The smoke had hardly cleared on October 26, 1881, in the O.K. Corral as the legend surrounding its participants quickly took hold and became part of the fabric of the wild west frontier. Among those figures who would become part of the nation’s folklore was Wyatt Earp who survived the showdown unscathed. Wyatt Earp is remembered mostly for his part in that fabled gunfight but his life afterwards, which has received little attention from historians, is worth recounting.
Wyatt Earp’s Early Years
Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois in 1848. In 1879, at the age of 31, he went to Tombstone, Arizona, along with his brothers Virgil and Morgan. Wyatt had worked at many jobs prior to arriving in the remote, western town, including gambling, real estate, and mine speculation. All three brothers had experience in law enforcement which is what they ended up becoming involved with upon their arrival in Tombstone. The American Southwest was a wide-open area at that time in history, a truly wild place with the Earp brothers being the only real law enforcement in all of southeast Arizona.
The outcome of the O.K. Corral gunfight left Wyatt’s brothers, Morgan and Virgil, along with Doc Holliday, wounded. On the opposing side Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers had been shot dead. Unfortunately the gunfight did little to settle any disputes between the Earps and “the Cowboys”, the criminal element they were determined to eradicate, and only served to heighten tensions between the two factions.
Less than two months later, in December of 1881, Wyatt’s brother Virgil was ambushed and sustained injuries from a shotgun blast that cost him the use of his left arm. Then, in March of the next year, Wyatt’s other brother Morgan was shot in the back while playing a game of billiards. Morgan died in his younger brother’s arms with Wyatt vowing to avenge his death.
Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Ride
Wyatt Earp formed a posse of trusted lieutenants, including his loyal friend Doc Holliday, and set out for Tucson where he planned to ship his dead brother’s body back to relatives in California. Wyatt had managed to secure Virgil’s badge for himself and now had the authority of a U.S. Marshal on his side.
While at the train station in Tucson, Wyatt encountered Frank Stilwell, a former deputy of Tombstone Sheriff John Behan and a prime suspect in his brother’s murder. Within days Stilwell was found dead, his body riddled with bullet holes.
What came to be known as Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Ride played out over the ensuing weeks in the hills of Arizona with Earp and his posse searching for and eliminating those suspected of being involved in his brother’s murder. The events were covered by regional papers like the Tombstone Epitaph and the Daily Nugget, all which helped increase Earp’s notoriety.
Sheriff Behan issued a warrant for Earp’s arrest and extradition in the murder of his former deputy Stilwell but received little support from either the governor of Arizona or Colorado, where Wyatt and his men had fled to.
Wyatt Earp’s Later Years
Wyatt Earp soon moved to San Francisco where he joined up with Josephine Marcus who would be his companion and common-law wife for the next 47 years. Together they traveled around the west, including time spent in Alaska during the gold rush where they became friends with author Jack London and a young mining engineer named Herbert Hoover.
In 1887 Wyatt and Josephine made one last visit to Doc Holiday’s home in Denver where he was dying from tuberculosis. Wyatt and Josephine eventually settled in Los Angeles where he met John Ford, then an up and coming young director, and served as an advisor to Tom Mix and other actors who portrayed cowboys, gunfighters and other western characters in the movies.
Wyatt Earp died in 1929 after living to see the legend surrounding his life grow and ultimately becoming a towering figure in the pantheon of wild west notables.
- Barra, Allen; Who Was Wyatt Earp?, American Heritage Magazine, December 1998