Wyatt Barry Stepp Earp (1848-1929) was a major figure in the history and myth of the American West. Most of his fame came from his reputation as a gun-fighting marshal.
There are records of the Earps in 17th-century Fairfax County, Virginia; in the French and Indian Wars; and in the War of Independence. Earps kept moving westward, across Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Utah. They fought the Sioux in Wyoming. They helped develop San Bernardino, California. Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, in 1848. He grew up in Iowa and is believed to have begun his western adventures as a buffalo hunter about 1869. In 1897 Earp joined the gold rush to Alaska, and when he returned to the states in 1901 he continued to prospect for gold, now in California. While living in San Francisco he married Josephine Sarah Marcus, daughter of an early businessman there.
Earp belongs in the pantheon of popular western heroes and villains, alongside names made famous in history texts, fiction, folk song, theater, musical comedy, film, and television. His contemporaries included Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Matt Dillon. His name is associated with fabled places: Dodge City, Boot Hill, the O.K. Corral, and Tombstone. He achieved his particular fame, according to one biographer, Stuart Lake, as "the greatest gun-fighting marshall that the Old West knew."
Lake, who interviewed Earp in his last years, summed him up as follows: "Wyatt Earp was a man of action. He was born, reared, and lived in an environment which held words and theories of small account, in which sheer survival often, and eminence invariably, might be achieved through deeds alone. Withal, Wyatt Earp was a thinking man, whose mental processes were as quick, as direct, as unflustered by circumstance and as effective as the actions they inspired."
A less exalted image of Wyatt Earp emerges from the scrutiny of Frank Waters, a veteran observer of American Southwest landscape and history. "Wyatt," he wrote, "was an itinerant saloonkeeper, cardsharp, gunman, bigamist, church deacon, policeman, bunco artist, and a supreme confidence man. A lifelong exhibitionist ridiculed alike by members of his own family, neighbors, contemporaries, and the public press, he lived his last years in poverty, still mainly trying to find someone to publicize his life, and died two years before his fictitious biography recast him in the role of America's most famous frontier marshal."
The truth, as is common enough with historical figures about whom we know more from oral tradition than from documentation, undoubtedly lies between these extremes. The lives of those who became legend in the history of the West are perhaps even more embellished, for good or ill, as a result of sensational exaggeration by journalists and other writers. Confrontations between cowboys and Indians in the American "wild West" have long fascinated foreign audiences. British writers accompanied William F. ("Buffalo Bill") Cody on his expeditions, for example, producing "penny dreadfuls," cheap, paperbound books that sensationalized the wanton killing of Indians and of buffalo. Clint Eastwood's celebrated "anti-western," Unforgiven, includes a writer who takes notes throughout on the mayhem. Eastwood's earlier westerns were produced in Italy; the Japanese, in their films, found parallels between itinerant, free-lance gunslingers and early samurai warriors. The raw, physical energies that supposedly characterized western pioneers fascinate French intellectuals.
Nevertheless, the mere facts about the Earp family offer an unchallenged, epical account of the turbulent, confused, sometimes noble, sometimes less than savory or honorable development and exploitation of America's western frontiers in the decades after the Civil War. To establish their hold on the variegated landscape, settlers had to contend with extravagantly hard seasons and the hostility of natives who were being callously displaced.
Wyatt Earp's most well-known exploit was his killing in 1881, at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, of outlaws Billy Clanton and the McLowery brothers. Wyatt was aided by two of his brothers and by Doc Holliday. The event crystallized many of the mythical details about gunslinging bad guys and good guys. In 1957 Hollywood issued the critically acclaimed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the script of which was written by Leon Uris, starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, and Jo Ann Fleet. It provides a reasonably authentic representation of the event.
Two years before his death, the gunfight still on his mind, Wyatt Earp wrote to Stuart Lake as follows: "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 assassination, 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. Oh, yes, there were individual crimes committed thereafter, as there would be in any bailiwick, but organized outlawry ended with the deaths of Curly Bill and his gang. Let me repeat … Were it to be done over again, I would do exactly as I did at that time."
Many of the details of Wyatt Earp's career were gathered directly from him and those who knew him. Stuart Lake's work, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall (1931), carries long quotations from Earp; the book is dedicated to him. The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp by Frank Waters (1960, 1976) disputes many conclusions in Lake's work, depending largely on examination of documents throughout the territory visited by the Earps. Its accumulation of data itself offers a fascinating narrative of Wyatt's checkered and far from inconsiderable career, which made him widely known in his time. For example, a number of ocean-going vessels were named after him.
Rich background on the complex world in which the Earps moved can be found in a range of creative efforts. Perhaps most illuminating are two theatrical works. The musical Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein covers the prickly relations in the settling of the West between ranchers, who needed unfenced, open land to graze their cattle, and farmers, who labored to cultivate crops on protected acreage. Arthur Kopit's Indians powerfully dramatizes the conflicts at the time between pioneers and Indians, giving short, sharp depictions of Buffalo Bill, about whom the play revolves, and Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, Chief Joseph, Geronimo, Wild Bill Hickok, and Washington politicians, among others.
In addition to the Lake and Waters' books discussed in the text, see And Die in the West: The Story of the O. K. Corral Gunfight by Paula Mitchell Marks (1989); it provides not only a full account of that event, by this time virtually akin in its complexity to the Greek siege of Troy, but also vignettes of Earp's personal life. Also relevant are Josephine Earp, ed. Glenn G. Boyer, I Married Wyatt Earp: The Recollections of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp (1976), and Anne M. Butler, Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitution in the American West, 1865-90 (1987).
Earp, Wyatt, Wyatt Earp, Sierra Vista, Ariz.: Y.V. Bissette, 1981.
Erwin, Richard E., The truth about Wyatt Earp, Carpinteria, CA:O.K. Press, 1992.
Lake, Stuart N., Wyatt Earp, frontier marshal, New York: Pocket Books, 1994.
Morton, Randall A., Wyatt, the man called Earp, Laguna Niguel, CA: RAMCO International, 1994.