Wyatt Earp – The Man and the Legend

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Wyatt Earp

The days of the Old West are filled with colorful characters and Wyatt Earp ranks up there with them. Television reinforced his legendary status.

Who was Wyatt Earp? Was he a harbinger of justice in a lawless society? A defender of family honor? A self-promoter? Or all of the above?

The Wyatt Earp Television Show

From 1955 to 1961, the ABC network televised over 200 episodes of “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” The catchy theme song with its upbeat lyrics, presented a vision of a dynamic champion of Western justice.

I’ll tell you a story a real true life story

A tale of the Western frontier.

The West, it was lawless,

but one man was flawless

and his is the story you’ll hear.

Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp,

Brave courageous and bold.

Long live his fame and long life his glory

and long may his story be told.

Well he cleaned up the country

The old wild west country

He made law and order prevail.

And none can deny it

The legend of Wyatt

Forever will live on the trail.

Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp,

Brave courageous and bold.

Long live his fame and long life his glory

and long may his story be told.

(“The Legend of Wyatt Earp” music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Harold Adamson)

But is this an accurate picture of Wyatt Earp?

The Facts of His Life

The actual person Wyatt Earp was born in 1848 in Illinois. His large family of siblings included three older brothers and two younger. Life in a farming family was hard work, and Wyatt attempted to join the Union cause in 1863 at age 15, as had his older brothers. His father caught him and that ended his Army career.

The family moved often during his youth so after the War, he joined some of his brothers on the move. The border states of Missouri, Iowa, and Kansas were still in need of law enforcement and the Earps were happy to oblige.

Some of Wyatt’s relocation was perhaps due to his over-aggressiveness. He was accused of being a horse-thief in Arkansas, of pimping in Illinois, and gambling on the Mississippi. He somehow managed to keep working and staying solvent.

His brothers, especially Virgil and Morgan, often travelled with him and the most famous episode in Wyatt’s life included them. After the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt was driven by a vendetta in his passion to avenge the wounding of his brothers.

His life included a stint in the Alaska gold fields in the early 1900’s and an eventual return to California where he died in 1929. Earp was married twice throughout his 81 years.

The Infamous Gunfight at O.K. Corral

On October 26, 1881, Wyatt Earp had a date with destiny. The event would color his life forever. Doc Holliday, a close friend, along with Morgan and Virgil Earp met up with Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Billy Clanton and Ike Clanton in a classic gunfight. The sides had been posturing for months with threats, romantic rivalries, and physical fights prevailing. On this fateful day, the guns came out; Ike took off, Billy, Frank and Tom were killed, and Morgan, Virgil and Doc Holliday wounded.

Earp vowed revenge and the feud continued. Shortly thereafter, Wyatt met up with Frank Stilwell (another of the “cowboy gang”) and shot him at the Tucson railroad station with his defense stating Stilwell was poised to kill Virgil.

The Legend Grows

Newspapers of the day played up the great gun battle and Wyatt Earp gave the impression that he was the savior of the West. His friends, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson were also colorful characters with their own public images and they promoted the legends surrounding them.

Several interviews with Earp continued to enhance glowing accounts of his exploits and he became a legendary figure. When Hollywood in the 1950’s discovered Wyatt Earp, his story was put to film in several versions. The Gunfight at O.K. Corral, Tombstone, and Wyatt Earp were all great themes with epic storylines.

The television series cemented Earp’s clean-cut, law-abiding, “good guy” image. But the real Wyatt Earp is as fascinating as any media presentation. While all of the facts will never be known, he was a mixture of many things, as are we all.