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Wyatt Earp: The Search for Order on the Last Frontier
Gary L. Roberts
(Chapter 1, With Badges and Bullets: Lawmen and Outlaws in the Old West. Edited by Richard W. Etulain and Glenda Riley. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999)
Of all the old-time lawmen of the boomtown West, Wyatt Earp remains perhaps the most controversial. In part this is because the Homeric themes of Wyatt Earp's legend have cut him loose from significant historical issues, thereby reducing the debate about him to a quarrel over the details of his life in order to prove him a hero or a villain. In the process, the substantial role he did play has been so obscured and trivialized that Wyatt Earp the man remains compelling, idolized, damned, and still strangely without substance.
Biographer Stuart N. Lake described Wyatt Earp as an "epitomizing symbol of a powerful factor — an economic factor, if you will — all important in the history of the Western United States of America." And he was, although Earp represented not so much "the exact combination of breeding and human experience which laid the foundations of Western empire," to use Lake's phrase, as the forces of modernization in America's Age of Exploitation. Wyatt Earp was an instrument of change, a transition figure from the traditional frontier to the modern West, epitomizing the individualism, mobility, materialism, and violence that characterized the Gilded Age.
Wyatt Earp was a foot soldier in what historian Robert H. Weibe called "the search for order" in the late nineteenth century. Earp subscribed to the principles that dominated the time and served the forces of change for good and for ill. His world was one in which "survival of the fittest" was more than a social philosophy. Although not a complex man, he lived his life according to a code that seemed right to him, if not to those who judged him later. As a peace officer and an entrepreneur in the boomtown West, Earp threw his lot with conservative men of power. He embraced the Republicanism, capitalism, and Social Darwinism of railroad tycoons and industrial barons and served as their agent in the process of capitalist incorporation on the urban frontier.
When the West settled into the mundane realities of less troubled times, Wyatt Earp became an anachronism, a type of individual that some men were loath to remember. He represented much that Progressive reformers sought to change about America and as a result suffered a certain loss of respectability. Then he was swallowed up by the frontier myth and transformed into a "gunfighter," a man with no allegiances save for those that scribblers gave him. He found himself lost in the contradictions between what he was and what others said he was.
Earp's life began simply enough, but the seed of his personality and character were sown early. Wyatt Earp's father, Nicholas Porter Earp, was a strong-willed, opinionated, often profane, and sometimes belligerent man. Active in community affairs, he was generous to his neighbors but abrasive and often slow in paying his debts. The dominant force in Nicholas's life was his family. The rugged life of the frontier took from him one of his children and his first wife in 1839, leaving him with a son to rear alone. In 1840 he remarried, and his second wife, Virginia Ann Cooksey, a gentle, kindly woman, eventually bore eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood.
In 1845 Nicholas loaded his growing family into a wagon and left Kentucky for Illinois. The family settled at Monmouth in Warren County. Nicholas was never very happy there and was already planning to move on when the Mexican War erupted. He enlisted in the company of Captain Wyatt Berry Stapp, but his military career came to an abrupt and painful end when an uncooperative army mule kicked him in the groin and sent him home as a wounded veteran. However, the delicate nature of his disability did not deter him long, and on March 19, 1848, his fourth son was born. The child was named Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp.
Two years later, Nicholas moved his family again, this time to Pella, Iowa, a Dutch community where Wyatt Earp grew up. But Nicholas was still restless. In 1859 he purchased 240 acres of land in Barton County, Missouri, with the expectation of moving his family there. Life in western Missouri was dangerous, because of the depredations of Southern and Northern partisans in the struggle for control of "bleeding Kansas." The outbreak of the Civil War rendered any move to the border region foolhardy, and the Earps, like many other families with southern backgrounds, faced more important decisions. The three oldest boys — Newton, James, and Virgil — quickly enlisted in Union army regiments. Nicholas eventually served as Union provost marshal and raised three companies of troops for the Union cause. In 1861 he replaced O.H. Parish as marshal of Pella, serving in that post until mid-1863, when he was succeeded by H. Van Vliet. Nicholas soon resigned his various commissions and in 1864 organized a wagon train bound for California.
