One of the greatest legends in the American Wild West is Wyatt Earp. There are very few people who have more myths surrounding their lives than him. But the line between lawman and outlaw can be hazy at times. Which one was he? What made Wyatt Earp such a complicated man?
The early years of Earp’s life helped shaped the man that legend has lifted above the level of mortality and created the conflicting reports that many historians have revealed to us. Earp was born in Illinois in the year 1848. He was one of seven children: six boys and one girl that died. His father, Nicholas, did a little bit of everything but mainly farmed where the family lived on a sizable piece of land. When the economy turned bad, his father looked for ways to bring in more money. He ran for constable and won. This one act could be described as a pivotal event in Wyatt’s life that would help direct his future and also create the unique legend.
Lawman to Outlaw?
Being a lawman sounds like such an honorable vocation that should have created upright men that history would recount. That might have been the case if it was not for what happened three years later in Nicholas Earp’s career. He was convicted of bootlegging which led to financial ruin for the Earp family. Wyatt was shown how a lawman could cross the line even over ‘small’ things. This would resurface in his own life multiple times.
With life not so pleasant anymore in Illinois the family moved to Iowa right before the start of the Civil War. Newton, Virgil, and James joined the Union army. Though Wyatt was too young at the age of thirteen, this did not deter him from attempting multiple times from trying to take part in the war. Managing the farm was not something Wyatt felt called to do.
Wyatt’s life changed again when the family moved to California in 1864. It was at this time that drinking, gambling, and women were introduced to him. He took on various jobs including driving a stage that he did with his brother Virgil. He worked for a time with the railroad and become a successful business man at a very young age. His enterprises included saloons and gambling houses. These ventures would give him a view into a world that he would never fully get out of.
In 1868 the family moved to Missouri. Despite the boys growing into men, the family stuck together. In Missouri, Nicholas returned to law enforcement and was later succeeded by none other than Wyatt. It was during this time in 1870 that we find Wyatt marrying for the first time. His young bride was Urilla Sutherland. Unfortunately this marriage did not last long as she died the same year they exchanged vows. The cause is unknown though a few have speculated on childbirth. Wyatt’s first attempt at a stable life was met with sadness.
In 1871 Wyatt’s life began to imitate his father’s in more than just working for the law. A lawsuit was brought against him for embezzlement and horse theft. Though there is not much documentation to prove his innocence or guilt, Wyatt chose to flee the state instead of facing the charges. Eventually the others that were also accused of the same crimes were acquitted. So historians have assumed that he was innocent and eventually the charges were forgotten. The line between lawman and criminal was beginning to blur.
Who Was He?
During this time in his life, the facts get a little fuzzy on where Wyatt was. Some historical documents have been found to place him in particular towns and actually contradict many earlier accounts that writers/historians originally told. We do know that he ended up back in Illinois where he chose the career path of pimp and which he was arrested for. This led Wyatt to leave Illinois again and in 1875 appeared in Wichita, Kansas. Here he crossed the line again to join the Marshall’s office. He showed how much success he could muster in the law business. Newspapers recount his many actions and even commented on his integrity. This about the same man accused of theft and promoting prostitution in other towns. The smooth ride ended in 1876 when he was arrested for fighting. He left for Dodge City.
Once again, Wyatt looked for work in law enforcement. His career continued to have periods of success and periods of questionable actions as altercations increased with outlaws. All of these led up to the infamous OK Corral. Both sides of the law he moved easily in.
We Still Are Not Sure
History and movies have usually shown Wyatt and his brothers as honorable lawmen who were just trying to uphold the peace throughout their careers. Facts show that in reality they were not so clear cut. While they looked at enforcing laws, they were not ones to miss out on financial opportunities that involved breaking those same laws. Was Wyatt Earp a corrupt man wearing the mask of an upstanding lawman? Or was he a man who lived life the only way to survive in the Wild West?