Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Wyatt Earp: Knight With A Six-Shooter


"Wyatt was a dependable fellow and not afraid of work."

Frank Binkley, freightsman

When Wyatt heard that there was an urgent need for a stage driver on the San Bernadino-Los Angeles Stage Line, he jumped at the opportunity to procure it. He was 17 in 1865 and had come to know the territory and the people in it, including one General Phineas Banning whose stage company he repeatedly pestered for work. When one of its best drivers broke his leg on the morning of an important shipment, the General hired the obviously ambitious Earp boy.

The kid proved to be a winner. Over the next three months, he drove the full route up and back to and from Los Angeles (a 120-mile round trip), never missing a day, never losing a piece of mail, never late. Quickly becoming an old hand with the large-team reins and familiar with the administration of cargo, he next hired out to haul freight over a 450-mile cactus route to Prescott in the Arizona Territory. The days were hot and stifling, but he liked the vast, unobstructed space; he enjoyed sunset, to relax beside a fire, to smell the chuck aroma of his Arbuckle coffee and savor the sweetness of his johnny cakes, then bed down under the infinity of stars. Several times, however, he was forced to outrun outlaws and Apaches. More than once, his skill with a rifle and revolver saved his life.

It wasnt long before Wyatts dependability earned him other assignments from local freightsmen; many of the jobs he took on were traditionally done by more experienced teamsters. But, Wyatt, age aside, had demonstrated the raw stuff that it took to earn respect, to survive and be successful in the industry. According to biographer Stuart N. Lakes Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, Earp possessed "the four qualities" of a good team driver: "First was the ability to handle half-broken horses and mules; second, the physical strength and stamina to withstand great hardship; third, unerring skill with rifle and pistol; fourth, dauntless courage."

Among the various longer-term jobs he held were as wagon master for a wagon train making a treacherous 700-mile journey to Salt Lake City; as wrangler and grader for the Union Pacific Railroad plowing its way through the southwestern desert; and as chief scout and Indian fighter for the U.S. Cavalry stationed in the Southwest...these and more before he reached the age of 21.

His father had, by 1868, lived in San Bernadino long enough to realize that he had found his Eden at last. He and his wife Anne had settled into the country and had maintained a produce farm in the lush valleys. Business prospered, the neighbors were likable and life was content. Children Warren, Morgan and Adelia, still at home, were growing, while Virgil, James and Newton had all returned from the Civil War alive. The latter three were now married and were starting families of their own throughout the western frontier.

But, the ever-business-minded Nicholas Earp still owned the Illinois farmstead, a property he retained lest the California venture failed. Once he had determined to remain out West, he simultaneously decided to sell the Midwest holdings. This meant he had to return to personally supervise all repairs and eventual sale. So, the Earp brood once again crossed the familiar Overland Trail in the spring of 68, this time eastbound. Wyatt accompanied them.

A particular family virtue must be underscored here. Family loyalty. When an Earp needed help, thus came forward other Earps. Evidence of this trait becomes more obvious, and poignant, as the Earp saga progresses. In his pockets he had more than $2,000 savings from his various jobs. He offered some of the money, as well as his labor, to put the Illinois farm home back in shape before winter.

Between his toil, he met a local girl named Urilla Sutherland, a rosy-cheeked, dark-haired beauty. She and Wyatt instantly fell in love and, after a whirlwind courtship, they wed. It was Christmas of 1869. Wyatt considered buying his fathers property to stay on in Illinois, as Urilla hoped to remain near her parents and brothers. But, fate intervened in the form of a typhoid that swept the plains during the subsequent hot months. Urilla became one of its first victims, wasting away before Wyatts eyes.

Heartbroken, he saddled up to follow the setting sun.



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