Wyatt Earp in Monmouth, Illinois. Articles by William Urban, Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies at Monmouth College, Monmouth IL 61462 E-mail To: Urban@monm.edu
Contents: EARP, Wyatt Berry Stapp (1848-1929) Wyatt’s birth and boyhood in Monmouth, Illinois, with an emphasis on his father’s first unhappy experience as a lawman. Articles on the controversy over Wyatt Earp's birthplace. Note the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency's position. This controversy seems to have first arisen in 1956, shortly after the television series became popular.
Many of these essays were written in response to claims made about the Wyatt Earp Birthplace Museum. But, as John Lukacs says in A Student’s Guide to the Study of History (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000), 6, “This search for truth—which most often consisted of the reduction of untruths—is the essence of historical research.” He later adds, on page 17, “We must recognize that history, by its very nature, is ‘revisionist.’” This does not mean that only professionally trained historians can practice the craft. Lukacs states unequivocally on page 21 that “there is no essential difference between the ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ historian’…” While one would not want to undergo brain surgery at the hands of an amateur, the methods of history are sufficiently straight-forward and logical that anyone can learn to write it. There are, of course, rules—most importantly respect for facts, context, and logic. No history is ever quite finished, either. There is always something waiting to be discovered.
Authenticity Claim: does the National Register of Historic Places accept the birthplace museum as Wyatt Earp's birthplace and his parents' home? No.
"Wyatt Earp was born here: Monmouth and the Earps, 1845-1859." Western Illinois Regional Studies, 3(Fall, 1980), 154-67.
This article was a failed effort to resolve the dispute over which house was Wyatt Earp's birthplace. It also provoked considerable protest at the time from some Earp descendants, who insisted that Nicholas Earp had to be in Mexico when Wyatt was born because their family’s oral history remembered it so. However, a note at the bottom of a story in the Atlas of February 11, 1848, reported that he had arrived home. Wyatt was born a month later.
Not all Earp family members remembered this same story in 1956; Weldon Earp dismissed it altogether. Nor was everyone involved in the controversy related to the Earps.
Nicholas's service in the Mexican War was honorable, though the principal danger to his unit was disease. (The muster rolls often quoted to prove he was in Mexico in March of 1848 also report that he died there. He did return home in February very ill.) He had been unable to perform any deed of valor that would lead him toward a political career, and veterans were not rewarded with grants of land in the west as he seemed to have expected. (Monmouth lay in the "military tract", quarter-sections of which had been given to veterans of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. As a result, by the time Nicholas had come from Kentucky, all the available land in Warren County had been settled and he had been unable to raise enough money to buy a farm until he moved to Iowa in 1849. Even there the records are more confusing than clarifying, but there is no record of his ever receiving a grant in Iowa for his war service; or any acknowledgment of his claim to have recruited soldiers for the Civil War.)
Strangely, nobody in the family remembered that Wyatt had lived in Monmouth from 1856-1859. People tended to "remember" what had appeared in books, movies and television programs—especially Lake’s 1932 biography, which was wildly inaccurate about his family’s years in Monmouth. The house in which he lived 1856-9 is still standing, but nobody pays it any attention.
Until the publication of Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshal, there was little interest in Wyatt Earp’s birth. For example, on December 2, 1920, the Alton Evening Telegraph ran the last of eight Chamber of Commerce articles entitled “Re-Discovering Illinois.” It was a nice overview of Monmouth, but the only prominent person to be mentioned as having been born in Monmouth was Loie Fuller, the famous dancer. She got a full paragraph. That 44 passenger trains arrived each day was also noted.
Bottom line: oral history sometimes conflicts with written records. While written sources can be in error, they do not evolve over time. Anyone who has played the telephone game understands one problem with oral history.
