Published on June 27, 2016
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (March 19, 1848 – January 13, 1929) was an American Old West gambler, a deputy sheriff in Pima County, and deputy town marshal in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, who took part in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, during which lawmen killed three outlaw Cowboys. He is often regarded as the central figure in the shootout in Tombstone, although his brother Virgil was Tombstone city marshal and Deputy U.S. Marshal that day, and had far more experience as a sheriff, constable, marshal, and soldier in combat.
Earp lived a restless life. He was at different times a constable, city policeman, county sheriff, Deputy U.S. Marshal, teamster, buffalo hunter, bouncer, saloon-keeper, gambler, Brothel keeper, miner, and boxing referee. Earp spent his early life in Iowa. In 1870, Earp married his first wife, Urilla Sutherland Earp, who contracted typhoid fever and died shortly before their first child was to be born. Within the next two years Earp was arrested, sued twice, escaped from jail, then was arrested three more times for “keeping and being found in a house of ill-fame”. He landed in the cattle boomtown of Wichita, Kansas, where he became a deputy city marshal for one year and developed a solid reputation as a lawman. In 1876, he followed his brother James to Dodge City, Kansas, where he became an assistant city marshal. In winter 1878, he went to Texas to track down an outlaw and met John “Doc” Holliday, whom Earp later credited with saving his life.
Earp moved constantly throughout his life from one boomtown to another. He left Dodge City in 1879 and moved to Tombstone with his brothers James and Virgil, where a silver boom was underway. There, the Earps clashed with a loose federation of outlaws known as the Cowboys. Wyatt, Virgil, and their younger brother Morgan held various law enforcement positions that put them in conflict with Tom and Frank McLaury, and Ike and Billy Clanton, who threatened on several occasions to kill the Earps. The conflict escalated over the next year, culminating on October 26, 1881 in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in which the Earps and Holliday killed three of the Cowboys. In the next five months, Virgil was ambushed and maimed, and Morgan was assassinated. Pursuing a vendetta, Wyatt, his brother Warren, Holliday, and others formed a federal posse that killed three of the Cowboys whom they thought responsible. Wyatt was never wounded in any of the gunfights, unlike his brothers Virgil and James or Doc Holliday, which only added to his mystique after his death.
Earp was a lifelong gambler and was always looking for a quick way to make money. After leaving Tombstone, Earp went to San Francisco where he reunited with Josephine Earp. She became his common-law wife. They joined a gold rush to Eagle City, Idaho, where they owned mining interests and a saloon. They left there to race horses and open a saloon during a real estate boom in San Diego, California. Back in San Francisco, Wyatt raced horses again, but his reputation suffered irreparably when he refereed the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey boxing match and called a foul that led many to believe that he fixed the fight. They moved briefly to Yuma, Arizona before they joined the Alaskan Gold Rush to Nome, Alaska. They opened the biggest saloon in town and made a large sum of money. Returning to the lower 48, they opened another saloon in Tonopah, Nevada, the site of a new gold find. In about 1911, Earp began working several mining claims in Vidal, California, retiring in the hot summers with Josephine to Los Angeles.
When Earp died in 1929, he was well known for his notorious handling of the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey fight along with the O.K. Corral gun fight. An extremely flattering, largely fictionalized biography was published in 1931 after his death, becoming a bestseller and creating his reputation as a fearless lawman. Since then, Wyatt Earp has been the subject of and model for numerous films, TV shows, biographies, and works of fiction that have increased his mystique. Earp’s modern-day reputation is that of the Old West’s “toughest and deadliest gunman of his day.” Until the book was published, Earp had a dubious reputation as a sometime Western lawman and gunfighter who had been arrested nine times and left more than one town with warrants for his arrest still outstanding. In modern times, Wyatt Earp has become synonymous with the stereotypical image of the Western lawman, and is a symbol of American frontier justice.