Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Wyatt Earp: Knight With A Six-Shooter

Prairie Childhood

"Fathers love of the soil and for making things grow was fanatical."

Wyatt Earp, lawman

At 16 years old, Wyatt Earp was tall; blonde, blue-eyed and good looking. His personality, while friendly, took on a stern countenance when engaged in responsibilities. Many of his fellow passengers along the Overland Trail naturally figured he was much older, sitting erect and determined in the seat of his fathers Conestoga wagon. As well, he had twice displayed nerve and marksmanship during several Indian raids upon the wagon train, firing at the yawping Comanches from out in the open, not barricaded behind mealy bags like the other men. The convoy of tarpaulin-topped "desert schooners" had left Iowa in mid-May, and its traveling entourage hoped to reach its final destination of San Bernadino, Cal., before the end of that year,1864.

Not unlike the Earp family, the wagon train steeped with people seeking a new life. Little did Wyatt realize what series of adventures life had in store for him.

Virginia & Nicholas Earp (Fred Holladay)
Virginia & Nicholas Earp
(Fred Holladay)

From the beginning, the Earps craved adventure. Wyatt was the sixth of an American-born, Protestant-raised generation of Earps who had earlier migrated from Scotland. Early family scions had taken part in the fiery clashes that helped form a new nation; from their colony in Virginia, they battled savages in the French and Indian War and British "redcoats" in the American Revolution.

Grandfather Walter Earp had been a lawyer who carried his practice and his family from the east to Kentucky. Walters son, Nicholas, had also studied law, but decided he was more interested in cultivation; heset up homestead near Hartford to become a successful planter. Fascinated with agriculture, this Earp worked the plow as well as his father did a jury and under his nurturing sprouted the finest vegetables in the state. When Nicholas first wife died they had one son, Newton he remarried the pretty Kentuckian Anne Cooksey in 1840. Within three years she bore him two more sons, James and Virgil.

The call of the wild, though, continued to bubble the Earp blood. Nicholas pulled stakes in 1846 and headed west to where Illinois promised rich, fertile soil. He settled near the small post town of Monmouth in Warren County. There, his wheat fields prospered, and the income derived from the crop supplemented his meager pay as the towns deputy marshal. However, when Illinois offered its own regiments during the Mexican War, patriotic Nicholas felt compelled to join a cavalry unit; he put his family under the care of Walter, who had followed his son to Illinois and had, in the meantime, been appointed to the Illinois Circuit Court.

Nicholas best friend in service was his commanding officer, the gallant Wyatt Berry Stapp. Together the two men charged the Mexican defenses at Chapultepec. So, it seemed natural that his first son born after he returned home should be named in honor of that someone whom he considered his son worthy to emulate. When the first cries of the newborn echoed throughout their Monmouth farmhouse on the morning of March 19, 1848, the proud father proclaimed his newborn Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp. A combination of names, he boasted, arranged for adventure.

If Wyatt, while riding the Overland Trail, hadnt an inkling of what awaited him at the end of the exodus, he was most assuredly anticipative. Life in the Midwest had been a drudgery. When Wyatt was two years old, his family had relocated to Pella, Iowa, where lifes only fulfillment seemed to be tending to his fathers 80-acre corn field hoeing, seeding, trimming, irrigating, harvesting blistering work for a man as well as a child. A civil war having broken out between the North and the South, in 1861 when he was 12, older brothers Newton, Virgil and James marched off to war. Even his father found his own piece of glory as recruiting officer in Pella. But, Wyatt and his younger striplings, Morgan (born 1851), Warren (born 1855) and Adelia (born 1861) remained at home.

To Wyatt, that had been humiliating. Not that he disliked the farm work; he was an industrious boy who took pride in what he did and enjoyed watching the fruits of his labor, the stalks, leap skyward toward the sun. It was having to wait for his real time to come that vexed him. To pass time, and to separate himself from the feminine neighbors who gathered in his mothers kitchen to gossip and fret about their men gone to war, Wyatt would take his fathers hunting rifle and revolver from the shed those he had carried in the Mexican War and practice his marksmanship in the late-afternoon prairies. In the twilight battlefields, every buzzard was a Confederate soldier, every rabbit a Southern spy.

But, President Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation in1863 had freed not only the Negro from future bondage, but also Wyatt from the flatland boredom of Iowa. Squire Nicholas, while a firm proponent of the Union, could not in his heart support the total banishment of slavery. While the Earps had never been slave holders, Nicholas was himself Kentucky born and could not participate in a cause that destroyed his homelands tradition. He resigned from active service as recruiter, packed up his family once again, and lit out to where Americans cared little about north or south and concentrated on being content and prosperous in a burgeoning frontier.

They reached San Bernadino in December, 1864.


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