Wyatt Earp in Seattle: The man who created the modern Old West | History Files

Nov 19, 2018

When I was young, I didn't understand why this area was never in Western movies. After all, Puget Sound is about as far west as you can get. Instead, "Gunsmoke" was in Dodge City.

Dodge City? That's Kansas. Not very West. "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" also spent a couple of seasons in Dodge City before moving to Tombstone, Arizona. Now Tombstone was at least in a Western state, or territory as it was in 1880.

Over the years, I have learned the reason why Dodge City and Tombstone feature so much in movie and TV representations of the Old West. The answer, simply, is Wyatt Earp and his wife Josephine.

The Earps lived their later years in Los Angeles, where the movie industry was putting down roots. Wyatt became a friend of early movie cowboys William S. Hart and Tom Mix.

Earp was hired as a consultant on some early cowboy movies. Later, he met a very young Marion Morrison. You know Morrison as John Wayne. Quotes attributed to Wayne say that he tried to carry himself like Wyatt Earp when portraying a Western hero.

It turns out that Earp told his stories to Hollywood actors and writers, and variations of Earp's stories wound up on screen. Because Earp was telling the stories, he always came out as the hero.

A recent biographer of Earp, Andrew Isenberg, described Earp somewhat differently: "When he was not wearing a badge, he was variously a thief, brothel bouncer, professional gambler and confidence man who specialized in selling gold bricks that were nothing more than rocks painted yellow."

The earliest biography of Earp came out in 1931, two years after his death, written by Stuart Lake. It told the story the way Wyatt and, maybe more importantly, Josephine wanted it told. He had tried with two biographers previously, but been unhappy with the results.

Josephine saw to it that the biography was sanitized and unflattering references to his life and hers were omitted.

For instance, there is the matter of the Ned Buntline Special Colt 45 that Earp claimed he carried. Two researchers, William Shillingberg in 1976, and Jeff Morey in 1998, determined that Earp could not have owned such a weapon in 1876 as he claimed.

The Ned Buntline Special is a long-barreled weapon. Shillenberg is harsh in his interpretation of the story, implying that Earp probably never had such a weapon, and supplies reasons for that opinion.

Morey is more charitable, and believes that Earp, in his old age, simply got the dates wrong. Both, however, suggest that a long-barreled Colt was an awkward weapon for a quick-draw specialist.

Shillenberg quotes Earp associates, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson, as saying that they preferred a shorter weapon as being quicker to unholster. Holliday is quoted as saying that even the standard Colt 45 was too long, and he cut it down to a 4.5 inch barrel.

TV and movies however show Earp with his trademark Ned Buntline Special with a 12-inch barrel. Morey thinks that actual weapon had a 10-inch barrel, and that Stuart Lake simply became confused in his notes.

Then there is the matter of the OK Corral, and cowboys.

We now call everyone who herded cows a cowboy. In 1881 Tombstone, “cowboy” was a derogatory term for a loosely allied group of men who herded cows on occasion, but also robbed stagecoaches and broke the law in various forms.

The Earps were opposed to the cowboys. It appears that early movie studios and Earp's biographer, Stuart Lake, became confused in Earp's references to cowboys and applied the title to everyone who worked on a ranch.


Earp had expected to be appointed Cochise County sheriff as a Republican, in a Republican county. Instead, the governor appointed Johnny Behan, a Democrat associated with the cowboys.

Then the story becomes more confusing.

Behan was the County sheriff, with his office in Tombstone. Virgil Earp was the acting sheriff of Tombstone. And there was a federal marshal who also made his office in Tombstone. Clashes between the Earps and cowboys continued, and Earp and Behan were both attracted to the same young woman, 19-year-old Josephine Marcus, the same woman who became Josephine Earp.

Things, of course, deteriorated between the two groups. The famous Gunfight at the OK Corral actually occurred a few lots down the street from the OK Corral. What happened remained disputed after, but three of the cowboys were killed, and three of the Earp party were wounded.

Murder charges were brought against the Earps and Doc Holliday; the judge ruled in favor of the Earps, although the county sheriff had testified against them.

The feud continued for a number of years. Some of the OK Corral survivors died in the aftermath. Morgan Earp was ambushed and killed. Ike Clanton was killed several years later, as were several other cowboys. Some historians label the OK Corral as a political assassination.

Earp eventually left Arizona, traveling to Idaho, Alaska and Seattle before retiring in Los Angeles. Historylink records Earp's time in Seattle. Earp opened a "sporting house" called the Union Club at Second and Washington in the Tenderloin district.

John Considine, madam Lou Graham and, at one time Friedrich Drumpf, and others had already set up "sporting houses" in the neighborhood. Earp was just one too many, and he refused to bribe police, not on principle, just to save money.

The atmosphere became heated, and in early 1900 Earp left town. Not long after, reform elements in Seattle shut down the businesses in the Tenderloin. Madam Lou Graham's building still stands. It has housed the Union Gospel Mission.

Earp left Seattle, but passed through a few more times to visit his interests in Alaska. Eventually he settled in Los Angeles and, likely without intention, went about recreating the Old West in his own image.


Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.