Legends of the Old West | The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp

"Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything. In a gun fight... You need to take your time in a hurry."

— Wyatt Earp —

It’s Wednesday October 26, 1881. The sun has begun its descent into the western sky, its light reflecting off the heat waves coming from the hot desert soil. Four men walk through the entrance to a corral. They have come to disarm five gunslingers who have openly broken the law and made threats against them. When they finally stop walking, the group of four stand six to ten feet away from the men they are there to apprehend. Few words are exchanged. The leader, Virgil Earp, gives the command to the group of criminals to throw down their arms. Of the five, Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne flee the scene. The remaining three draw their weapons. The four marshals draw theirs. Within thirty seconds, it’s over. As the smell of burnt powder and dust clears in the arid air, three outlaws are dead, three lawmen are wounded, and one stands coolly in the wake of the violent exchange. His demeanor, temperament, and lack of anxiety is quoted by a close friend later in life as, “a person whom I regarded as absolutely destitute of physical fear. His daring and apparent recklessness in time of danger is wholly characteristic.” This man was Wyatt Earp.

Life in the Old West

Life in the Old West, from 1865 to 1895, was unlike anything you, our audience, can imagine, as even films and television fail to capture its true nature. Although the West was already owned by the United States, expansion into these territories was limited because it was still untamed and lacked order. However, after the Civil War, veterans seeking adventure and landowners who had lost everything began to migrate west at great peril to themselves and their families.

Many Americans believed they had a “manifest destiny” to claim the untouched lands of the West for themselves and their nation. As more and more people settled across the Mississippi and beyond the Rocky Mountains, some brought law and civilization while others brought crime and suffering. Within the untamed lands of the west, those that were disposed to lawlessness became more so, and makeshift courts and law enforcement agencies were created to bring order to this chaos. Judges, US marshals, sheriffs and their deputies would reign in the wild side of each town and territory, often with little or no training. Judges like Roy Bean knew so little about the law that he once threatened a lawyer with hanging for using profane words like “habeas corpus.” Weaponry, guile, personal experience, and both good and bad intentions were their only tools.

Travel was dangerous in those days. The average wagon traveled at a speed of two miles an hour, averaging between ten to fifteen miles per day. For families going from Missouri to Oregon or California, this meant a five-month journey. A single person on horseback was a different matter, with mounted companies being able to travel between upwards of fifty miles per day, and single soldiers often went even further. Lone travel was discouraged. A single rider in an empty landscape was a tempting target, but both men and beast would be discouraged by a large group.

As the migrations continued, boom towns emerged around silver and gold deposits throughout the west. As word spread back east, those looking for adventure and riches soon found themselves on the same trails as families and others seeking to start anew. As the boom towns grew, so did every possible establishment bent on making a quick buck. Generally, this revolved around whiskey, gambling, and brothels, some of which took in more than $4 million in today’s money. Lawlessness thrived in these environments, as it sometimes does today. The lawman and the courts did their best to maintain the “thin blue line” between civilization and barbarism.

Tragedy and Purpose

Wyatt Earp was born on March 19, 1848. The fourth of seven children, he spent his early life in Illinois. At the age of one his father organized a group of a hundred settlers to travel to San Bernardino, CA, where he was planning to buy some land. Unfortunately, Wyatt’s sister became ill and the family had to stop just 150 miles into their journey west, and they settled in Iowa. When Wyatt was thirteen, several of his brothers joined the Union Army while his father worked with local companies. This left Wyatt and his remaining brothers to care the eighty-acre farm alone.

In May 1864, Wyatt’s father once again organized a group to head to San Bernardino, arriving in December of that year. Wyatt got his first job at the age of sixteen with his brother Virgil hauling cargo for two companies to Las Vegas, the Utah Territory, and Nevada. During this time, he learned how to referee boxing matches and to gamble, both of which he found very lucrative.

At the age of twenty his family moved back east to Lamar, MO, where he got his first law enforcement job as a constable. It was there that he met, courted, and married his first wife in 1870. He began to build a house while running a hotel with his in-laws. During this time Wyatt was said to have begun the process of settling down, working nights and weekends on their new home while spending days at the hotel. Unfortunately, tragedy soon struck. A few months before his wife was about to give birth, she and their child died of typhoid fever, sending Wyatt into a downward spiral for the next four years. He was arrested several times for being fond of and visiting a “house of ill repute,” running several brothels and saloons, and for being intoxicated (which was illegal at the time).

