1929 Yukon Nuggets
From the OK Corral to the Nome Gold Rush
Among the gold-fevered stampeders who tried to cash in on the Gold Rush was a professional gunfighter named Wyatt Earp. Yep! The same man who was once the Sheriff of Dodge City. The same guy who carved his name in the history books with his celebrated role in the epic gunfight at the OK Corral. Wyatt Earp! Of all the American gun-slinging legends, that name ranks atop the list. Television shows, movies, books and music have all strengthened the allure surrounding the fabled lawman.
Yet, the Marshall Earp of legend accounts for just five years of Wyatt's long and momentous life. For most of his eighty years, he was a hard-working, gold-seeking, gun-toting gambler who, like others of the day, was obsessed with discovering a golden mecca.
Wyatt Berry Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois on a blustery spring day in March, 1848. In 1864, he moved with his parents to California, near San Bernardino, where he got a job as a teamster, driving horse-drawn wagons that carried supplies for prospectors. He married in 1870, but, after the sudden death of his new bride, he became a drifter, working as a buffalo hunter and stagecoach driver in the American southwest, often in the company of his four brothers - Virgil, Morgan, James and Warren.
In 1875, he moved to Wichita, Kansas, where he joined the frontier police force. A year later, he moved to Dodge City, Kansas, where he became a dealer at the famous Long Branch Saloon. Here he met and became lifelong friends with Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday, as well as establishing his reputation as a notable lawman and gambler. He left Dodge City with his second wife in 1878 and moved to California, where he worked for a time as a Wells Fargo agent. In 1879, Wyatt, his four brothers and their wives met up in the new silver mining town of Tombstone, Arizona.
Wyatt wanted to establish a stage line, but since there were already two in town, he instead bought the gambling concession at the Oriental Saloon. His brother Virgil became town marshal, while Morgan took a job with the police department. In Tombstone, Wyatt met his third wife, Josie, who remained with him until his death.
On the fateful day of October 26, 1881, a feud that had been going on for some time between the Earp brothers and a gang led by Ike Clanton culminated in the most celebrated shootout in western folklore - the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The famous gunfight was not in the O.K. Corral. It actually took place in Harwood's lumberyard, down the street from the rear entrance to the corral.
The showdown began as Morgan, Virgil and Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, on one side of the lot, faced Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne. It's not certain who drew first, but the fight was swift. It lasted 30 seconds. When the gun smoke cleared, Frank and Tom McLaury lay dead, and Billy Clanton died later from chest wounds.
Morgan Earp suffered a shoulder wound, Virgil, a leg wound, and Doc Holliday, a grazed left hip. Wyatt Earp wasn't hit. The Earps and Doc Holliday were arrested for murder. At the trial, it was decided that the Earps acted within the law, but Virgil was later fired as marshal for his role in the battle. In March, 1882, Morgan Earp was gunned down by unknown gunmen. Wyatt, along with his brother Warren, launched a feud during which all four suspects were eventually killed.
After being accused of these murders, Earp fled from Arizona to Colorado, taking odd jobs in mining camps over the next few years. In 1886, Wyatt and Josie settled in booming San Diego. Wyatt bought real estate and saloons, and continued his passion for gambling.
By the spring of 1897, all of California was buzzing with the news of the richest gold strike in the world. This was music to the ears of the aging gambler, gunfighter and gold-seeker. Wyatt and Josie packed up and headed north with thousands of others in 1897. The first part of the voyage to the gold-fields ended in Wrangell, Alaska, as rough a town as Wyatt Earp had ever seen. He stayed there that winter and in the spring of 1898, set out for Dawson City via the coastal route and the Yukon river.
By the time they reached the town of Rampart on the Yukon River, freeze-up has set in. There the Earps spent the frigid winter of 1898-1899. Earp became friends with Tex Rickard, the gambling fight-promoter, who would later build Madison Square Garden in New York City. In the spring of 1899, Earp worked as the manager of a small store in St. Michael, the Bering Sea center for river travel to the Yukon interior. By this time, Rickard had joined the new rush to the goldfields of Nome.
Earp was determined to reach Dawson City, but Rickard convinced him that the Klondike was over, and that he should join him in the new Nome gold camp instead. So the Earps settled in Nome. Now fifty-one, Earp opened a fancy emporium called the Dexter Saloon. Before long, he was collecting more gold nuggets from the sale of booze and gambling than most of the miners were digging up on the sand beaches of Nome.
One day, the famous lawman had a run-in with the law. During a street brawl in front of the Dexter, two brawlers were hauled off to the hoosegow. Earp, the former Marshal, decided to take the law into his own hands and tried to free one of the prisoners. "Wyatt Earp was also taken into custody", reported the Nome Daily News.
In his defense, Earp said he was just trying to help the Sheriff. The charge was dropped. After two years in Nome, the Earps were ready to move again. They returned to the southern states in 1901 with a sizeable nest-egg, and headed for yet another gold-strike in Tonopah, Nevada, where they opened another saloon, continued to gamble, and made another small fortune. Yet he still had the prospectors nose for gold, staking claims just outside Death Valley in the Mojave Desert. He and Josie spent their summers in Los Angeles where they became pals with early day Hollywood heroes.
On January 13, 1929, Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles. He was eighty years old. Famous cowboy actors Tom Mix and William Hart were among his pallbearers.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.