shot in the calf by Billy Clanton. Morgan Earp was wounded by a bullet fired by Frank McLaury that shot across both of Morgan's shoulder blades. Wyatt Earp, the leader of the Earp clan, was unhurt, but for Wyatt, the fight had just begun.

This was the legendary shootout at the OK Corral, the final conclusion to the long-standing feud between the cowboys and the law. Unfortunately, the battle would not end here. There was a long, drawn-out trial--the verdict is disputed to this day--followed by more killing, and a long ride for revenge.

The Earps, One Exceptionally Large Family!

Wyatt Earp came from an exceptionally large family, even for the Old West. His father, Nicholas Earp, was a Republican Methodist Sheriff and cooper, or barrel maker, who fought in the Mexican War. Nicholas Porter Earp married Abigail Storm in 1836. They had two sons. The marriage did not last long--she died two years later. Their daughter, died before she was a year old, just two months after her mother. Nicholas was left with a young son, Newton Jaspar Earp (1837-1938), to raise alone, but this didn't last long. 

In the Old West, there was no time for a formal courting. Nicholas married again six months later. Nicholas and Victoria Anne Gunsley had five sons and three daughters, but a few of their children died when they were very young. The children of Nicholas and Victoria included James Earp (1841-1926); Virgil Walter Earp (1843-1905); Martha Elizabeth Earp (1845-1856); Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (1848-1929); Morgan Seth Earp (1851 to 1882); Warren Baxter Earp (1855-1900); Virginia Ann Earp (1858-1861) and Adelia Douglas Earp (1861-1941). 

The Earp family was constantly on the move, as was typical in the Old West, but this "manifest restlessness" set the stage for the future lives of the five Earp sons of Nicholas and Victoria who eventually traveled from town to town together with Wyatt as their leader.

The American Civil War

When the American Civil War started in 1861, Nicholas Earp made it clear that his sympathies were with the South. However, Newton, James, and Virgil all joined the Union Army. Wyatt, who was a rebel of a different sort, ran away from home and tried to join the Army with his brothers, but he was still too young. He was only thirteen! He tried once more to join the Army, and once again he was caught and sent back home, which was undoubtedly a humiliating experience for him, but more than likely saved his life. 

Wyatt Barry Stapp Earp at 21 years old. 

So, his father fought in the Mexican War, each of his older brothers fought in the American Civil War, and Wyatt was stuck at home, desperately searching for adventure. He would find it. In his lifetime, Wyatt Earp served as a policeman in Wichita and Dodge City, Kansas; Deputy Sheriff and Deputy U.S. Marshall in Tombstone, Arizona; a farmer; a teamster; a buffalo hunter; a saloon-keeper; a gambler, a miner, and even a boxing referee. Gosh, it almost sounds like a children's song! His most famous role, though was the part he played in the gunfight at the OK Corral, 30 seconds that would haunt him for the rest of his life. 

Wyatt Earp's Early Careers

Wyatt was probably best known for his work in law enforcement, which began at an early age. When his brothers returned from the war, James was severely wounded, but the family did what they always did--they packed up and moved. This time, they headed for California. They joined a wagon train on May 12, 1864. A year later, Virgil started work as a driver for the Phineas Bannings Stage Coach Line and Wyatt rode along as his assistant. The following year, Wyatt became a teamster, transporting cargo from Wilmington through San Bernadino, up to Las Vegas, Nevada, then to Salt Lake City, Utah. Two years later he was hired to transport supplies for the Union Pacific Railroad. During this time, he learned some rather questionable trades, such as gambling and boxing, and he was asked to referee a famous fight between the famous Pugilists John Shanssey and Mike Donovan. 

Wyatt Begins his Career as a Lawman

In 1868, the Earps were once again on the move, this time headed for Lamar, Missouri. Nicholas Earp became the local Constable. Wyatt, who was still in California, joined the family the following year and when his father resigned his position, Wyatt was appointed to take his place--his first job as a lawman. 

Now, this part of Wyatt Earp's life is a bit confusing to me, but it's an important part of his history, as it is also his first brush with the dark side of the law. In return for his appointment as Constable, Wyatt was expected to file a bond of $1000. The sureties for his bond were his father, his father's brother, Jonathon Earp, and James Maupin. It is my understanding that the bond was in place to make sure that Wyatt fulfilled his duties as Constable.