By 1875, Dodge City, KS, had become a main thoroughfare for cattle drives due to its proximity to the Chisholm Trail. Wyatt briefly served as an assistant marshal, and after a brief but failed attempt to make money in the Dakota Territory mines, he rejoined the police force in Dodge City in 1877. Wyatt was involved with several disputes in Dodge. The town was a rest stop for cowboys (a derogatory name at the time) exhausted from the cattle drives and ready to sow their wild oats. The normal process was for herds to come through, be put to pasture, and a selection of the team responsible for herding them would descend on the town and drink, smoke, gamble, and populate the “houses of ill-repute”. This provided ample opportunities for the law to be enforced.

One such occasion occurred after an outlaw robbed a railroad construction camp and fled the city. Wyatt was made a US marshal and ordered to pursue him until he lost the trail in Texas. At his last stop in Texas, he was trying to get additional information about the outlaw when another patron informed him that his target had gone back to Kansas. Very little is recorded of this and other conversations between the two men, but whatever was said sparked something in the patron that would save Wyatt’s life a year later.

That incident started when some cowboys ransacked one of the many saloons in Dodge City and harassed or assaulted customers while firing their guns wildly. Wyatt confronted the men, bursting through the saloon door to put a stop to the madness. He soon found himself confronted by anywhere from three to nine guns (depending on the account), all pointed at him.

It was at this moment that the patron from the Texas bar rose from a back table and put a pistol to the cowboy leader’s head, ordering him to stand down. He did, and the men were taken into custody. At that moment, Wyatt Earp and John Henry “Doc” Holliday became close friends. During his entire time in Dodge City, Wyatt Earp was only involved in one major gunfight and though a man did die as a result, differing reports make it unclear whether the cause of death was gangrene a few weeks later or if the man died from the gunshot that night. Regardless, the incident was something Wyatt would never forget.

Tombstone and the OK Corral

In 1879 Virgil Earp, who was a lawman in Prescott, AZ, wrote to Wyatt about a growing mining town called Tombstone. It was good timing, as Dodge City had begun to settle down, or as Wyatt described it, "Dodge was beginning to lose much of the snap which had given it a charm to men of reckless blood, and I decided to move to Tombstone, which was just building up a reputation." The Earps (Wyatt, his second wife Mattie, his brother Jim and his wife), Doc Holliday and his common-law wife “Big Nosed” Kate left for Prescott not long after to meet up with Virgil. The group then departed for Tombstone and were joined by another Earp brother, Morgan, who had left his wife in California to strike it rich in the new silver town.

Virgil had already been hired as the US marshal for the territory of Tombstone, and as he settled into his new post Wyatt and his party began the process of getting acclimated to the new town. Wyatt got a job as a “shotgun” messenger for Wells Fargo while Jim became a bartender. Doc Holliday immersed himself–quite successfully–in the gambling trenches of the boom town and began to accumulate a small fortune.

During this time, a group of outlaws known as the Cowboys were present in Tombstone. Wyatt and his brothers had several early run-ins with this gang. One such incident included being present at the death of the town sheriff, Fred White at the hands of Curly Bill, one of the cowboys. Wyatt was one of the first on the scene as Fred dropped to the ground after an apparent discharge from Curly Bill’s gun into his groin. Earp pistol-whipped Bill to the ground and held him there until backup arrived a few minutes later. During those minutes, other cowboys took shots at Earp from the darkness. When help arrived, one of Wyatt’s friends, Fred Dodge, reported his demeanor as rounds sailed past them. “Wyatt's coolness and nerve never showed to better advantage than they did that night. When Morg and I reached him, Wyatt was squatted on his heels beside Curly Bill and Fred White. Curly Bill's friends were pot-shooting at him in the dark. The shooting was lively and slugs were hitting the chimney and cabin…. in all of that racket, Wyatt's voice was even and quiet as usual.”

