The biography and lineage of Old West lawman Wyatt Earp, known as the most famous survivor of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, illustrates both the nomadic nature of life on the frontier as well as the sometimes deadly temptation—even for those charged with upholding the law—to stray across the line between right and wrong.
Born on March 19, 1848, in Monmouth, Ill., Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was the fourth child of eight born to Nicholas Porter Earp and his second wife, Virginia Ann Cooksey. Older brother Virgil had been born in 1843 when the family lived in Hartford, Ky; Morgan would be born in 1851 when the family relocated to Pella, Iowa.
Along with the hastily deputized Doc Holliday, these three Earp brothers would initially emerge victorious from the Oct. 26, 1881 gunfight in Tombstone, Ariz., which left three of the Clanton gang dead. However, Virgil and Wyatt would later resign their duties as a result of their role in the deaths. Morgan, himself a police officer, would be shot to death the next year, prompting Wyatt to embark on a vendetta that eventually resulted in the deaths of all four suspects. When accused of these murders, Wyatt and his third wife, Josephine Marcus Earp, fled the state.
A checkered past
Wyatt, who had earlier served on the police force in Wichita, Kan., and as assistant marshal in Dodge City, Kan., had also previously found himself on the wrong side of the law. When his first wife, Urilla Sutherland, died shortly after they married, Wyatt went into a tailspin that resulted in his being sought for horse thievery.
The Earp brothers’ checkered employment history in law enforcement was something of a family tradition. While their paternal grandfather, Walter, had an unremarkable record as justice of the peace, their father, Nicholas, had found himself on the wrong end of the law while a constable in Monmouth, Ill., in the 1850s.
Despite being a Methodist and a Republican, Nicholas would never be considered a temperance man, which put him at odds with both his religion and his political party. In fact, Nicholas and his brother, Walter C., were accused of stretching their interpretation of the new liquor law to allow favored friends to sell liquor for “medicinal purposes.” This resulted in charges against Nicholas in 1858. Brother Walter C. would also be charged with using excessive force when making an arrest.
Military duty also figures prominently in the Earp family tree. Wyatt’s two older brothers, Virgil and James, would both go off to war during the Civil War. Father Nicholas is the only Earp in Illinois to appear on the Illinois adjutant general’s records for the Mexican War; Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp is actually named after his father’s commander. Perhaps the most interesting military connection is Wyatt’s great-granduncle, Josiah Earp, who was born in 1761 in Montgomery County, Md., and fought for the patriots during the American Revolution. At the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Va., in 1781, Josiah’s company was ordered to guard the prisoners taken at the surrender, who were housed at Fredericktown.
Genealogists search high and wide to track down descendents of the famous and the infamous. But of the three Earp brothers who put their mark on history at the O.K. Corral, only Virgil had offspring. His daughter, Nellie Jane, was born to his first wife, Magdelena C. Rysdam; however, the marriage was annulled when Magdalena was already pregnant. Because both Magdalena and Virgil were told the other was dead, Virgil did not find out about Nellie Jane until she was a grown woman. When Virgil died in 1905, his third wife, Allie, had his body sent to Nellie Jane for burial in Oregon.
Despite the fact that Wyatt did not have children—his only known child died before birth with the untimely death of his first wife, Urilla—at least one man has claimed to be Wyatt’s grandson. And while Nellie Jane married twice and had three children, none carried the Earp name.
In addition to the lore of his legend, Wyatt has, however, helped the Earp family name live on in one very tangible way. A post office on Route 62 bears the name, “Earp, California 92242,” in recognition of the gold and copper mining claims he staked there along the Colorado River later in his eventful and colorful life.
Rhonda R. McClure is a contributing writer for The History Channel Magazine.