Sunday, April 6, 2008

Wyatt Earp:Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Stuart Lake’s biography is taken from two years’ worth of interviews with Wyatt Earp, frontier marshal, himself. Since the book came out in 1931, at first this doesn’t seem to compute. Who can imagine lawman and gunslinger Earp, stalking down dusty Old West streets amid rolling tumbleweed, living into the Jazz Age? But in fact, he did; born in Monmouth, Illinois in 1848, he died in Los Angeles in 1929.

Earp’s adventures began early. His parents left Illinois for California in 1863, because they did not agree with Lincoln’s pursuing the Civil War in order to free the slaves. His father actually resigned from the army before the move. Once they crossed the Mississippi with a wagon train, they entered a world of violence in which Indian raiding parties could swoop in, kill and scalp a train guard within sight of his fellows, and gallop off before anyone could aim a gun in defense. As a teenager, Earp drove mail coaches through equally violent bandit country in southern California and Arizona. He hunted buffalo professionally, and later agreed that the deliberate extinction of the buffalo was "criminal waste." The alternative, however, was a Great Plains closed to agriculture and settlement forever.

In his twenties Earp served Wichita and then Dodge City, Kansas as marshal. These cow-towns, where several thousand cowboys would converge to raise hell with the money they earned driving Texas longhorns to market, reeled with alcohol and with the bitter resentment of South (the cowhands) against North (the Federal marshals). Earp faced down and arrested men who, if they were not psychopaths, were completely hardened bullies and killers. He did it with a combination of guts, foresight – he kept loaded shotguns ready at trusted shops, hotels, and saloons – and a demonstrated ability to kill before he was killed. His friend Bat Masterson said "a later generation simply will not credit" the kind of fast-draw "gunplay" that Earp could do.

At thirty, Earp left marshaling in Dodge and ventured to Tombstone, Arizona, where the police problem was not wild cowboys but a corrupt sheriff running the stagecoach robberies himself. Here, Earp’s brothers joined him, along with the tubercular dentist Doc Holliday. In October 1881 they met and fought off the Clanton-McLowery assassin gang at the OK Corral. But Wyatt’s brother Morgan was gunned down some weeks later, in revenge. When Wyatt found and killed the man who did it, albeit in a fair fight, he was indicted for murder. Earp mined in Colorado and ran a saloon in Alaska, while, in time, the Arizona Supreme Court threw out the indictment. He concluded his long career as a wealthy California oilman; most of the brutal men he knew died violently, and young.

Wyatt Earp was famous, and a target, almost all his life. At eighty he said that he was glad death would at last give him "peaceful obscurity." Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix was one of his pallbearers.

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