Wyatt married Urilla Sutherland (1849-1870) in 1869. She died of Typhoid while giving birth to their child. Wyatt sold his home and property, which is understandable. He then ran against his half-brother, Newton, for another term of Constable, and although it was a close race, Wyatt won. 

However, in 1871, Missouri filed a lawsuit against Wyatt and the men who were his sureties, claiming Wyatt was responsible for collecting fees for the local schools, and had failed to turn in these fees. He was also accused of falsifying documents. Another man charged Wyatt in a dispute over a mowing machine. Then he was falsely accused of horse theft, though it was generally known that two other men had committed the theft. It seemed as if Wyatt was being set up. He was arrested on April 6 and during the hearing on April 14, the wife of one of the men who actually stole the horse testified in court that Wyatt made her husband drink alcohol until he was nearly unconscious then convinced him to steal the horse against his will, which hardly seems logical. It is probable that Earp would have been found innocent on all charges, but the stress of the charges on top of the recent loss of his wife and child was too much for him. He climbed through the roof of the jailhouse and escaped, headed for Illinois. 

Working Both Sides of the Law

In the following years, Wyatt acquired a reputation for working on both sides of the law. In Illinois he worked as a buffalo hunter, but he was also arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time--in a brothel during a raid in February of 1872. His brother, Morgan, was arrested at the same time. Records show they were living in the brothel and were charged with "being found in a house of ill-fame"--an interesting charge! He obviously did not learn his lesson, though. He was arrested and charged with the same crime in May and September of 1872. It is unknown if he worked for the brothel, or simply lived there. 

Wyatt Moves on to Kansas

"Moving On" should have been the middle name for Wyatt. Once again, he moved on to another state, this time it was Wichita, Kansas, a railroad and cattle town. Wyatt was having a hard time finding work  as the demand for buffalo dropped considerably. A news story claimed he assisted a local police officer in the investigation of a stolen wagon. This certainly helped his cause when he joined the Wichita Marshal's Office in April of 1875. Another news story told how Wyatt was leaning back in his chair when his revolver fell from its holster. The hammer hit the floor, the bullet shot through his coat just missing his body and went clear through the ceiling. Wyatt's law career was floundering. 

Wyatt's career came to an end when he decided to run for Marshall. The former Marshall, Bill Smith, accused Wyatt of using his connections to find jobs for his brothers as lawmen in Wichita. Wyatt responded in the appropriate manner--he beat Smith to a pulp. (Insert sigh here.) Wyatt was both fired and arrested. Meanwhile, James Earp opened a brothel in Dodge City, so Wyatt temporarily left law enforcement (as if he had a choice!) and joined his brother in the brothel business. 

Dodge City

At this time, Dodge City was the place to be for businessmen as it was the last stop for cattle drives along the cattle trails. Wyatt Earp did well in the brothel business, but the lure of the law called to him once more and he was appointed Assistant Marshall in 1876 and became City Marshall in 1878, though there is evidence that he did some traveling between these two appointments and possibly spent time in Texas where he met Doc Holliday, who saved Wyatt's life when he was surrounded by "Desperadoes," most likely in a gambling disagreement.

The Peace Commissioners of Dodge City. Top left to right: W.H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, W.F. Petillon. Seated: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain and Neal Brown.

Back in Dodge City and once again working on the right side of the law, Earp teamed up with James and Bat Masterson, Luke Short, and started spending time with a prostitute named Celia Anne "Mattie" Blaylock, who became his common law wife until 1881. In July of 1878, George Hoyt, a drunk cowboy, was shooting up the town. He was so wild and crazy that bullets were flying everywhere and famous comedian Eddie Foy, who was performing at the Comique Theater, was forced to lie down on the stage during his act to avoid being shot. Assistant Marshall Wyatt Earp, Officer James Masterson and several citizens tried to stop Hoyt. They chased him out of town, firing at him. Hoyt fell from his horse, weakened by a wound in his arm, and later died of gangrene. Wyatt Earp took responsibility for killing Hoyt, but he wasn't criticized for the act. Nevertheless, Earp left Dodge City for Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1879, then Tombstone, Arizona, and Mattie was with him.

  • "Hot Lead to Scandal." The Real West. The History Channel. Aired August 6, 2012. Originally aired 1992. Running Time: 50 min.
  • Trachtman, Paul. The Old West: The Gunfighters. Time Life Books. Canada: 1976.


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Darla Sue Dollman said...

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Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...