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lawman, gambler, petty criminal, and legendary gunfight participant
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, on March 19, 1848. He was one of eight children born to Nicholas and Victoria Ann (Cooksley) Earp -- James, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, Warren, Martha, Virginia, and Adelia. His family moved back and forth between Illinois and Iowa during his early years before making their way west to Colton, California (near San Bernardino) in 1864, where Wyatt is believed to have worked as a teamster and railroad worker.
The Earp family was living in Lamar, Missouri, by 1869, and Wyatt was elected Constable of that city in 1870. He married Urilla Sutherland that same year, but she died of typhoid fever within months of the marriage. As Constable, Earp was responsible for collecting business license fees, but city officials accused him of pocketing much of the money collected and fired him. The city also filed legal action against him, but he managed to leave the state before being served with a summons and he was never called to answer the charges.
From Missouri, Earp traveled to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where he worked as a buffalo hunter and stagecoach driver. In April of 1871, he was arrested for stealing horses, but escaped custody before being tried for the crime. A new warrant for his arrest was issued after his escape, but that warrant was never executed and he was once again able to avoid criminal prosecution.
By 1872 Earp was working as a saloonkeeper in Peoria, Illinois. That year, he was arrested in a raid on a local brothel and charged with pimping. For the first time in his "career," Earp was unable to avoid prosecution, and he ended up paying a very hefty fine.
Leaving Peoria, Earp spent the next few years drifting from town to town. Exactly how he supported himself during this time is unclear, but it is suspected that gambling provided at least some of his income. Making his way to Wichita, Kansas, about 1874, he became a police officer in that city in 1875. Although many legends surrounding Earp claim that he first gained fame helping to tame the streets of Wichita, there is no evidence to support that claim. Not only was Wichita already a fairly calm cowtown by the time Earp arrived, the only time he got real notice was when he got fired for fighting with a fellow officer in 1876. At some point during his time in Wichita, he married a local prostitute.
From Wichita, Earp made his way to Dodge City, where he became a faro dealer. There, he renewed a friendship with Doc Holliday, whom he had met in Texas, and also started a lifelong friendship with Bat Masterson. At various times during his stay in Dodge City he served as an assistant marshal and as a police officer. And, just as the legends surrounding his time in Wichita are greatly exaggerated, so also are those about his time in Dodge City. While Dodge City was definitely a bit more "wild" than Wichita, there is no evidence that Earp was any more prominent there than he had been in Wichita.
In 1878, Earp and his new wife left Dodge City and, after a short stint as a Wells Fargo agent in California, made their way to Tombstone, Arizona, where his brothers and Holliday had already relocated. He originally planned to establish a stage line, but after finding that two lines already served Tombstone he acquired the gambling concession at the Oriental Saloon instead. Virgil Earp became town marshal, Morgan Earp became a policeman, and Wyatt occasionally acted as a deputized lawman. It is not known what happened to his second wife, but sometime after arriving in Tombstone Wyatt met and married Josephine Marcus, who stayed with him until his death.
It was in Tombstone that Wyatt first gained widespread attention. The Earps had been having a dispute with the Clanton family for several months, and neither side was willing to settle tthings peacefully. On October 26, 1881, the Earp brothers, along with Holliday, attempted to disarm some Clanton brothers, since it was against the law to carry guns in Tombstone. Although many details of the Gunfight at the OK Corral on October 26, 1881, have been greatly exaggerated and/or completely fabricated, there is no dispute that three Clanton brothers were killed and two others were wounded; Morgan and Virgil were also wounded. Although gunfights were not unheard of in the "Wild West" of the day, the number of participants and casualties of this single battle made it a story worthy of some national attention, with some papers portraying the Earps as heroes and others calling them murderers. Virgil was subsequently terminated as town marshal for his role in the gunfight, but Morgan was apparently allowed to keep his job.
In March of 1882, Morgan Earp was gunned down by unknown assailants. Believing they knew who had killed their brother, Wyatt and Warren went on a vendetta that eventually left all four suspects dead. Still facing the possibility of charges related to the OK Corral incident and now openly accused of murdering the four men suspected of killing his brother, Wyatt decided to leave Arizona Territory. He and Josie spent the next several years making the rounds of mining camps across the West. In 1886, the couple briefly settled in San Diego, where Wyatt gambled and invested in real estate and saloons. In 1887, he and Josie followed gold miners to Nome, Alaska, where he operated a saloon. In 1901, the Earps left Alaska and headed for the newly-discovered gold fields at Tonopah, Nevada, where he again engaged in saloon, gambling, and mining interests. When those fields began dwindling, he took up prospecting himself and established several claims in the Mojave Desert. In 1906, he discovered rich veins of gold and copper near Vidal, California, and the Earps decided to finally put down roots.
By the time he and Josie settled down, Wyatt had become part of Western folklore, thanks to the popularity of dime novels that glamorized anything having to do with the "Wild West," whether true or not. He died in Los Angeles on January 13, 1929, and "cowboy stars" Tom Mix and William S. Hart were among his pallbearers. After cremation, his ashes were buried in Josie's family plot in Colma, California.
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This page was last updated on September 23, 2017.