LIFE OF WYATT EARP
Wyatt with his mother, Virginia (Cooksey) Earp, taken circa 1854.
Wyatt's first wife, Urilla Sutherland. She died less than a year after they were married.
Josephine Marcus, Wyatt's common-law wife. Taken in 1921.
Wyatt in his later years. He died at the age of 79 in California in 1929.
The Earp family was of English and Scottish descent, the earliest of which immigrated to the United States in the early 18th century. Like the Scholtes, the Earps came to America for religious freedom.
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois to Nicholas and Virginia (Cooksey) Earp on March 19, 1848. He was the third of six children. Nicholas's first wife had died earlier, leaving him with his son Newton, Wyatt's half-brother. Two years after Wyatt's birth, Nicholas moved the family to Pella, Iowa. They owned a farm about 7 miles northeast of Pella but lived in Pella in the Van Spanckeren Row House from then until 1864, when Nicholas organized a wagon train of about 40 families to head west to California.
Not much was recorded about Wyatt’s life in Pella. Too young to be a soldier in the Civil War, he ran off several times trying to enlist, only to be sent home by his recruiter father. He was good with a gun already in his early years, as evidenced by the fact that Nicholas set Wyatt to hunting while on the wagon train West to provide food for the traveling party. According to family lore, Nicholas was a hard man who insisted on “his way or the highway,” politically, religiously, and in family matters. His wife Virginia tended to be the family mediator, trying to keep peace among the large family.
By 1870, Wyatt had worked his way back to LaMar, Missouri, where he married Urilla Sutherland. Father Nicholas, who was then Justice of the Peace, married the two. Wyatt secured his first job as a lawman when he was appointed the town constable only a month later. Unfortunately, Urilla passed away less than a year after their marriage, after which Wyatt started travelling back west. Wyatt spent the following years moving through several towns in Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico, supporting himself through law enforcement and gambling.
In December 1879, Wyatt settled in Tombstone, Arizona. His brothers Virgil, Morgan, James, and Warren soon joined him there. Virgil became the town marshal in 1880, with Wyatt acting occasionally as his assistant. The next year saw the legendary gunfight at O.K. Corral in Tombstone.
Wyatt became involved with Josephine Marcus, a young actress from San Francisco, in 1888. The two lived with Josie’s family in the 1890s, but didn’t stay settled for long. The two never married, but spent the rest of their lives together. Gambling and mining ventures kept the two traveling the West through Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Alaska, and California for the remainder of Wyatt’s life. Wyatt Earp died on January 13, 1929, in San Francisco.
The Gunfight at O.K. Corral
Wyatt Earp’s involvement in the gunfight at O.K. Corral is probably the most notorious moment of his life. Bad feelings between families inspired this violent conflict. On one side was Wyatt, along with Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, and John “Doc” Holliday. On the other was Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaurey, and Billy Clairborne. Ironically, the McLaureys had grown up just 50 miles away in Belle Plaine, Iowa.
Several reasons emerged for the hostility between these groups. One was political: the Earps were Republicans, while the Clantons and McLaureys were Democrats. Economic power was another issue—the Clantons didn’t want the Earps becoming more powerful in that area than they were. Another factor could have been Wyatt’s relationship with Josephine Marcus. Cochise County Sheriff John Behan, a friend of the Clantons and McLaureys, had been in a romantic relationship with Josephine until she left him for Wyatt.
On October 26, 1881, the men faced off in a vacant lot west of O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Virgil Earp, a U.S. marshal, ordered the “cowboys” to surrender their arms. Needless to say, they did not comply. Over two dozen shots were fired in the next few moments. Billy Clanton and the McLaurey brothers were dead, and Virgil and Morgan Earp were both injured.
Afterwards, Ike Clanton charged the Earps and Doc Holliday with murder, but the charge was dismissed due to overwhelming evidence in their favor. Charges that claimed the deceased were unarmed were proven false by witnesses as well as the fact that both Virgil and Morgan came out of the fight wounded. Since Ike had disarmed himself once the shooting started, Holliday and the Earps didn’t fire at him, and no charges could be made there either. There was other evidence used outside of eyewitness testimonies to prove Holliday and the Earps’ innocence. Two statements were signed by citizens of Dodge City and Wichita claiming that Wyatt had served them both as a lawman of courage, honor, and integrity.
Killings between the groups continued after the case was acquitted. Morgan and Virgil Earp were both ambushed from behind, leaving Morgan dead and Virgil permanently crippled. Wyatt later tracked down and killed at least three men responsible for these attacks against his brothers.
The Man Behind the Mustache
Commentary from those who knew Wyatt Earp seem to agree on the kind of person he really was, beyond the reputation of the O.K. Corral killer. He was a tall man, at six-foot-two, and always sported a cleanly trimmed mustache and jacket and tie when he was in public. His peers described him as quiet, reserved, and private. It also seemed that he had a very even temper.
Jeanne Cason Laing was a distant Earp relative whose family came to know Josie in the 1930s after Wyatt’s death. She said, “My impression was that underneath, Wyatt was a bowl of mush, a loving and sentimental person—especially if he lived with Josie [so long]! Josie spoke of him as her darling. Wyatt wasn’t henpecked and he wasn’t afraid of Josie. He spoiled her but she waited on him hand and foot. She followed him everywhere. It was a good working relationship. My mother and aunt both felt that Wyatt and Josie had a very good marriage.”
William “Bat” Masterson, was another legendary figure of the Old West and a good friend of Wyatt’s. In the February 1907 edition of Human Life: The Magazine About People, Bat wrote, “[Wyatt was] one of the few men I personally knew in the West in the early days, whom I regarded as absolutely destitute of physical fear…[I] always found him a quiet, unassuming man, not given to brag or bluster, but at all times and under all circumstances a loyal friend and an equally dangerous enemy.”
The general consensus seems to be that while Wyatt Earp was a man to be taken seriously, as evidenced by the O.K. Corral gunfight, he was a caring individual when it came to his friends and family. Wyatt seems to have been an overall honest and loyal man.
While Wyatt had no direct descendants, several of his relatives’ offspring still live in the Pella area.