The trek west to San Bernardino, California, was a turning point in the life of young Wyatt. The journey took him into the new country where he would spend most of his life and tested his mettle in the face of hardship and real danger. By the time his family had rented a farm near the center of San Gorgonio Pass, Wyatt was already chafing at the idea of becoming a farmer. He took a temporary job as a driver for the Banning Stage Company and later worked as a teamster. When his older brother, Virgil, joined the family at San Bernardino in December 1865, Wyatt got his first real break. Virgil became assistant wagon master for a freighting firm, hauling goods to Prescott, Arizona, and Wyatt was hired as a driver. Later, Wyatt took a job with Chris Taylor of San Bernardino and drove freight wagons on a regular run to Salt Lake City.
According to Wyatt's "autobiography," a curious document written by his friend John Flood, a man named Charles Chrisman opened a competing line and hired Wyatt as a freighter. Then, Wyatt recalled, Chrisman and he set out for Julesburg, Colorado, where Chrisman won grading contracts with the Union Pacific Railroad. In the spring of 1868 Nicholas Earp decided to return to Illinois, and Virgil accompanied the family as far as Wyoming, where he joined Wyatt and Chrisman in their enterprise. Nicholas and the rest of his family took the Union Pacific Railroad east, while the two brothers spent their labors in the last push toward Promontory, Utah. In the "hell-on-wheels" towns that led the way west, the Earp brothers acquired skills as gamblers and learned to take care of themselves in a difficult environment. More importantly, they caught a glimpse of the capitalist dream that drove the rails west. By the spring of 1869, when the contract was completed, they had earned enough money to finance a trip home to Monmouth for a reunion with the family.
They arrived to find that Nicholas had moved again, this time to his property in Missouri. According to one unverified source, the Earp boys tarried in Illinois just long enough for Wyatt to get into a fracas with a man named Tom Piner at Walden's Hotel in Beardstown. Piner allegedly needled young Wyatt, calling him "California boy," whereupon Wyatt tossed him into the street. Then Piner fired a pistol at Earp, who, in turn, shot his assailant in the hip. If the incident did happen, it doubtlessly hastened the boys' departure. By the early fall of 1869 they had reached Lamar, Missouri, for a reunion with the rest of the Earp family.
Nicholas Earp was already well established at Lamar, active in community affairs as constable of the local township and the proprietor of a bakery. On November 17, 1869, he resigned his post as constable to become justice of the peace in Lamar. That same day, twenty-one-year-old Wyatt was appointed to replace him as constable. Wyatt moved into the home of his half brother, Newton, but on January 10, 1870, he married Urilla Sutherland, the daughter of William "Uncle Billy" Sutherland, who owned the Exchange Hotel. As justice of the peace, Nicholas performed the ceremony, and after the wedding Wyatt bought a house and dabbled in farming. When the town was incorporated on February 11, 1870, Wyatt became its first constable at a salary of $15 a month.
Lamar was no hell town. Although it had its share of saloons, Lamar's affairs had settled down considerably since the war. Undoubtedly, Wyatt Earp's inauspicious debut as a peace officer was more the result of the town's placid nature than of Earp's lack of ability to enforce the law. As the fall election approached, Wyatt announced his intentions to run again for the constable's post. Then, on September 20, in a somewhat surprising turn of events, Wyatt's half brother, Newton, entered the race against him. On November 8, 1870, Wyatt defeated Newton and two other challengers to retain his job.
Tragically, before the election could be held, Wyatt's young wife, Urilla, died — of typhus or typhoid, some accounts say; in childbirth with a stillborn child, according to others. Her death changed everything for Wyatt. On November 7, 1870, the day before he was reelected constable, Wyatt sold the house he and Urilla had shared. A short time later, he and his brothers, James, Virgil, and Morgan, got into a fight with Urilla's two brothers, Fred and Bert Sutherland, and the Brummett boys, Granville, Loyd, and Jordan, who bore a grudge against Wyatt and Nicholas, who had respectively arrested and tried them. The brawl ended with enough abrasions to satisfy both sides that they had won, but the incident marked the end of Wyatt Earp's sojourn in Lamar.
Wyatt worked several cases as constable in December, but on January 16, 1871, the Barton County Court ordered Earp "to be attached and safely kept" until he settled accounts owed the county in the conduct of his office. On January 25 the court ordered a suit against Wyatt, "former constable of Lamar Township," for recovery of money due to the county. In March two cases were filed against Earp for mishandling county funds. Wyatt never answered the charges, but by then he was gone.