Newspaper articles on the Illinois State Historical Society's decisions to place the Wyatt Earp marker at the city park because there was insufficient evidence as to where Wyatt Earp was born. Four possible locations were discussed in August of 1956, but the committee (Mrs. Fleming Long, president of the Monmouth Park Board; Miss Camille Radmacher, Warren County librarian; Walter Durand, for the M. &. St. L. railroad which donated the 15,000 pound boulder; Ralph Killey, president of the 1956 Prime Beef Festival; Robert McLoskey, state representative who obtained the plaque from the legislature; and Marion Beal, for the Park Board) agreed that there was no compelling evidence for any site. Also involved in the research was Prof. Frank Philips, long-time principal of Monmouth High School, dean of students at Monmouth College and secretary of the Warren County Library. Since the committee could find no compelling reason to choose one site over the others, on September 5, 1956, it placed the monument at the city park.
The dispute then simmered quietly until April of 1985, when Prof. Rodney Davis of Knox College presented a paper on Wyatt Earp at the Western Illinois Regional History Conference at Monmouth College. He relied heavily on Water's history—thus presenting an uncomplimentary view of this "parasite": "Our society, quite obviously still breeds marginal men like Wyatt Earp. But I guess I personally hope that we in the future will not be so disposed to make heroes of them."
That caught the newspaper headlines!
Davis, it might be noted, was a specialist in the history of Illinois and the West. He was later director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.
"Wyatt Earp's Father," True West, 36/5(May 1989), 30-32, 37-39. A truly fascinating individual.
"Wyatt Earp's Birthplace," Western Illinois Regional Studies, 12/1(Spring 1989), 20-43, was a second failed attempt to resolve the dispute over the location of the birthplace. Tax assessments, census estimates and sales records suggest that the house currently standing at 403 S. 3rd is a larger structure than the one on the lot in 1848.
Sanborn insurance map of 1886 showing location of Nicholas Earp's home in 1848-1849.
From December 1931 to April 1932 the Daily Review Atlas ran a contest to name the most significant local sites. Over 150 entries were sent to editor, Hugh Moffet. As best I can tell, not one mentioned Wyatt Earp or his birthplace. Interest in the birthplace seems to have first appeared in 1956. See "Grounds for Caution" below. The reporter who was assigned the Wyatt Earp stories was Ralph Eckley. The long-time editor and writer of "the old-timer" column, Hugh Moffet, had no patience for Earp stories.
What did Monmouth newspapermen remember about the Earps in
1907? Not much! The Review of February 11 ran a story, “Bat Masterson writes up Wyatt
Earp.” It quoted a passage that local residents might find of interest: “He was
A week later there was an article, “Father of Earp Boys Died
Nathan? Anyway, you judge the quality of the oral history that was circulating at that time. (I’d print both articles here, but the photocopier in the Warren County Library genealogical collection was turning out dark pages.)
"The Temperance Movement in Monmouth, Illinois, 1857-9," Western Illinois Regional Studies, 13/3(fall 1990), 32-45.
How national programs to eradicate the consumption of alcoholic beverages came to Monmouth and led to Nicholas Earp appearing before the bar of justice.
"The People Versus Nicholas P. Earp," Illinois Historical Journal, 90 (Autumn, 1997), 173-190. How Monmouth College and the men associated with the foundation of two early national sororities (Pi Beta Phi and Kappa Kappa Gamma) ran Nicholas Earp out of town. Selected for the Harry E. Pratt Memorial Prize for the best article on Illinois History in 1997. The Illinois Historical Society, Dec. 4, 1998.
Grounds for Caution, Old West Chronicle, #3 (April, May, June issue, 2002). This article investigates a key letter in the dispute over Wyatt Earp's birthplace. The agreement was that this article and an article by the Birthplace Association's representative, Carol Mitchell, would appear simultaneously, with neither knowing what the other had written; and that personal attacks would be avoided. Carol Mitchell withdrew her article when the Old West Chronicle changed its format for financial and personnel reasons.
