Life in the Old West

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Truth about Wyatt Earp? We probably can never know it

We probably never will know the truth about Wyatt Earp — in fact, we really can’t ask a question like, “What was Wyatt Earp really like?” Or, “what was the truth about Wyatt Earp?” If you’ve lived a year or two beyond adolescence, you know what I mean: Real human beings are complexities of good and bad, rarely cut of whole cloth to be saints or sinners.

Wyatt Earp, like most public figures of the Old West, sort of created himself as he went along. Whether you love the man or hate him, if you’ve read much about him you know he was able to find a way to make more than a buck or two off of his exploits. Historical records to popular literature, any truth about Wyatt Earp certainly includes this reality. He was a man of his day in the West, and was not above making every buck he could off of whatever business/employment/legendary lore he could milk for the money. And, really, who could blame Earp for that?

ANY TRUTH ABOUT WYATT EARP REVOLVES AROUND CHARACTER NOT EVENTS: The problems regarding any truths about Earp involved character, morality, and ethics rather than historical facts. Was Wyatt Earp one of the “good guys” or one of the “bad guys” of the Old West? Was he a heartless “thug” more interested in taking kickbacks and intimidating anyone who opposed him — or was he a regular guy with certain gifts of courage and skills in battle trying to put away lawbreakers?

If you have an opinion one way or the other about Earp’s character and status as a good guy or bad guy, chances are you can find a wealth of post-Old West literature and some contemporary accounts that will back you up.

The most famous event in popular history and fiction involving Wyatt Earp was undoubtedly the October 26, 1881, so-called “Shootout at the OK Corral” or “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” in Tombstone, Arizona. This widely recounted and often fictionalized gunfight between Wyatt, his brothers and their friend “Doc” Holiday on one side, and various members of the Clanton family “gang” of cowboys on the other side, only lasted about 30 seconds. The shooting apparently never happened at the namesake corral itself, but in a vacant lot near an alleyway that served as a new entrance into the corral. According to some online sources, (I am NOT an expert on Earp or on the shootout, having mostly seen and heard various movie versions of it over the years.) the whole skirmish got relatively little publicity at the time outside of Tombstone and the surrounding territory. It only became a historic fascination/obsession for historians and Old West devotees after the highly popular (and highly fictionalized) biography of Wyatt Earp written by Stuart Lake in 1931.

The sort of “fast facts” summary of the participants and results of the battle go something like this, as best I’ve been able to sort them out without any really diligent study:

FACTIONS WHO FOUGHT: On one side were Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, and John Henry “Doc” Holliday. On the other side were a group that have become loosely known as “the Cowboys”: Joseph Isaac “Ike” Clanton, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, and Billy “The Kid” Claiborne.

CASUALTIES RESULTING FROM THE SHOOTOUT: Morgan Earp was shot in the shoulder, his brother Virgil suffered a leg wound. Holliday was barely injured by a bullet that may have ricocheted off his holster and grazed his hip. Wyatt Earp was not injured. On the other side, brothers Frank and Tom McLaury were dead from the guns of Wyatt and Doc Holliday. Also, Billy Clanton lay dying from the shotgun of Doc Holliday.

I’ve tried to sort through the mass of contradictory accounts to merely sketch the bare details as I understand them. There are many excellent books on the Earps and on the shootout in Tombstone for more information. Many of the contemporary accounts, however, suffer from great bias. There were social and political forces at work during 1881 in Tombstone and throughout the Arizona territory that strongly effected the outcome of legal inquiries into the battle. Some officials and community leaders were squarely behind the Earps, seeing them as forces for law and order opposing the lawlessness reflected by the Clanton family and the “Cowboys” factions.

Above all else, this single short event propelled Wyatt Earp into popular legend, although that legend only reached its zenith AFTER Earp’s death. One excellent account of Earp’s life that includes a detailed, very balanced view of the man and whatever “truth about Wyatt Earp” we will find, is “Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend” by Casey Tefertiller. Published in 1997, Tefertiller’s book is extremely well researched and makes fascinating reading. (I recently bought a copy and am thoroughly enjoying it as I write this.) Tefertiller is a former newspaper reporter and did a lot of original research through archival sources in Arizona and elsewhere in the West.

Another recent book about Earp which treats him quite harshly, from reviews I’ve read about it, is “The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West” by Jeff Guinn. Guinn is also a former journalist, and his book was just published in 2011. I have not bought or read Guinn’s book, although I have read some reviews of it. It has been billed as a “revisionist” account of Earp and his life. It appears to suggest Earp would have been unknown had he not worked hard to publicize himself and create his own image in the way he wanted to be remembered. (A good review of Guinn’s book can be found at the Tucson Weekly website.)

Given continued research and rethinking about that fateful event in Tombestone, tourists coming to the site are constantly getting a more balanced look at the whole event, perhaps accurately reflecting the whole point about finding any “truth about Wyatt Earp.” In fact, the Earps, the Clantons, the McLaury brothers and all those folks either vilified or lionized by “history” were really just flawed human beings like the rest of us. They were men and women who lived in different times and reflected different needs and outlooks than we may today.

Wyatt Earp, according to both Tefertiller’s and Guinn’s books, could be both courageous and brutal as the situation and/or his interests required. Not really a surprise there, though. From politicians to preachers, most of us are just like that today.

The truth about Wyatt Earp is exactly this: He was both good and bad, probably in equal measure, and his life and reputation will always fascinate us as we learn from the good and bad actions of this very human icon of the Old West.

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