From Illinois to the OK Corral

The history and the legends of the old American West are filled with tales of shootouts on dusty streets. Probably the most well-known of these is the famous Shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881. While it has gone down in history as a seminal moment of Old West lore, its most famed protagonist was not a southwesterner, but was born an Illinoisan, and first drew his gun in an Illinois town.

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, just south of the Quad Cities, on March 19, 1848, the fourth child of Nicholas and Virginia Earp. He was named for an Illinois cavalry officer who had been Nicholas Earp’s commanding officer in the Mexican War. Nicholas was the city constable in the Warren County town when Wyatt was a young boy. But he wasn’t only a lawman. Nicholas Earp was also among the town’s alcohol suppliers, which put him at odds with the growing temperance movement of the mid-19th century.

When Wyatt was 11, his father was tried and convicted of bootlegging and the family was forced to leave town. They wandered around the west for several years, including stays in Iowa and as far as California, before Wyatt and his older brother Virgil made their way back to Illinois in 1869.

For reasons that remain unclear a century and a half later, Wyatt paid a visit to Beardstown, in west-central Illinois on the Illinois River. While he would later gain a reputation (with some help from Hollywood) as a fearless lawman who cleaned up several western towns, in the 1860s and 1870s Earp ran with a less reputable crowd. Called the “Peoria Bummer” by one newspaper, Earp was linked with an infamous local bordello in that city.

Whatever the reason for his visit to Walden’s Hotel in Beardstown, Earp soon found himself in a confrontation with a local bully, Thomas Pinard (or Piner, accounts differ), one of the “scavengers, sports and rowdy laborers,” drawn to the town by the construction of a nearby railroad line. Heated words were exchanged. Pinard mocked Earp as a “California boy” and a fight broke out. During the scuffle, Earp threw Pinard out into the street where guns were drawn. Pinard shot first and missed (something that would come to be a common theme in Earp’s life: despite his career filled with gunfights, he was never hit) and Earp returned fire, wounding Pinard in the hip.

The matter surely aroused some local attention, but little was recorded about it, not even an investigation by the local law. Local historians know of the story but have been unable to even pin down exactly where the shootout happened.

Earp soon departed for Missouri where he followed in his father’s footsteps as a town constable. But he struggled there as well. His wife Urilla died of typhoid fever and he later found himself in financial troubles and lawsuits. Moving to Arkansas he was accused of horse theft and once again had to make a getaway to Illinois.

Wyatt rejoined his brother Virgil who had established his own shady business in Peoria. Virgil hired Wyatt as a bouncer, which of course led to more trouble with the law. In at least one of these cases he was in court along with John Walton, the owner of the Beardstown bordello where the trouble with Pinard had happened. This time, Peoria police arrested Earp and Walton in a raid and both were fined $44, a hefty fine for the time.

After this incident Earp decided he had gotten his fill of the life of crime in Illinois and set out for the west again, this time as a lawman.

Hollywood tells the tale of Wyatt Earp storming across the west fighting crime. And Earp did in fact establish a career and a reputation as one of the greatest lawmen in American history. But his exploits in Illinois would follow him for many years to come. Earp would claim that during the troublesome months of 1872 he was not having scrapes with the law in Peoria, but was in fact hunting buffalo in Kansas. The pendulum has swung back and forth over the years as to whether Earp was a hero or a villain.

Interior of the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City. 
The fullness of the record would seem to suggest that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Earp’s career in law enforcement reads like a chronicle of the history of the American West, traveling from one frontier outpost to the next, fighting troublemakers of one kind of another, but getting into some trouble himself. Earp became a police officer in Wichita, Kansas, where he had the difficult job of keeping order in a town which was known to fill with rowdy cowboys reaching the end of cattle drives up from Texas. But he lost that job after a brawl with a political foe.

He was a town marshal in the well-known boom town of Dodge City, Kansas, and here began his first brush with fame as he pursued an outlaw all the way to Texas to bring him to justice. In Dodge City Earp also killed his first man, a horseman who had fired into a crowded theater. During these years Earp’s path first crossed with other legends of the west such as Bat Masteron and Doc Holliday.

Like many westerners of the era Earp was known to chase the occasional get-rich-quick scheme, including time he spent among the legions of those who moved west in search of gold and silver. It was this pursuit which brought him to the small town of Tombstone, Arizona, to again rejoin his brother Virgil, now the town marshal. With things quieting down in Kansas, he resigned from the police force in Dodge City and headed for the Arizona Territory.

It was not gold but gambling which made Earp wealthy in Tombstone. But out-of-control crime called for a response, and local leaders found someone with Earp’s credentials to be just the man they needed to restore order. The stage was now set for that famed shootout at the O.K. Corral which inscribed the name of Wyatt Earp indelibly on the history of the American West and into numerous books and films in the decades to follow.

In later years Earp continued to wander, seeking adventure and riches in Idaho, Alaska and California. In the 20th century, now in his 60s, Earp was hired by police in Los Angeles to pursue fugitives who had fled to Mexico. He also made his first connections in the fledgling film industry, serving as a consultant on some early silent films. He died in Los Angeles on January 13, 1929.

In the nearly 100 years since his death, Wyatt Earp’s historical reputation has been decidedly mixed. But he is known to western enthusiasts as the heroic lawman who cleaned up one town after another, even if the truth is a bit more complicated. And for all his fame for that brief shootout on a dusty street in Arizona, Wyatt Earp’s first known gunfight happened in a small town in central Illinois.