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Wyatt Earp – Legendary Lawman

From the moment the gunsmoke cleared at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, the legend of Wyatt Earp began to spread, if indeed it hadn’t already reached epic proportions by then. This page explores the life and legend of one of the Old West’s most extraordinary lawmen. Fact and fable, truth and legend will be thoroughly discussed here as I delve into the true character of Wyatt Earp and what made him such an unforgettable icon of the Old West.

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Books about Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend
by Casey Tefertiller
“A major contribution to the history of the American West. It provides the first complete and accurate look at Wyatt Earp’s colorful career, and places into context the important role that he and his brothers played in crime and politics in the Arizona territory. This important book rises above the realm of Western biography and shows the development of the Earp story in history and myth, and its effect on American culture.” –John Boessenecker, author Gold Dust and Gunsmoke
416 pages, Wiley; 1 edition, 1999.

A Brief Biography of the West’s Most Legendary Lawman

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois on March 19, 1848. He was the fourth son of Nicholas Porter Earp and the third born in his marriage to Virginia Cooksey, his second wife. Nicholas named his son after his old captain in the Mexican War, Wyatt Berry Stapp. At the age of 16, Wyatt Earp moved with his family to Colton, California, leaving older brother Virgil fighting the Civil War. Even at this young age, Wyatt served as a hunter on the trip west and helped to fend off two Indian raids on the train of 40 wagons. Although he had little time for formal schooling, he did learn reading and writing along the way.

In Colton, where the Earp family settled, the young Wyatt found work as a teamster and railroad worker. He returned east in 1870, to Lamar, Missouri and on January 3 married Urilla Sutherland, whose father owned Lamar’s hotel. But his marriage was short lived as Urilla died about a year later of causes that have been lost to history. Some say it was typhoid, others say she died in childbirth.

After the death of his first wife, Wyatt drifted into Indian Territory, now present day Oklahoma, working as a buffalo hunter and stagecoach driver. It was here that he and an accomplice named Edward Kennedy were indicted on a charge of horse theft. Kennedy stood trial and was acquitted. Earp never went to trial. The exact circumstances are obscured in a lot of mystery and allegations, but it appears possible that Wyatt and his friend Kennedy may have been merely in the act of “barrowing” the two horses in question. At any rate, the law lost interest in the case after Kennedy’s acquittal and surviving records of the incident are too sketchy to determine whether or not any crime was actually committed.

The winter of 1871 found Wyatt on the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River where he had found work as a hunter for a government surveying crew and then later as a buffalo hunter. It was here that he met two young brothers, Ed and Bat Masterson. Like Wyatt, the two Mastersons would eventually become lawmen. The three of them formed a friendship that would last a lifetime.

By 1875 Wyatt was serving on the police force in Wichita, Kansas. In 1876, he moved to Dodge City, Kansas and took on the dual job of faro dealer at the Long Branch Saloon and assistant marshal. It was in cattle towns such as these that the young Wyatt Earp quickly built himself a reputation as a cool and competent lawman who, as Jimmy Cairns once put it, “certainly had a way with men.” It was during this time that he faced down such men as Ben Thompson in Ellsworth and Mannen Clements in Wichita. Both of these adversaries were considered dangerous men and both of them, at the time, were backed by angry mobs cowboys. But Earp’s cool head and nerves of steel had prevailed over the situation in each case. A lesser man would have gotten himself killed.

Leaving Dodge City with his second wife in 1878, Wyatt traveled to New Mexico and California, working for a time as a Wells Fargo agent. In 1879 he assembled with his brothers and their wives in the new silver mining town of Tombstone, Arizona.

Wyatt planned to establish a stage line here, but upon discovering that there were already two in town, he acquired the gambling concession at the Oriental Saloon. His brother Virgil became town marshal, while Morgan took a job with the police department. It was here that Wyatt met his third wife Josie (Josephine Marcus Earp), who remained with him until his death.

On October 26, 1881, a feud that had developed between the Earp brothers and a gang led by Ike Clanton culminated in the most celebrated gunfight in western folklore — the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Three of the Clanton gang were killed, while Ike and another wounded member escaped. The three Earp brothers — Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan — along with Doc Holliday survived. Both Morgan and Virgil were wounded, and Virgil was later terminated as marshal for his role in the homicides.

In March, 1882 Morgan Earp was gunned down by unknown assassins. Wyatt, along with his brother Warren and some friends, embarked on a vendetta during which all four suspects were eventually killed.

After being accused of these murders, Wyatt and Josie fled Arizona to Colorado. then made the rounds of western mining camps over the next few years. They turned up in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho and in 1886, settled briefly in booming San Diego, where Wyatt gambled and invested in real estate and saloons.

In 1897 Wyatt and Josie headed for Nome Alaska where they operated a saloon during the height of the Alaska Gold Rush. They returned to the states in 1901 with an estimated $80,000 and immediately headed for the gold strike in Tonopah, Nevada, where his saloon, gambling and mining interests once again proved profitable.

Thereafter, Wyatt took up prospecting in earnest, staking claims just outside Death Valley and elsewhere in the Mojave Desert. In 1906 he discovered several veins that contained gold and copper near Vidal, California on the Colorado River and filed numerous claims there at the base of the Whipple Mountains.

Wyatt spent the winters of his final years working these claims in the Mojave Desert and living with Josie in their Vidal cottage. He and Josie summered in Los Angeles, where they befriended early Hollywood actors and lived off real estate and mining investments.

On Jan. 13, 1929 Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles at the age of 80. Cowboy actors Tom Mix and William S. Hart were among his pallbearers. Wyatt’s cremated ashes were buried in Josie’s family plot in Colma, California, just south of San Francisco. When Josie died in 1944 at the age of 75, she was buried there beside him.