COWBOYS AND LAWMEN: Who was Wyatt Earp?

Take a small step back into American history, and you will be inundated with colourful and heroic stories about the old Wild West. Names like Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday are all part of our common global ancestry, but one mans name stands head and shoulders above them all - Wyatt Earp.

Known as the toughest and deadliest gunman of his day, he is now considered a cultural icon, a man of law and order, and a mythic figure of an American West where social control and order were notably absent.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, on March 19, 1848, to widower Nicholas Porter Earp and Virginia Ann Cooksey in Hartford, Kentucky on July 30, 1840. He was one of eight children; James Earp, Virgil Walter Earp, Elizabeth Earp, Morgan Seth Earp, Warren Baxter Earp, Virginia Ann Earp, and Adelia Douglas Earp. From his father's first marriage, Wyatt also had an elder half-brother, Newton, and a half-sister Mariah Ann, who died at the age of ten months.

Wyatt was named after his father's commanding officer in the Mexican-American War, Captain Wyatt Berry Stapp, of the 2nd Company Illinois Mounted Volunteers.

Like his brothers, Wyatt Earp was a physically imposing figure for his day: 6 feet tall, when most men were only about 5 feet 6 inches. He weighed about 165 to 170 pounds. According to contemporary accounts he was broad shouldered, long-armed, and all muscle. He was a natural fighter and was very capable of using his fists instead of his weapon to control anyone resisting his authority. He was reputed to be an expert with a pistol, and it is said that he showed no fear to any man.

Wyatt is often viewed as the central character and hero of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, at least in part because out of all of his brothers, he was the only one never to have been wounded or killed!

In gunfight after gunfight, from Wichita to Dodge City, during Tombstone and the Earp Vendetta Ride, Wyatt was never even scratched by a bullet, although his clothing was shot through with bullet holes.

Gunfight at the OK Corral

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a gunfight that took place at about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Cochise County, Arizona Territory, of the United States and which is generally regarded as the most famous gunfight in the history of the American Old West.

The gunfight - believed to have only lasted only about thirty seconds - was fought between the outlaw Cowboys Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and his brother Frank McLaury, and the opposing lawmen Virgil Earp and his brothers Morgan and Wyatt Earp, aided by Doc Holliday acting as a temporary deputy of Virgil. Cowboys Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne ran from the fight, unharmed, but Ike's brother Billy Clanton, along with both McLaurys, were killed. Lawmen Holliday, and Morgan and Virgil Earp were wounded. It was only Wyatt Earp came through the fight unharmed. The fight eventually came to represent a time in American history when the frontier was open range for outlaws opposed by law enforcement that was spread thin over vast territories, leaving some areas unprotected.

The gunfight was relatively unknown to the American public until 1931 when author Stuart Lake published what has since been determined to be a largely fictionalised biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, two years after Earp's death. Lake retold his story in a 1946 book that director John Ford developed into the movie My Darling Clementine. After the movie' Gunfight at the O.K. Corral' was released in 1957, the shootout came to be known by that name. Since then, the conflict has been portrayed with varying degrees of accuracy in numerous Western films and books.

Despite its name, the gunfight actually occurred in a narrow lot six doors west of the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral on Fremont Street, and also in the street. The two opposing parties were initially only about 6 feet (1.8 m) apart. About thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds. Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday but they were eventually exonerated by a local judge after a 30-day preliminary hearing and then again by a local grand jury.

On December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was maimed in an assassination attempt by the outlaw Cowboys, and on March 18, 1882, they assassinated Morgan Earp. This led to a series of further killings and retributions, with federal and county lawmen supporting different sides of the conflict, which became known as the Earp Vendetta Ride.

The gunfight in Tombstone lasted only 30 seconds, but it would end up defining Earp for the rest of his life. After Wyatt killed Frank Stilwell in Tucson, his movements received national press coverage and he became a known commodity in Western folklore.

The Tombstone Epitaph said of Wyatt, "bravery and determination were requisites, and in every instance proved himself the right man in the right place."

Setting the story straight!

It was actually Virgil Earp who held the legal authority in Tombstone the day of the shoot out. In fact, Virgil was both Tombstone City Marshal and Deputy U.S. Marshal. Furthermore, Virgil had considerably more experience than his brother Wyatt with both weapons and combat as a Union soldier in the Civil War, and in law enforcement as a sheriff, constable, and marshal.

As city marshal, it was Virgil who made the decision to disarm the Cowboys in Tombstone as Wyatt was only a temporary assistant marshal to his brother. But because Wyatt outlived Virgil and due to a creative biography written by Stuart Lake that made Wyatt famous, his name became well-known and the subject of many movies, TV shows, biographies and works of fiction.

Was Wyatt Earp truly the heroic gunfighter and lawman that history has portrayed him to be? Was Wyatt Earp actually taking the glory for his brother Virgil's actions? Whatever the truth is, the facts are all but lost to us. However, the legend of Wyatt Earp appears to be one that will fascinate fans of the Wild West forever.

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COWBOYS AND LAWMEN: Who was Wyatt Earp?

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