Wyatt Earp is the best known of all the frontier lawman of the American West. Soft-spoken with nerves of steel, he survived countless gunfights due to his extraordinary patience and resolute manner. But, Earp wasn’t just the famous lawman of Dodge City and Tombstone fame; he was also a buffalo hunter, a miner, card dealer, stagecoach driver, saloon owner, and much more throughout the years.
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born to Nicholas Earp and Virginia Earp in Monmouth, Illinois on March 19, 1848. His father was a lawyer and a farmer who had formerly served in the Army. The would-be lawman was named for his father’s former Army captain. Older brothers James and Virgil were ages seven and five by the time Wyatt came along. He also had an older sister named Martha who was three.
Just two years later, the family moved to Iowa where Nicholas established a farm. Soon three more siblings would join the rapidly growing family – Morgan in 1851, Warren in 1855, and Adelia in 1861. Nicholas Earp always had a high regard for land and for the law, instilling in his children the same respect.
In 1864 the family moved to Colton, California near San Bernardino. Along the way, Wyatt was given his first weapon — a combination shotgun and rifle, to help protect the family against attacking Indians. Young Wyatt soon acquired a six-gun and practiced every day, becoming a deadly marksman.
When he arrived in California, he worked as a teamster and a railroad worker for a time. But soon he began to work his way back east as a buffalo hunter, wagon train scout, and a railroad hand.
By 1870 Wyatt had worked his way to Lamar, Missouri, where he fell in love and married Urilla Sutherland. However, their time together was to be brief, when Urilla died within a year of their marriage. Historical facts vary as to the cause of her death – some saying she died in childbirth, while others indicated that she died of typhoid fever.
Heartbroken, Wyatt headed to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma,) working as a buffalo hunter and stagecoach driver. However, he and two travel companions were soon accused of stealing horses. Paying his bail, Wyatt fled to Kansas before the case ever came to trial.
In 1871 Earp met Wild Bill Hickok in Kansas City, along with other western legends including “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Jack Gallagher, and Billy Dixon. Wyatt would later say of Wild Bill Hickok, “Bill Hickok was regarded as the deadliest pistol shot alive as well as being a man of great courage. The truth of certain stories of Bill’s achievements may have been open to debate but he had earned the respect paid to him.” Wild Bill helped Wyatt to become a better buffalo hunter, where Wyatt met Bat Masterson on the open Kansas prairie.
August 1873 found Wyatt in Ellsworth, Kansas. It was here that the Earp legend began. Ellsworth, a railhead where huge herds of cattle were driven north from Texas, was wild with drunken cowboys, two of which, were Billy and Ben Thompson, lethal gunmen who would rather resort to gunplay than talk out an argument.
Wyatt had heard of the two killers and chose not to play at the same gaming tables with the unpredictable men. But before long he got caught up with them on August 15, 1873. While Earp was standing across the street from Brennan’s Saloon he heard the sounds of an argument coming from the gambling house. The Thompsons had started a dispute with two other gamblers named John Sterling and Jack Morco, a local lawman. The disturbance soon brought Sheriff Chauncey B. Whitney and two deputies.
Sterling and Morco charged at the Thompsons, guns blazing, but Ben Ben Thompson drove them off with a volley of shots. Then Billy Thompson, a homicidal maniac and hopeless alcoholic, turned his gun on Sheriff Whitney, who prior to this had been a drinking companion and friend to the two brothers. At point-blank range, he shot the sheriff down.
Wyatt at first watched the events without interfering as he saw Ellsworth Mayor, James Miller, enter the saloon and demand that Thompson surrender his guns. When Thompson refused, Miller went in search of Whitney’s deputies who had inexplicably disappeared from the scene after the sheriff was shot.
Dismayed when Wyatt spotted the two deputies cowering on the sidelines, he remarked to the passing Mayor Miller, “It’s none of my business but if it was me I’d get me a gun and arrest Ben Thompson or kill him.” Miller then tore the badge off of Deputy Norton’s chest and walking back to Earp, said: “I’ll make it your business.”
Wyatt watched, stunned, as Ben Thompson swaggered out of the saloon and mounted his horse, as brother Ben waved him goodbye. “What kind of a town is this?” he snapped at the deputies and mayor, who now stood meekly across the square.
Borrowing a pair of six-shooters, he followed Ben Thompson who was now about a block away. When he caught up with him he demanded that Thompson throw down his gun. Thompson, who knew of Earp, complied and Wyatt marched him to jail. Ben Thompson was fined $25 for disturbing the peace and a warrant for murder was issued for his brother Bill.
So impressed was Mayor Miller that he offered Wyatt the job of town marshal at $125.00 a month. But Earp declined, handing Miller back the badge, and saying that he intended to go into the cattle business with his brothers.
Ben Thompson, who would later turn lawman himself, would say to Bat Masterson in subsequent years, that he had a powerful hunch that Wyatt would have killed him if he hadn’t thrown down his gun. The story of how Earp had backed down Ben Thompson soon spread up and down the Chisholm Trail and the Wyatt Earp legend was born.
In the spring of 1874, Wyatt moved on to Wichita, Kansas, yet another Wild West town. In Wichita, Wyatt worked as a part-time lawman and city maintenance man, making about $60.00 per month. However, he was fired from the police force after getting into a fight with William Smith, who was running for city marshal against Mike Meagher, who was a friend of Wyatt’s.
Furthermore, Wyatt was almost arrested himself for discharging his weapon in public. Though the incident was an accident, it didn’t speak well of a lawman. When he was sitting in a local saloon with his feet up on a table, his pistol fell out of its holster and hit the floor and the gun went off. The bullet went through his coat and into the wall. Before moving on to Dodge City, Wyatt and his brother, James, were almost arrested for vagrancy and some reports have it that Wyatt stole city tax money before hightailing it to Dodge.
By the spring of 1876, the cattle trade had shifted west to Dodge City and soon Wyatt was offered the position of Chief Deputy Marshal from Dodge City’s mayor.
In the burgeoning settlement, Dodge City had already acquired its infamous stamp of lawlessness and gunslinging. As the many buffalo hunters, railroad workers, drifters, and soldiers streamed into the town after long excursions on the prairie, they quickly found the many saloons, gambling houses, and brothels in the lawless town. Inevitably, gunfights were common and the people of Dodge feared for their lives.
Marshal Larry Deger, the last of a long line of officers who had been run out of town or shot in the back by the lawless forces of Dodge, was overwhelmed and heartily welcomed Wyatt. Soon, four assistant deputies were hired — Bat Masterson, Wyatt’s old buffalo hunting friend; Charlie Basset; Bill Tilghman; and Neal Brown.