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The Earp Family

There's nothing so sacred as honour, and nothing so loyal as love." - Earp's epitaph

When American authors spin tales of the Wild West, they are full to the brim with legendary heroes: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Buffalo Bill, and Calamity Jane to name a few. One of the most famous men of the old west was branded into history by the Gunfight at the O.K. corral. Backed by his brothers and the wilily Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp successfully brought down the Brothers Clanton and McLowry, Billy Claiborne, and Sheriff Johnny Behan in less than 30 seconds.

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born to Nicholas and Virginia Earp in Monmouth, Illinois on May 19, 1848, the fourth and prodigal son. Shortly after his birth, the Earp family moved to Iowa where they settled on 160 acres that Nicholas Earp received as a land grant for his service during the Mexican War. In fact, Wyatt was named after Nicholas' commanding officer in that war, Wyatt Berry Stapp. His father had sired two other children from his first marriage: Newton and an unspecified girl who died at the tender age of ten months. Though his older three brothers (Virgil, James, and Newton) fought perilously in the Civil War, Wyatt's father Nicholas did not allow him to run off and join the fight. Instead, Earp found himself delegating the family crops and filling the patriarchal shoes in his household for his two younger brothers, Morgan and Warren.

Critical to the legends around Wyatt Earp are his brothers: the two older, James and Virgil, and the two younger, Morgan and Warren. Virgil and Morgan Earp also became well known lawmen in their own right, but little is ever said about the Earp sisters. (Earp also had three sisters, none of whom behaved unusually enough to be of much mention in history). Martha only lived to the age of ten. There was also Virginia and Adelia.

When Manifest Destiny gripped the nation, the Earp family joined a wagon train headed for the West Coast and the sweeping California land. Wyatt was now old enough to join a group of drivers with his brother Virgil. They helped drive Phineas Banning's Stage Line until 1866 when Wyatt began to help Chris Taylor move wagon trains through California. A few years later, Wyatt refereed several boxing matches, including a fight between John Shanssey and Mike Donovan.

November of 1869 found the Earp family living in Lamar, Missouri where Nicholas Earp served as Constable. On November 17, 1869 Nicholas tendered his resignation from the post of Contable and was appointed Justice of the Peace. On the same day, Wyatt Earp - just 21 years old at the time - was appointed as Lamar's Constable; his first law enforcement job and following in his father's footsteps. Here Wyatt met his first wife Urilla Sutherland, with whom he had no children (with her untimely death mid-pregnancy, their union was short-lived). Even with such a potentially illustrious start in the law enforcement profession, Wyatt hit a few stumbling blocks. In April of 1871 he was accused of horse theft in Indian Territory. He was actually arrested and captured with a bond set at $500. He escaped and the warrant was eventually dismissed for lack of service. Although few facts are known about the events surrounding these charges, one of Wyatt's accused accomplices was tried and acquitted of the charges. Research shows that during that same time frame a number of lawsuits were filed against Wyatt Earp in Lamar bringing into question the integrity and legality of his actions during the early years he was involved in law enforcement. This doesn't sound like the beginning of a legendary lawman's career, does it? It gets worse.

Several different accounts of Earp's whereabouts have suggested the possibility of him living in a house of ill repute during this time, though there is no concrete evidence of any such dalliance. This is the period of time in which Earp is thought by historians to have met long-time friend Bat Masterson, but the location of their first encounter is a mystery. Though it is unclear what sort of shenanigans Earp may have been privy to in Illinois, he later turned up in Wichita, Kansas and became a marshal on August 21, 1875. This was Earp's first recognition as any sort of officer of the law, though his actual position and duties as a marshal are unclear in the records from the period. The accounts of Earp during this time suggest he had (at least temporarily) renounced his party-boy ways and was now staunchly in support of the law.

After a scuffle with Bill Smith, former marshal of Wichita, Earp was arrested for 'disturbing the peace' and Earp skipped town in favor of another Kansas hot spot, Dodge City. For a short period of time, Earp served as Assistant Deputy in Dodge before taking a gambling hiatus in Fort Griffin, Texas where he is said to have met dentist and fellow gambler Doc Holliday. Earp returned to Dodge to become the assistant marshal; Holliday joined his friend in Kansas.

In July 1878 Wyatt Earp was credited with killing his first man: a cowboy named George Hoy who had come into town and was shooting his revolver. Wyatt Earp responded with Officer Jim Masterson and they chased Hoy out of town. As he was on his way out Earp and Masterson fired at him and one of them hit him. He died a bit later from complications related to the gunshot wound. Whether it was Earp's or Masterson's bullet that hit him is unknown, but Earp is generally "credited" with the kill.

