The Wild West of Yester-Year

Wyatt Earp
By Rachel Kovaciny

Recently, I visited the National Firearms Museum for the first time. They’ve got some amazing pieces of history, like a carbine brought over on the Mayflower. Several firearms used by Annie Oakley. The rifle Teddy Roosevelt used during the Battle of San Juan Hill. In one case, they have a piece of paper with writing all over it. It’s nicely framed, with a picture above it and a little placard below explaining just what it is.  It’s a summons for someone to appear in court on a particular date, with a handwritten notation that it’s been served properly. A notation written and signed by Wyatt Earp.


The western history buff I am, I got goose-bumps when I saw it. Wyatt Earp had signed the paper I was standing in front of! I stood there looking at it with my own two eyes. Not at a picture of it in a book, but the actual document. I’ve got goose-bumps again just remembering it. We all know who Wyatt Earp is, right? He’s like Old West royalty. If you’re like me, you grew up watching multiple movies based on his life. From My Darling Clementine (1946) to Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) to Hour of the Gun (1967) to Tombstone (1993) and the eponymous Wyatt Earp (1994), everyone can find a variation of Wyatt Earp to suit their own particular tastes. Earnest, stern, flawed, fierce, or weary—they’re all out there. But what of the real Wyatt Earp? What do you know of him?


The real Wyatt Earp seems to have been both less and more than the legend that grew up around him. Less superhuman and more flawed, really. He himself contributed to the legendary perception of him, which has clouded the reality over the years. Still, despite the mythologizing, we know quite a few things about him for certain. He was tall, about six feet in height, which made him half a foot taller than the average American man in the 1800s. He was physically imposing, strong and tough, no stranger to brawling. His close friend Bat Masterson wrote, “Wyatt could scrap with his fists, and had often taken all the fight out of bad men, as they were called, with no other weapons than those provided by nature.”


He took his first law-enforcement position at twenty-one, when he replaced his own father as a constable in Lamar, Missouri. (I believe the summons I saw at the museum dates from this time.) He didn’t gain fame as a lawman until he served as a city marshal in Dodge City on and off in the 1870s. We know that, while pursuing a fugitive, he met up with a wandering gambler called Doc Holliday. Holliday made his way to Dodge City not long after, and saved Wyatt Earp’s life during a barroom fracas. They became fast friends. Wyatt also befriended brothers James and Bat Masterson there, who also served as lawmen in Dodge City.


At the end of the 1870s, Wyatt and his brother James headed for Tombstone, Arizona, a booming silver-mining town. Their brother Virgil was the deputy U.S. marshal for the territory around Tombstone, but Wyatt and James intended to open a saloon and gambling house. Doc Holliday joined the venture. Wyatt’s brothers Morgan and Warren Earp followed them to Tombstone. A group of outlaws and thieves referred to as The Cowboys were causing mayhem in the area. Virgil Earp deputized his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and together they tried to put an end to the troubles. This led to what we refer to as the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” though it really took place in an empty lot near the corral. The feud raged on after that gunfight until Virgil was crippled and Morgan was murdered. At that point, Wyatt took the law into his own hands to seek justice for his brother’s death. He formed a posse of friends and relatives, including his brothers James and Warren, his friend Doc Holliday, and several others. Together, they hunted down all four of the remaining perpetrators.


Wyatt was not wounded once during the feud and its ensuing violence, though reportedly his hat, coat, and even trousers boasted bullet holes after several of the gun battles. This only added to the mythological aura that swirled around him. Though he had many other jobs and served as a lawman in many other places across the western frontier, Wyatt’s time as a lawman in Tombstone with his brothers became the defining moment everyone associates with him. After leaving Tombstone, Wyatt and his common-law wife Josephine roamed the west, finally settling in Los Angeles, where Wyatt worked as an unpaid consultant on early western films. He made friends with many early filmmakers, including director John Ford. One young prop boy who encountered Wyatt several times on the sets of various films later said he based his own on-screen cowboy behavior on his observations of Earp during this time. Known by his given name of Marion Morrison he would later rise to fame under the stage name John Wayne.


Several fiction-filled biographies of Wyatt Earp came out during his declining years, and he tried collaborating on a true account of his life with his friend John Flood, but it was a resounding failure. Wyatt died in California in 1929 at age 80. He was the last survivor of the O.K. Corral shootout to die, and only his sister Adelia remained of the eight Earp children. Much of what we know about Wyatt Earp comes from that collaboration with John Flood and from friends like Bat Masterson who tried to tell the truth as they saw it about a man they admired. By now, almost a hundred years after he died, what we imagine about him may seem more real than the truth. Such is the way for all legends, I suppose. The truth is interesting, but maybe it’s the myth that gives us goose-bumps.