Wyatt Earp – Frontier Lawman

Bat Masterson

Bat Masterson

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.

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.

Doc Hollliday, gunfighter

Doc Holliday, gunfighter

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.”

Long Branch Saloon, Dodge City, Kansas by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Long Branch Saloon, Dodge City, Kansas by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

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.

Mattie Blalock

Mattie Blalock

“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.”

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.

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.

Clay Allison, gunfighter

Clay Allison

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.

By 1879, Dodge City had been tamed and Wyatt was spending more time at the gaming tables than he was marshaling. So, when brother Virgil wrote him about the new city of Tombstone, Arizona, Wyatt, along with brothers James and Morgan, and common-law wife, Mattie headed West. Big Nose Kate would follow and when Doc Holliday returned to Dodge City and found everyone gone, he too headed to Arizona.


Allen Street, Tombstone, Arizona, 1882

Allen Street, Tombstone, Arizona, 1882

When Wyatt arrived in Tombstone in December of 1879, he planned to establish a stage line but soon discovered there were already two in the town. Instead, he acquired the gambling concession at the Oriental Saloon for a quarter percent of the proceeds. He also took a side job as a shotgun rider on the stage lines for Wells Fargo shipments. James established a saloon on Allen Street. Virgil Earp was already deputy marshal of Tombstone and Morgan went to with work with his brother as a lawman. Doc Holliday met up with Big Nose Kate in Prescott, Arizona, and the pair soon joined the Earps in Tombstone.

Tombstone was the last of the wide-open hellholes, teaming with rustlers, thieves, gunmen, gamblers, and prostitutes. The outlaw Clanton Gang had been running roughshod over the territory and immediately resented the Earps arrival. “Old man” Clanton, his sons, Ike, Phin, and Billy; the McLaury brothers, Frank and Tom; Curly Bill Brocius, John Ringo and their followers lost no time in expressing their displeasure.

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