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Life of Wyatt Earp

The Earp family was of English and Scottish descent, the earliest of whom immigrated to the United States in the early 18th century. Like the Dutch immigrants to Pella, the Earps came to America for religious freedom.

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An Overview

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, to Nicholas and Virginia (Cooksey) Earp on March 19, 1848. He was the fourth of eight children: James, Virgil, Martha, Wyatt, Morgan, Warren, Virginia Ann, and Adelia. (Martha and Virginia Ann died as young children.)  Nicholas's first wife had died earlier, leaving him with his son Newton, Wyatt's half-brother. In late 1849, two years after Wyatt's birth, Nicholas moved the family to Pella, Iowa. They owned farmland about 7 miles northeast of Pella but lived in town most of the time. In 1856, the family returned to Monmouth but returned to Pella in 1859. In late 1861, they rented an apartment in the Van Spanckeren Row House.  Nicholas served as city marshal and a recruiter for Union troops during the time they lived in this house.


In 1864, Nicholas organized a wagon train to head west to California. Three extended families from the Pella and Knoxville area (Rousseau, Curtis, and Hamilton) plus the Earp family – Nicholas, Virginia, son James who had been wounded in the Civil War, Wyatt, Morgan, Warren and Adelia – set out in May. The wagon train arrived at their destination of San Bernardino, California, in December.

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. His father Nicholas, who was then Justice of the Peace in Lamar, married the two. Wyatt secured his first job as a lawman when he was appointed the town constable only a month later. Unfortunately, Urilla and their unborn child passed away less than a year into their marriage, after which Wyatt started traveling back West. Wyatt spent the following years moving through several towns in Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico, supporting himself through law enforcement, gambling, and various other means.

In December 1879, Wyatt settled in Tombstone, Arizona. His brothers Virgil, Morgan, and James 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 1883. They never married, but spent the rest of their lives together. Gambling and various business 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 Los Angeles.


Gunfight at the 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 his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and John “Doc” Holliday. On the other side were Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaurey, and Billy Claiborne.  Ironically, the McLaureys had grown up just 50 miles away from Pella 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.

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 and Doc Holliday were injured.

Afterwards, Ike Clanton charged the Earps and Doc Holliday with murder, but the charge was dismissed due to lack of evidence against them. 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 feet, two inches, and he 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 - a complex man.  

While Wyatt had no direct descendants, several of his relatives’ offspring still live in the Pella area.

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