Wyatt is a name most commonly associated with the Old West gangster Wyatt Earp, known primarily for his fight at the O.K. Corral. However, there is more to my namesake that meets the eye, and much has been exaggerated over the years.
Wyatt Earp was born in 1848 and joined the Union army at the age of 13 with his brother Virgil, fighting in a few Civil War battles against his father’s wishes. Wyatt later joined his family in California but had trouble with the law (despite his ambitions to become a lawman), giving him the reputation of a sometimes-rogue constable. In 1879, Wyatt moved to Tombstone, Arizona, which was a new town with trouble brewing. Wyatt’s brothers Virgil and Morgan joined him there, and Wyatt became a deputy marshal with the hope of cleaning the town up. However, a band of cowboys (outlaws with quite a track record) led by Ike Clanton stirred up trouble, attempting to tarnish the Earp’s reputations.
On October 26, 1881, tensions came to a head, with abundant reports of the Cowboys being armed coupled with numerous death threats issued against the Earp’s and “Doc” Holliday, a friend of Wyatt’s. Virgil Earp, the Marshal of Tombstone, decided to bring his brothers Wyatt and Morgan (along with Holliday) to settle this disregard for authority. Virgil’s initial plan was to simply disarm the Cowboys (a group now consisting of Ike Clanton, his brother Billy Clanton, Wes Fuller, and brothers Frank and Tom McLaury), but the confrontation led to a standstill. Witnesses to the gunfights’ events (or who shot first) depended on the witnesses’ allegiances to either side, and thus the only evidence taken as true was a group of unaffiliated men who recounted the story. The fight lasted 30 seconds, but by it’s end Virgil, Morgan, and Holliday were wounded on the Earp’s side, while Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were killed on the Cowboy’s side (Ike and Wes fled the scene).
The resulting trial was deadlocked; witnesses tied to either the Earp’s or the Cowboys testified to their favorite side’s version of events. However, the scales were tipped in favor of the Earp’s when evidence from the autopsy and unaffiliated witnesses’ testimony came in favor of the Earp’s version of the gunfight, and they were acquitted of murder charges. Shortly after the fight, Morgan Earp was assassinated in front of his brother (possibly murdered by Cowboys sympathizers) and Wyatt organized a posse to capture and kill the remaining Cowboys, undertaking a journey of revenge that only partially succeeded in defeating the Cowboys, though Wyatt’s drive for justice greatly improved his reputation.
Wyatt Earp died on January 13, 1929, having lived 80 years. His legacy has since been that of a lawman who stood up for the people of Tombstone and for his own family, and he is still known best for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in which he was not the sole hero or the main character of. Biographies after his death cemented his legacy as superior to his brothers and the Cowboys, but in reality Wyatt was only part of a story that has become a classic.
Fun Fact: the O.K. Corral is not actually where the fight took place. It really occurred on Fremont street, and the participants in the event were much closer than previously imagined (some a mere 7 feet away from the other party). In 2011, I even visited Tombstone to learn more about the most famous gunfight and gunfighter to ever roam the Wild West.