Columns in the Monmouth Daily Review Atlas
PBS VERSUS WYATT EARP — AN OK SHOW
By William Urban
As readers of the Review Atlas know, American Experience presented a fifty minute program on Wyatt Earp a couple weeks ago. Given that most television programs on Monmouth’s most famous son are god-awful, it was easy for this one to be better.
Monmouth was mentioned briefly, in the context of the westward movement of the American people — that mass migration that contemporaries called Manifest Destiny. That is, it was “manifest” (obvious) that Americans would occupy the rest of the continent, there being only disorganized Mexicans far to the south and even less organized Indians on the Great Plains. Destiny — pioneers moving into the interior was a process larger than the individuals involved, and Americans already on the move saw no reason to stop.
This is a theme the PBS developed very well, to put the Earps’ experiences in Wichita and Tombstone, then later in California and Alaska, in the context of their times. I did this once myself, back in 2003, when I was asked to write a book for Middle School children, Wyatt Earp: The OK Corral and the Law of the American West. I could have concentrated on the gunfight and the vendetta ride — since that is what catches the typical reader’s eye — but I preferred to see a close-knit family following closely behind the frontier, arriving in Monmouth after the Indians were gone, but before the railroad arrived. Most members of the family settled in Monmouth for good, but Nicholas Earp saw the Mexican War as an opportunity to qualify for free land in the West. Unfortunately for his plans, the dispute over slavery resulted in Congress failing to make any provision for veterans. Nicholas returned home — injured by an animal kicking him in the groin — just before the birth of his son, but in time to name him for his commanding officer, Wyatt Berry Stapp.
When news of the California gold strike came, Nicholas announced his intent to go there, then left without paying his debts and taxes. If, as is claimed, he stayed in Monmouth in a rented house until 1850, that was news to the tax-collector, who kept close tabs of who had paid their 1849 taxes and who hadn’t — Nicholas Earp didn’t. Even so, he didn’t make it past Pella, Iowa, where a relative was living. He was there when the Census of 1850 was taken, and the Census of 1860, which led generations of Monmouth citizens to believe that he had stayed in Iowa the entire decade.
Some time back I discovered that Nicholas had Earp brought his family back in1856, staying three years. This clarified a number of problems, most importantly how a daughter could die in Monmouth when the family was supposed to be in Iowa, but it caused historians to wonder why Wyatt never bothered to mention it. My research explained why. Nicholas, unable to find work, apparently unable to buy land, ran for office as a constable. That job was hardly law enforcement, but delivering summons for the justices of the peace and helping around the courthouse allowed him a convenient cover for delivering whiskey to customers unable to find it in “dry” Monmouth. After being convicted three times of bootlegging, he sold his property (including one house still standing on South B) and went back to Iowa. It was not a story Wyatt Earp wanted strangers to know.
Nicholas Earp made it to California in 1864, where he established a ranch. Four years later he apparently came back to Monmouth for a family reunion, then settled down in Missouri to manage a restaurant. Wyatt joined him there and married — a story mangled by the best-seller of the 1930’s, Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal into his coming back to Monmouth to study law under his grandfather (awkwardly deceased in 1853 and never quite a judge, just a justice of the peace) and to marry a local girl. (Ralph Eckley, who wrote the local history columns for the Review Atlas, used to get letters asking where the Earp farm was and if they knew anything about Wyatt’s childhood. Eckley, who knew how to use the county records, knew there was no farm, and since, as a reporter, he knew everybody, he had heard what few Earp stories there were to hear; but he didn’t know that Wyatt lived here from 1856-9.)
PBS covered all this in about a minute. I enjoyed the longer part about Kansas, because I grew up there hearing stories about that era. That’s the way history works. A good program does more than entertain. It informs, it stimulates the imagination, and it revives half-lost memories.
Memories, alas, are fallible. That is why historians seek to confirm them with contemporary information. And the myths? Well, the myths tend to survive. It’s like the advice given to the newspaperman at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That can drive historians nuts!
PBS got past this for the most part. Some will miss the myth, but not me — the true story was compelling enough. (If you doubt me, buy my well-illustrated book for some young relative, then read it before a birthday or Christmas comes along.) PBS passed over some important episodes, partly to move the story line along, partly to fit the story into time available. I remember my editor cutting out my paragraph on Wyatt liking ice cream. But Wyatt did not like hard liquor. Nor did he go around shooting people.
One can quibble a bit — was “the Peoria bummer” (a reference to Wyatt’s being arrested for operating a floating bordello on the Illinois River) a pimp or merely a bouncer, and were the pictures actually of the people and places they purported to identify? But this production is probably as good as we’ll get for a while.
Review Atlas (Feb 11, 2010), 4.