Yep, Wyatt Earp was deputy sheriff of Kootenai County. He and his common-law wife, Josephine Sarah “Sadie” Earp (née Marcus) and his brother, Jim arrived on Jan. 30, 1884, hoping to strike it rich. Just two years earlier, A.J. Pritchard found gold there and a mining boom town was born.
Wyatt met Sadie in Tombstone, Ariz., during the time of the Gunfight at O.K. Corral, but they didn’t start their common-law relationship until they met again later in San Francisco. Then they stayed together for 46 years until he died.
It had been about three years since the gunfight when Wyatt; his brothers, Virgil and Morgan; along with Doc Holliday shot it out with cowboys Billy Claiborne, Ike Clanton and his brother, Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury.
The cowboys had been making repeated death threats against the Earps, who objected to their illegal activities.
In those days, being a cowboy was almost the same as being an outlaw.
When the smoke cleared after a 30-second shootout, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton were killed. Claiborne and Ike ran away. Wyatt was unhurt, but Virgil, Morgan and Doc were wounded.
It really wasn’t much of a shootout, but the Gunfight at O.K. Corral has gone down in history as the embodiment of the violent side of the Old West.
The Tombstone Nugget newspaper reported that the gunfight was “one of the crimson days in the annals of Tombstone, a day when blood flowed as water … a day always to be remembered as witnessing the bloodiest and deadliest street fight that has ever occurred in this place, or probably in the Territory.”
It would be many years later before the O.K. Corral gunfight became well-known, so there wasn’t much fanfare when Earp, his brother, Jim, and Sadie arrived in Eagle City, Idaho, near Murray. Younger brother Warren Earp joined them later.
Famous today as an Old West lawman, Wyatt spent most of his life as a saloon-keeper and gambler. While in Idaho he was all three.
Elsewhere during his long career, he was also a buffalo hunter, gold and copper miner, barber, bouncer, investor, horse racer, teamster, stagecoach shotgun rider, enforcer, pimp and fight referee.
The day after he arrived, Wyatt was “elected” part-time deputy sheriff of newly formed Kootenai County.
Eagle City was mostly a tent-city with some log cabins filled with rowdy miners. A small creek ran through town into Eagle Gulch, where even today visitors can pan for gold after paying a small fee. It’s not even a ghost town anymore, with everything and everyone long gone; the site now privately owned.
The Earps bought a round circus tent 45 feet high and 50 feet across for $2,250 and started a dance hall. Later, they opened the White Elephant Saloon, that an ad in the Coeur d’Alene Weekly called “The largest and finest saloon in the Coeur d’Alenes.”
No O.K. Corral at Eagle City, but there was a shootout: Staking land claims there was a thorny business and Wyatt had to step into one dispute over ownership of a small lot in the middle of town, planned for a hotel.
Tempers flared and soon both sides were facing off on the main street and armed with Winchesters, revolvers and shotguns. For 10 minutes, some 50 bullets rattled the scene.
Then Wyatt and Jim Earp stepped in as peacemakers. One report said, “With characteristic coolness, they stood where the bullets from both parties flew about them, joked with the participants upon their poor marksmanship.”
No one was killed — though one onlooker caught a bullet in his leg.
After it was all over, two of the antagonists sat down for a smoke and exchanged compliments on each other’s courage.
The Earps didn’t get rich in Eagle City. By September 1884, the gold petered out and the family pulled up stakes and left.
Wyatt and Sadie went to San Diego where they dabbled in real estate, raced horses and ran a saloon. Several years later, they moved to San Francisco.
When Wyatt and Sadie left Idaho, so did brother Jim who went to California to rejoin his wife, Bessie, who died shortly thereafter. Warren stayed behind for a while; then he too left. On July 6, 1900, he was shot to death in a saloon shootout in Willcox, Ariz. Jim died in 1926.
Today’s public association of Wyatt Earp with the Gunfight at O.K. Corral wasn’t the defining moment of his life until much later. His name didn’t go coast-to-coast until he refereed the Heavyweight Championship boxing match in 1896 in San Francisco between English boxer Bob Fitzsimmons (born in Cornwall) and Irish-born Tom Sharkey, who served in the U.S. Navy.
Boxing was illegal under city law at that time, but civic leaders and lawmen were at the fight — betting heavily on Fitz.
The Englishman knocked Sharkey to the mat in the eighth round with Sharkey calling it a low blow. Earp agreed and declared him the winner. Few in the crowd saw the alleged foul however and everyone booed the decision, and headlines across the country went wild.