On April 6, 1871, Deputy U.S. Marshal J.G. Owens arrested Earp and two others, John Shown and Ed Kennedy, for stealing horses near Fort Gibson in the Cherokee Nation. The three accused men were arraigned in Van Buren, Arkansas, and when they could not post $500 bail, they were jailed. Later, Earp and Shown escaped from the Van Buren jail with five other prisoners. The following week, they were indicted at Fort Smith (the district court had just been transferred there from Van Buren), and Judge William Story issued bench warrants for them. Kennedy, the only one to actually stand trial, was acquitted in June. Perhaps that was why the matter was never pursued. At any rate, Wyatt had "gone west" on the run.
Wyatt later claimed that he joined the hordes descending on the buffalo range in Texas and Kansas. He probably did, although he may have spent some time at Fort Scott, where his second wife, Celia Ann "Mattie" Blaylock, apparently lived for a time. He wintered on the Salt Fork of the Arkansas in 1871–1872, where he met Bat and Ed Masterson, but he did not follow them to Dodge City when they quit the range for warmer climes. Instead, Wyatt probably joined his wandering father in Aullville, Missouri, or his brother Newton in Peace, Kansas. Some evidence further suggests that he worked as a freighter in business with Newton and Edward Sylvester Adam, Newton's brother-in-law.
In 1873 Wyatt drifted into Ellsworth, then the center of the Texas cattle trade. He was present the day that Billy Thompson shot Sheriff Chauncey B. Whitney and may have played a role in persuading Ben Thompson to surrender to authorities after Thompson held off the town while his brother escaped. By the fall of 1873 Wyatt's brother, James, had settled in Wichita, Kansas, where he tended bar and his wife apparently operated a brothel. Wyatt showed up there in 1874 after a season on the buffalo range and promptly got himself into a fight with a local citizen that landed him in jail on May 27, the same day that Charley Sanders, a black hod-carrier, was murdered by a Texan named Ramsey.
Wyatt said that Mayor Jim Hope put him on the police force that day, but records of the city of Wichita do not include a single reference to him that year. After the murder of Charley Sanders, Mayor Hope organized a secret police force, "sworn and armed," to be called out in case of trouble, which explains contemporary references to Earp as an officer, and his insistence that he was on the police force in 1874. Wyatt claimed other exploits for 1874, which were discounted by later writers because they were not reported in the Wichita press. But considered without the melodrama of John Flood or Stuart Lake, the incidents amounted to little more than conversations that did not lead to arrests, incidents unlikely to be reported by Wichita newspapers determined to play down violence and not report every incident, especially when Texas cattlemen were involved.
Occasionally, though, Wyatt did make the papers. In October 1874 he and John Behrens trailed a party of Texans seventy-five miles to collect a mass of unpaid bills. The Wichita Eagle observed that "those boys fear nothing and fear nobody" and recounted with obvious relish "how slick the boys did the work." Afterward, Earp and Behrens took jobs as drovers to protect a herd of cattle in the possession of Edward R. Ulrich, who was involved in a dispute over the ownership of the herd, known as the "Pole Cat War." Earp wintered with the Ulrich herd until the opposition enlisted the aid of the Summer County vigilantes and took possession of the herd at gunpoint the following spring.
On April 21, 1875, with a new marshal, Michael Meagher, in office, the Wichita town council named John Behrens assistant marshal and Wyatt Earp as a policeman. Only a few days after his appointment, Wyatt arrested a horse thief named W.W. Compton. Wyatt's restraint was notable when his prisoner tried to run away. He fired a shot in the air that brought the thief to a halt when he might have just as easily put a bullet into his back. There were also other occasions for which the local press praised the young officer. In December 1875 Earp arrested a drunk passed out near the bridge across the Arkansas River. Upon searching him, Wyatt found "in the neighborhood of $500 on his person." The Beacon reminded its citizens that "there are but few other places where that $500 roll would ever been heard from," adding, "the integrity of our police force has never been seriously questioned."
Wyatt was astute enough to understand the importance of the cattle trade to towns like Wichita. He was discreet when the occasion called for it, and he used his persuasive powers more than once to prevent arrests. At the same time, lawbreakers learned that Wyatt was a man of action and would not hesitate to perform his duties as a policeman. He had gained a reputation as a tough adversary, a man who would not compromise, and an effective officer who proved the maxim that good law enforcement is not newsworthy.