Wyatt and his brothers had continual run-ins with the cowboys until Morgan was finally threatened with death if the he or his brothers arrested any of them again. The threats continued for several weeks until October 26, 1881 when the four men—Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Doc— walked through the entrance of the OK Corral in an attempt to disarm the outlaws.

Here, we find Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne fleeing the scene. Tom and Frank McLowery and Billy Clanton are holding their ground as the two parties draw their weapons and open fire. Two of the Cowboys are hit at once, with Virgil and Morgan being shot not long after. Doc Holliday lays down continuous fire at all three, first with a coach gun and then with his nickelplated revolvers. Only Wyatt remains in place, methodically firing at the targets that still pose a threat. As the thirty seconds pass and the shooting stops, two men are left standing and two are on the ground, wounded. Witnesses to the fight cited both Wyatt and Doc at the pivotal gunmen while the shooting lasted. Once it was over, Wyatt would credit Doc again with saving his life, adding that his friend was the deadliest gunman he had ever seen.

The gunfight is the quintessential scene of the American West, immortalized forever as the way we see this time period. This is true for several reasons. First, the gunfight was uncommon. Despite popular belief, these gunfights were not a staple of life in the Old West and when they did happen, there were rarely witnesses. Second, and this shouldn’t surprise you, there were a lot of people watching the fight at the OK Corral. Tall tales were plentiful in the West, and had it not been for the many eyewitnesses to the events of October 26, 1881, historians might not have known of the cool behavior of Wyatt Earp and the deadly accuracy of Doc Holiday. The showdown was chronicled in newspapers that circulated throughout the boom towns and even reached readers back east, adding to the legends of what lay beyond the Mississippi River.

During his waning years Wyatt was interviewed by a biographer who wrote a very flattering version of the incident in a book which was published a few years after Wyatt’s death. The book hit the shelves in time for the cowboy craze of Hollywood that spanned several decades, and the gunfight at the OK Corral became part of the iconic American view of the cowboy, the outlaw, the lawman, and the West as a whole.

After the OK Corral

Wyatt, his brothers, and Doc were put on trial for murder of the Cowboys in the corral, of which they were acquitted. The Cowboys swore revenge on the Earps, and later that year they wounded Virgil and murdered Morgan while he was playing pool at a saloon in Tombstone. Devastated, Wyatt, Doc, and several of their close friends killed all of the Cowboys responsible for the attack, as well as those who helped the murderers or even knew of their plans. During this time, reports of some of the gunfights between the cowboys and Wyatt’s posse grew from facts into legends. After his quest for vengeance ended, Wyatt abandoned his wife and pursued Josephine Marcus in San Francisco, whom he stayed with for the next forty years until his death. During this time, they traveled from one boom town to another, with Josephine developing a gambling habit that plagued Earp for the rest of his life. Their travels included–but were not limited to–Alaska, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, the Utah Territory, and many other locations that showed signs of silver, gold, or any other way to make a profit. No matter what he did, law enforcement always seemed to follow him, even to the age of sixty when he was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department to track down fugitives who fled to Mexico.

Wyatt Earp died in 1929. He had no children. Two years before his death, he was asked again about the events of the OK Corral. He said: “For my handling of the situation at Tombstone, I have no regrets. Were it to be done over again, I would do exactly as I did at that time. If the outlaws and their friends and allies imagined that they could intimidate or exterminate the Earps by a process of murder, and then hide behind alibis and the technicalities of the law, they simply missed their guess. I want to call your particular attention again to one fact, which writers of Tombstone incidents and history apparently have overlooked: with the deaths of the McLowerys, the Clantons, Stillwell, Florentino Cruz, Curly Bill, and the rest, organized, politically protected crime and depredations in Cochise County ceased completely.”

The mythical figure of Wyatt Earp has been portrayed in books, magazines, movies, and radio throughout a variety of dramas and action stories. In the modern American mind, he represents the stoic in the otherwise lawless land, the pillar of absolute that seems to stand against the chaos—this despite his many disreputable actions he took throughout his life. The life and times of Wyatt Earp are a testament to the power of story and legend. Whatever view you may have of him, no can argue this place in American history and his life during an age of legends.