It is speculated that Earp's last companion in Dodge was Celia Anne 'Mattie' Blaylock, and she was with him until the early 1880s. Despite the fact that they never officially married, Earp allowed her to use his last name. Public records, though primitive, have confirmed these facts to be true. The pair was common-law married but Earp left her for good in order to actually marry Josephine Marcus. Mattie nursed the hope the Earp would some day return to her. After he failed to do so, she committed suicide in 1888 by overdosing on Laudanum.

Earp was known to pistol-whip the men that he arrested as an effective tool of restraint. Earp is said to have received a Colt Buntline Special army-grade long barreled revolver for helping track down the murderer of actress Dora Hand, a particularly effective tool when pistol-whipping is one's prerogative.

July of 1880 found him being appointed as a deputy sheriff in Pima County, Arizona. Not far from the the famous Tombstone which is in Cochise County, Arizona, this is where Wyatt Earp began to truly build a name for himself; a name which included arguing with judges whom he thought weren't doing the right and/or legal thing.

October, 1880 showed the beginnings of the tale that led to the famous OK Corral shoot out. Just after midnight on October 28, 1880, William "Curly Bill" Brocius shot Sheriff Fred White and was promptly arrested by Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Earp. Curly Bill was part of the "Texas Cowboys" and his friends weren't at all too pleased with Wyatt's arrest of their friend. What does this have to do with the OK Corral? Apparently, the Clantons and McLaurys at least had a casual friendship with the Texas Cowboys and so weren't feeling very charitable toward Wyatt Earp either.

The most that is known about Earp is his life in Tombstone, Arizona. James and Virgil moved with Wyatt to the little boomtown; Virgil had been named deputy U.S. marshal before their arrival, James worked as a bartender, and Wyatt worked for Wells Fargo guarding carrier stagecoaches. The other two brothers, Morgan and Warren, joined them by 1880. Doc Holliday arrived last, completing Earp's posse. In July of that year, a group of ruffians called the 'Cowboys' began causing trouble in Tombstone. The emergence of the McLowry brothers in the town kept the citizens on their toes constantly. Around the same time, Wyatt Earp was named the deputy sheriff for Tombstone, though he only held this position for three months.

After the accidental death of the town marshal, Fred White, at the hands of Curly Bill Brocius, several different elections occurred in order to replace White. Fred White was only 31 when he died. Though he held a particularly powerful position, Earp resigned as deputy sheriff in order to support a more controversial candidate for White's position.

Despite his actions, Earp really wasn't well known until after the famous gunfight at the O.K. corral. On October 26, 1881 the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral occurred. On the "law" side were Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp accompanied by Doc Holliday. On the "bad guy" side were Ike and Billy Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and Frank and Tom McLaury. Allegedly unarmed, Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne escaped the fight uninjured. Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury were killed. According to his testimony printed in the Tombstone Nugget, Earp was 32 years old at the time of the trial, serving as saloonkeeper, deputy Sheriff and detective of Tombstone and having resided there since December 1, 1879. Earp states that the gunfight was the culminating event following a long investigation into Frank and Tom McLowry (or McLaury, historians disagree on the spelling) who had been accused of stealing six government mules and rebranding them. After tracing the robbery to the McLowry ranch, the brothers promised to return the mules to Tombstone, but soon reneged on the agreement. Earp and his brothers were cautioned that the McLowry brothers had threatened their lives. Wyatt Earp ran into the McLowry brothers again in Charleston soon after, and they again threatened to kill him if he ever tried to follow them again.

Not long after the confrontation, a man named Bud Philpot was killed by three men when they attempted to rob the Benson stagecoach. Earp suspected the robbers to be Billy Leonard, Harry Head and James Crane, friends and close associates of the McLowry brothers and the Clantons. As Wyatt Earp was seeking the county Sheriff position, he thought capturing the criminals who killed Philpot might aid his campaign, not to mention earn him a reward of $3,600.

Earp made a devil's bargain with Ike Clanton, Frank McLowry and Joe Hill the next time they came to town, promising to reward them anonymously for helping in the capture of Leonard, Head, and Crane. The plan was that Joe Hill would ride to the hide out in Eureka, New Mexico and lure the men back to the McLowry farm where Earp would be waiting to arrest them with a posse. When Hill rode to the hideout, he discovered that Leonard and Head were already dead, having been murdered by horse thieves the day before (later traced back to Clanton/McLowry associates). When Clanton, McLowry and Hill returned to Tombstone, they claimed that Earp had set them up and openly shunned the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, renewing their murderous promises.