All was not rosy in Wichita for Wyatt Earp, however. On one humiliating evening in January 1876, as Wyatt sat in a card game, his revolver slid from its holster, fell to the floor, and fired, scattering the players. His family's reputation did not help much either. His sister-in-law, Bessie Earp, appeared routinely in the arrest records for prostitution, along with "Sally Earp," who may have been "Ceally" Blaylock, the woman who became Wyatt's second wife "Mattie."
In 1875 young Morgan Earp showed up in town and got into a small scrape that cost him $2 in police court. Once Wyatt became an officer, the Earp name abruptly dropped from police court records, which left some suspicion that Wyatt's new job gave him the unspoken leeway to make life easier for his relatives.
Earp's family also became an issue in the marshal's race of 1876, which led, indirectly, to Wyatt Earp's departure from Wichita. In a tight race, challenger Bill Smith charged that Mike Meagher had promised to add Wyatt's brothers to the force if he were reelected. Smith said that additional officers were not needed and implied that he did not want the Earps working for him if he became marshal. This comment enraged Wyatt, who attacked Smith on the eve of the election. Meagher stopped the fight and reluctantly fired Earp.
The Beacon observed that Earp had been an "excellent officer," but added that "the good order of the city was properly vindicated in the firing and dismissal of Erp [sic]." Wyatt's case subsequently came before the city council, which first refused to rehire him by a vote of six to two, then tied four to four in a second vote that left the matter tabled.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Wyatt Earp Anthology"
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Table of Contents
Foreword John Boessenecker xi
Preface Roy B. Young xv
The Life of Wyatt Earp-A Timeline xxiii
Prologue Casey Tefertiller xxxvii
Part I Wyatt Earp, the Man and the Myth: An Overview
Chapter 1 Wyatt Earp: The Search for Order on the Last Frontier Gary L. Roberts 2
Chapter 2 Showdown at the Hollywood Corral: Wyatt Earp and the Movies Paul Andrew Hutton 26
Chapter 3 Historians' Gunfight Kara L. McCormack 58
Chapter 4 Finding Wyatt Casey Tefertiller Bob Cash 79
Part II Riding a Troubled Trail
Chapter 5 Father of the "Fighting Earps" Nicholas R. Cataldo 88
Chapter 6 Wyatt Earp Was Born Here: Monmouth and the Earps, 1845-1859 William Urban 95
Chapter 7 Wyatt Earp, Outlaw of the Cherokee Nation Roy B. Young 99
Chapter 8 The Peoria Bummer: Wyatt Earp's Lost Year Roger Jay 115
Part III A New Start in Kansas
Chapter 9 Wyatt Earp, Wichita Policeman, Part One Roger Jay 126
Chapter 10 Wyatt Earp, Wichita Policeman, Part Two Roger Jay 155
Chapter 11 The Dodge City Underworld Roger Jay 189
Chapter 12 James W. Kenedy: Cattleman, Texas Ranger, Gambler and "Fiend in Human Form" Chuck Parsons 208
Chapter 13 Wyatt Earp's Buntline Special Jeff Morey 221
Chapter 14 Brothers of the Gun: Wyatt and Doc Gary L. Roberts 227
Part IV Triumph and Tragedy in Tombstone
Chapter 15 With Murder Rates Higher than Modern New York or Los Angeles: Homicide Rates: Involving the Arizona Cow-Boys, 1880-1882 Paul Cool 238
Chapter 16 The Gambler's War in Tombstone: Fact or Artifact? Roger Jay 256
Chapter 17 The Other Ike and Billy: The Heslet Brothers in Grant County, New Mexico Roy B. Young 286
Chapter 18 Lawman Bob Paul's Doc and Wyatt Connection John Boessenecker 302
Chapter 19 Wells Fargo and the Earp Brothers: Cash Books Talk Dr. Robert J. Chandler 311