The matter went to court before any prize money was awarded. The judge said the court had no standing because the fight was illegal, and Sharkey got $8,500 of the $10,000 money. Ducking public scorn, Earp left San Francisco.
Ever hoping to strike it rich, Wyatt and Sadie headed for Alaska in 1900 and with a partner opened the Dexter Saloon in Nome, advertising it as “The Only Second Class Saloon in Alaska.” The Earps stayed in Alaska for four years, wintering in California where he started writing his autobiography.
After leaving Alaska, they moved to Los Angeles, and later worked small gold and copper mines in the southeast corner of California near Vidal. Over the ensuing years, Wyatt also supported himself by mining, police work, gambling and real estate deals.
The Earps never did get rich through all the law enforcement, gold rushes, saloons, real-estate deals and gambling.
But maybe there was money to be made from his stories.
In Hollywood, he liked to hang out at “Gower Gulch” on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower, where cowboy and Indian wannabees in full costume congregated daily hoping to be hired.
Soon, Wyatt was pals with Western superstars William S. Hart and Tom Mix, as well as director John Ford. The movie industry was in its infancy and sound was still years ahead. Gangster movies were popular, but became even more so after hoods switched to outlaws on horseback in the Old West.
Wyatt Earp was a technical adviser for many of the early westerns. An unknown actor named Marion Morrison — later John Wayne — met Wyatt, brought him his coffee, listened to his stories and studied his mannerisms.
“Earp was the man who had actually done the things in his life that I was trying to do in a movie,” John Wayne said years later. “I imitated his walk; I imitated his talk.”
In the 1920s, Wyatt and Sadie moved to San Bernardino and he put on a lawman’s badge for the last time — as the deputy sheriff of San Bernardino County.
Wyatt always wanted his story accurately told in a book, and invited mining engineer John Henry Flood Jr. to be his unpaid personal secretary and write it. Unfortunately, the book was poorly written and was a flop.
Wyatt’s wife, Sadie, wanted her man to be remembered as a “church-going saint.” He wasn’t.
Wyatt had a long rap sheet, with arrests for prostitution, stealing horses, burglary, claim jumping (in Idaho), attacking a law officer, Bunco steering (gambling chicanery), being wanted for murder, and other sins.
Despite such “character deficiencies,” Wyatt Earp has become an American folk hero — thanks mostly to Stuart Lake’s 1931 biography “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall.”
Since then, scholars have debunked the book’s facts, calling the account “heavily fictionalized.” Nevertheless, Wyatt Earp was real and will always be a part of the American story.
Wyatt Earp never returned to Idaho. He died on Jan. 13, 1929, in Los Angeles at age 80 and is buried in Colma, San Mateo County, Calif., next to his wife, Sadie, who outlived him by 15 years.
He was a legend in his own time — and even more so today.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About Sadie Marcus…
During the O.K. Corral days in Tombstone, Sadie Marcus was Sheriff John Harris Behan’s mistress — until he was caught with another paramour. He’d promised to marry Sadie, but never did. She moved to San Francisco and Wyatt joined her later to begin their 46-year relationship.
Rep. v. Dem at O.K. Corral…
The Civil War was over but North-South grudges continued. The 1881 gunfight at O.K. Corral in Tombstone pitted five cowboys working for Democrat ranchers against three lawmen and Doc Holliday supported by local Republican businessmen. Doc was born and raised in the South, but attended dental school in the North.
“After Wyatt Earp’s death in 1929 and the publication of Stuart Lake’s book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal in 1931, moviemakers finally began to nibble at the story (Western movies were in their third decade!) One of the first films to take a crack at the Earp-Tombstone story in the 1930s placed the gunfight at the ‘O.K. Barn.’ The screenwriter or a producer apparently did not believe a corral was dramatic enough for a showdown. Other tweaks were made along the way, but once the formula was honed in, the floodgates opened and a bunch of people got rich on the story of the ‘flawless’ lawman Wyatt Earp.”
— True West
Wyatt said it…
“Destiny is that which we are drawn towards and Fate is that which we run into… My name is Wyatt Earp! It all ends now!”
— Wyatt Earp
More than 40 movies have been made about Wyatt Earp, as well as hundreds of books, TV episodes and documentaries. Marshall Matt Dillon in CBS’s popular “Gunsmoke” series on television obviously portrayed him — and Tombstone’s Long Branch Saloon.
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