A month later, Wyatt and Morgan Earp arrested and Stilwell and Spencer for the Bisbee coach robbery, still more accomplices to the Clanton/McLowry robbery ring. When the Earp's returned to Tombstone with Spencer and Stilwell, Frank McLowry, Ike Clanton, and a small group of ruffians including John Ringold and the Hick brothers confronted Morgan in the street. McLowry gave Morgan what for over the arrest of Stilwell and Spencer, adding: "If you ever come after me you will never take me;" Morgan stated that he would indeed arrest McLowry if he ever gave him cause, to which McLowry replied: "I have threatened you boys' lives, an a few days ago had taken it back, but since this arrest it now `goes;'" Morgan walked off without so much as a huff. The death threats against the Earp brothers had been previously reported by eight or nine Tombstone townsfolk. Ike Clanton, Frank McLowry, Tom McLowry, Joe Hill and John Ringgold, all of who were known robbers and outlaws and considered a dangerous group of men, made these threats on the Earp's. The string of murders, robberies, and crimes by the Clanton/McLowry ring continued to terrorize the southwest for many months to follow.

The tensions between the Clanton/McLowry posse and the Earp's came to a head on Wednesday, October 26, 1881. Virgil Earp was serving as city Marshal of Tombstone when he learned that the outlaws were waiting near the O.K. Corral, armed to the hilt. Virgil recruited Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holliday to help him disarm the men peacefully, if possible, promoting Wyatt to temporary assistant Marshal and deputizing Holliday. Around 3:00 pm, the Earp gang headed for Fremont Street where the outlaws had been seen. The two groups met in a skinny vacant lot next to the O.K. Corral's back entrance, initially only about eight feet apart. Immediately, Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne (a newer recruit) deserted their compatriots. Both sides opened fire; when the dust cleared, Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLowry were dead. The Earp posse only suffered minor injuries, the worst being Virgil's bullet to the calf.

On October 30th, Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earp's and Holliday, but eventually the trial was thrown out for insufficient evidence. The backlash after the trial was brutal; a gang attacked Virgil one evening in Tombstone, though he was not killed. Though Ike Clanton's hat was found at that location, he was acquitted of the attempted murder when his lawyers produced seven witnesses who testified that he was in Charleston at the time of the crime. On March 18th, Morgan Earp was assassinated by unidentified by assassins as he played billiards. Without sufficient evidence to bring the assassin to justice, Wyatt decided to take matters into his own hands; thus began the Earp vendetta.

In the vendetta ride, the Earp party is credited with killing four men, but Wyatt claimed to have slain dozens of robbers, murderers and cattle thieves in his time. The Earp party fled Arizona for Colorado by way of New Mexico in 1882. There is speculation that they met up with Wyatt's friend Bat Masterson in Albuquerque and then rode north to Trinidad, CO, where Masterson owned a saloon. Earp and the rest of the party laid low in Gunnison, CO for a time until Wyatt rode to San Francisco with Virgil and Warren Earp to meet up with Josie Marcus in 1882. Wyatt proceeded to bounce around the country with Josie to meet the demands of the growing country and seek a more stable life. These places included Dodge City, mining in Eagle, Idaho, the housing boom in San Diego, back to San Francisco, Alaska, Nevada, and back to California for good. Eventually, Earp became a Hollywood consultant, aiding in replicating the historical conditions for western films.

On January 13, 1929, Wyatt Earp died of chronic cystis in Los Angeles (some speculate prostate cancer), the last surviving participant in the fight at the O.K. Corral. He was 80 years old. Though Earp was far from a saint, his life seems to have been governed by this very passionate principle; nothing in the world was more sacred to him than his honour and he fought with all he had to maintain it. The only people he trusted were his family and close friends, and that loyalty extended only so far as those that he loved. Men who he had fought for betrayed his trust and he brought them to justice. Wyatt Earp was so critical to the shaping of the American west, it is important to understand who he really was, a founding father of the American West.

Having spent 80 years of life in this world, Wyatt Earp - either before or after his death - became an example of how some things should be done and how others shouldn't. His name has become synonymous with the image of a western sheriff or cattle town marshal. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral will live in infamy. Attached to that is the reality that the Texas Cowboys - as western and country as they could be - have come to represent the worst and perhaps first "gang" in our country's documented history.



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The Old West At Its Best - And Worst | Boothill | All The Major Towns Had Brothels | John P. Clum | The Slopers And The Easterners Soon Collided In Tombstone | The Gunfight At The O.K. Corral | Courageous And Trustworthy Men | The Clanton Gang aka The Cowboys | The West's Deadliest Dentist | Doc Holliday | The Earp Family | Morgan Seth Earp | John Peters Ringo | Virgil Earp | Baxter Warren Earp | No Individual Has Caused Greater Controversy In Western History | Wyatt Earp
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