Wyatt Earp – Frontier Lawman

Dodge City, Kansas, 1874

Dodge City, Kansas, 1874

In the burgeoning settlement, Dodge City had already acquired its infamous stamp of lawlessness and gun slinging. 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.

Intending to restore order, one of the first things the new lawmen did was to initiate a “Deadline” north of the railroad yards on Front Street to keep the commercial part of the city quiet. On the north side, the city passed an ordinance that guns could not be worn or carried. On the south side of the “deadline”, those who supported the lawlessness continued to operate as usual, with a host of saloons, brothels, and frequent gunfights. The gun-toting rule was in effect around the clock and anyone wearing a gun was immediately jailed. Soon, Dodge City’s jail was filled.

In his new role, Earp would go after famed train robber, Dave Rudabaugh, following the outlaw’s trail for 400 miles to Fort Griffin, Texas. When he arrived Wyatt went first to the largest saloon in town, Shanssey’s, asking about Rudabaugh. Owner John Shanssey said that Rudabaugh had been there earlier in the week, but didn’t know where he was bound. He directed Wyatt to Doc Holliday who had played cards with Rudabaugh.

Bat Masterson

Bat Masterson

Wyatt was skeptical about talking to Holliday, as it was well known that Doc hated lawmen. However, when Wyatt found him that evening at Shanssey’s, he was surprised at Holliday’s willingness to talk. Doc told Wyatt that he thought that Rudabaugh had back-trailed to Kansas. Wyatt wired this information to Bat Masterson, Sheriff in Dodge City, and the news was instrumental in apprehending Rudabaugh. The unlikely pair formed a friendship in Shanssey’s that would last for years.

In the fall of 1876, Wyatt and his brother Morgan left Dodge for a while, traveling for the Black Hills outside of Deadwood, South Dakota in search of gold. However, he returned to Dodge in May of 1877 after James H. “Dog” Kelley, Dodge City’s new mayor, wired him, asking him to help with the Texas cowboys who were shooting up the town.

When he returned, Wyatt was made the new town marshal and deputized his brother Morgan. Almost immediately he began to plague the courts for harsher sentences, banned some men from even entering the town, and organized a citizen committee to help the law enforcers to watch the streets.

It wasn’t long after Wyatt returned to Dodge that Doc Holliday turned up with “Big Nose” Kate. Doc, after having killed a man in Fort Griffin, Texas, was running from a lynching party. At first Doc hung out his doctor’s shingle but soon went back to gambling, frequenting the Alhambra and dealing cards at the Long Branch Saloon. Though Dodge City citizens thought the friendship between Wyatt and Doc was strange, Wyatt ignored them and Doc kept the law while in Dodge City.

 

“Dodge City is a wicked little town. Indeed, its character is so clearly and egregiously bad that one might conclude, were the evidence in these later times positive of its possibility, that it was marked for special Providential punishment.”

 

One night, while Doc was dealing Faro in the Long Branch Saloon a number of Texas cowboys arrived with a herd of cattle. After many weeks on the trail, the rowdy cowboys were ready to “let loose.”

Leading the cowboy mob was a man named Ed Morrison, whom Wyatt had humiliated in Wichita, Kansas, and a man named Tobe Driskill. The cowboys rushed the town, galloping down Front Street with guns blazing, and blowing out shop windows. Entering the Long Branch Saloon, they began harassing the customers.

When Wyatt came through the front door, he came face to face with several awaiting gun barrels. Stepping forward, Morrison sneered “Pray and jerk your gun! Your time has come Earp!”

Suddenly, a voice sounded behind Morrison. “No, friend, you draw – or throw your hands up!” It was Doc, his revolver to Morrison’s temple. Doc had been in the back room, his card game interrupted by the havoc out front.

“Any of you bastards pulls a gun and your leader here loses what’s left of his brains!” The cowboys dropped their arms. Wyatt rapped Morrison over the head with his long barrel Colt, then relieving Driskill and Morrison of their arms, he ushered them to the Dodge City Jail. Wyatt never forgot the fact that Doc Holliday saved his life that night in Dodge City. Responding later, Wyatt said. “The only way anyone could have appreciated the feeling I had for Doc after the Driskill-Morrison business would have been to have stood in my boots at the time Doc came through the Long Branch doorway.”

Mattie Earp

Mattie Earp

While in Dodge City, Wyatt met a saloon girl named Celia Anne Blalock, whom he affectionately called “Mattie.” Though the two never married, they lived as husband and wife. At first, the couple was happy, but Mattie had acquired a laudanum dependency due to a prior illness, and this would soon put a strain on their relationship.

Later, Big Nose Kate and Doc Holliday, in their constant love-hate relationship, had one of their frequent, violent quarrels. Holliday soon saddled his horse and headed out to Colorado, leaving Big Nose Kate behind.

Clay Allison

Clay Allison

An often written about event was the 1878 “showdown” between Wyatt Earp and Clay Allison, the self-proclaimed “shootist” from New Mexico. According to the stories, Allison planned to protest the treatment of his men by the Dodge City marshals and was willing to back his arguments with gun smoke. The Dodge City lawmen had gained a reputation for being hard on visiting cattle herders, with stories circulating that cattlemen had been robbed, shot, and beaten over the head with revolvers. George Hoyt, who had, at one time, worked for Clay Allison, had been shot to death while shooting a pistol in the air in the streets of Dodge City.

There are several versions of the story of the showdown. Some say that Allison and his men terrorized Dodge City, while Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson fled in fear. Others say that Wyatt Earp pressured Allison into leaving. And yet others say that Allison was talked into leaving by a saloon keeper and another cattleman, with little or no contact with Wyatt Earp at all.

In any case, there is no evidence of any serious altercation ever having happened. Historians basically surmise that Allison might have come to Dodge City looking for trouble, but nothing really happened. While Allison and his men went from saloon to saloon fortifying themselves with whiskey, Earp and his marshals began to assemble their forces. But in the end, Dick McNulty, owner of a large cattle outfit and Chalk Beeson, co-owner of the Long Branch Saloon, intervened on behalf of the town, talking the gang into giving up their guns.

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