Chapter 20 Wyatt Earp, Jack Johnson, and the Notorious Blount Brothers Peter Brand 321
Chapter 21 The Dedicated Women Behind the Earp Men Sherry Monahan 339
Chapter 22 Big Nose Kate and Mary Katherine Cunimings: Same Person, Different Lives Anne E. Collier 344
Chapter 23 O.K. Corral: A Gunfight Shrouded in Mystery Casey Tefertiller Jeff Morey 362
Chapter 24 "Blaze Away!" Doc Holliday's Role in the West's Most Famous Gunfight Jeff Morey 371
Chapter 25 Were the McLaurys Leaving Tombstone? Paul Johnson 383
Chapter 26 The Will of McLaury Paul Lee Johnson 394
Chapter 27 Behan's Lies Casey Tefertiller 403
Chapter 28 H.F. Sills, Mystery Man of the O.K. Corral Shootout Jane Matson Lee Mark Dworkin 408
Chapter 29 The Spicer Hearing and H.F. Sills Casey Tefertiller 421
Chapter 30 Conflict of Interest at the O.K. Corral Steven Lubet 437
Chapter 31 Sensory Deception Steven Lubet 447
Chapter 32 Justice in Tombstone Bob Palmquist 451
Chapter 33 Wyatt Earp's Vendetta Posse Peter Brand 457
Chapter 34 The Assassination of Frank Stilwell Roy B. Young 466
Chapter 35 Gunfight in the Whetstone Mountains Bill Evans 466
Chapter 36 The Split: Did Doc and Wyatt Split Because of a Racial Slur? Chuck Hornung Gary L. Roberts 495
Chapter 37 Dangerous Charm: John Ringo of Tombstone Casey Tefertiller 502
Part V Riding Toward Sunset
Chapter 38 Wyatt Earp-The Boomtown Sport Roger S. Peterson 512
Chapter 39 The Man Behind the Dodge City War Jack DeMattos Chuck Parsons 535
Chapter 40 Wyatt Earp Turned to Business in Idaho Casey Tefertiller 541
Chapter 41 The Harqua Hala-Wyatt Earp's Unknown Arizona Boomtown Garner A. Palenske 545
Chapter 42 Wyatt Earp Returns to Arizona David Griffiths 559
Chapter 43 Wyatt Earp's 1897 Yuma and Cibola Sojourns Mark Dworkin 563
Chapter 44 Wyatt Earp in Seattle Pamela J. Potter 575
Chapter 45 Wyatt Earp's Alaskan Adventure Ann Kirschner 581
Chapter 46 The Great Wyatt Earp Oil Rip-Off Truman Rex Fisher 586
Chapter 47 Thomas Mulqueen: Two-Fisted Gambler Erik J. Wright 593
Part VI The Making of a Legend
Chapter 48 Wyatt Earp: The Good Side of a "Bad Man"-Religion in the Life of a Lawman Roy B. Young 602
Chapter 49 Wyatt Earp Talks "Pretty": A Look at Wyatt Earp's Interaction with Interviewers, Writers and Historians Roy B. Young 602
Chapter 50 Resolving Earp Myths Casey Tefertiller 631
Chapter 51 Wyatt Earp in Hollywood: The Untold Story of How Wyatt Earp Got Ripped off by Outlaws in the Last Outlaw Town Bob Boze Bell 641
Chapter 52 Wyatt Earp's First Film: William S. Hart's Wild Bill Hickok Paul Andrew Hutton 648
Chapter 53 Wyatt on the Set Allen Barra 651
Chapter 54 The International O.K. Corral Pamela J. Potter 656
Part VII They Varied Wyatt Earp
Chapter 55 The Real Tombstone Travesty: The Earp Controversy from Bechdolt to Boyer Gary L. Roberts 660
Chapter 56 Wyatt Earp: Man versus Myth William MacLeod Raine 675
Chapter 57 Allie's Story: Mrs. Virgil Earp and the "Tombstone Travesty" Gary L. Roberts 687
Chapter 58 What was not in Tombstone Travesty Casey Tefertiller 697
Chapter 59 The Long, Long Road to the Great Debate Jim Dullenty 704
Chapter 60 Trailing an American Mythmaker: History and Glenn G. Boyer's Tombstone Vendetta Gary L. Roberts 709
Chapter 61 I Varied Wyatt Earp Tony Ortega 743
Chapter 62 Evidence, Interpretation and Speculation: Thoughts on Kaloma (The Purported Photograph of Josie Earp) Jeremy Rowe 750
Chapter 63 Writing Wyatt Greg Lalire 758
Epilogue: "Suppose … Suppose …" Wyatt Earp, Frontier Violence, Myth, and History Gary L. Roberts 761