This article suggests that a critical letter in the Wyatt Earp Birthplace controversy was a hoax. There was another hoax the next year—the appearance of a fake tombstone. Once, in 1988, the local paper invented an interview with me, then refused to make a retraction or a correction. To establish a historical record, I wrote an essay for the college paper, the Oracle. Thus, in addition to practical jokers, we have reporters who are determined to write a story— some story, any story—and will put their own slant on events; the presentation can take numerous forms: humorous, worshipful, sarcastic, promoting tourism, intended to ridicule small towns. Reporters make unintentional errors, too, especially the rookies sent out to cover obscure events and arcane controversies.
March 16, 2006, I wrote a short essay for the Daily Review Atlas in Monmouth, asking if any citizens could provide information about the tombstone hoax of 1957. Nobody could.
It would help if we had a sense of humor about these things.
The Prime Beef Festival and Wyatt Earp A publicity stunt associated with the 1956 festival began the birthplace controversy.
Where was Nicholas Earp 1849-1850? Apparently not in Monmouth. At least, he did not pay his personal property taxes.
Nicholas Earp's Iowa Lands This study of Nicholas Earp's 1856 sale of his Iowa property and his purchase of lots in Monmouth is a spin-off of the research from "Grounds for Caution." The time spent in the recorder's office at the Warren County courthouse seemed to be almost wasted until suddenly there was one of those moments: "I've seen that name before!" Hiram Webster had appeared in the Iowa records, in the document following Nicholas Earp's sale to Aquillin Noe. A web search for Hiram Webster then led to the new information about Nicholas Earp's horse raising days.
Nicholas Earp's 1859 property tells about his purchase and sale of this property, together with documents showing how the sheriff had seized the lots for failure to pay the fines levied by the court, and an intriguing parallel of the prices of these lots with that at 406 S. 3rd.
Errors continue to multiply. There is a brief biography of Wyatt Earp in Warren County, Illinois. History and Families (Monmouth: Warren County Genealogical Association, 2003), 136. In this is an account of his father's activities in Monmouth: "...they bought a home at 409 South B Street, owned lots for farming at 300 South A Street, and owned the west side of North 5th Street where they lived.". The facts are these: In March of 1856 Nicholas Earp purchased Lot 3 on Block 35 and Lots 3 and 6 on Block 33, not far from the city square. The two lots he sold in February and the other lot in December 1859. In March of 1859 he bought a half-block on East Broadway and Fifth. He sold this in December of 1859 and left town. Nicholas Earp's properties in Monmouth were too small to qualify as farms, and if he lived on the Broadway property at all, it was only for a short while.
It also states that the family lived in Wyatt's birthplace home.
The Gunfight of 2009 produced some interesting quotes. For example, we learn that the state honored the birthplace in 1956 with a bronze plaque. What the special committee did was to put the marker at the city park.
For a 2005 example, look here: Urban Legends
1907 Sanborn insurance map of 403 S. 3rd.
Note this book for middle-school children!
Wyatt Earp is a figure surrounded by controversy. This was true in his own lifetime. It is even more true today, because he has come to represent aspects of the American experience relevant not just to the past, but to our present social and political dialogue. Look for each author’s qualifications and bias: Cuilibet in arte sua perito est credendum. In short, caveat lector (let the reader beware!)
In Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall Stuart Lake reported that Wyatt Earp had returned to Monmouth about 1868 to study law with his grandfather and there married a local girl. This information, though still quoted by some would-be specialists, is wrong. The grandfather died in 1853.
Although Nicholas Earp visited Monmouth in 1868 for a family reunion, Wyatt did not accompany him, having stopped on the Great Plains to work on the Union Pacific railroad and earn some money. Wyatt may have come later in the year, or he may have gone straight to Lamar, Missouri. Quite by accident a genealogist, David Langenberg, ran across two Peoria newspaper articles (Feb and Sept 1872) reporting that Wyatt and Morgan were arrested for frequenting a bordello. Court documents discovered by Ted Meyers demonstrate that the brothers did more than frequent the bordello—they were "keeping and being found at a house of ill-repute". Then Roger Jay discovered in local newspapers that Wyatt and Morgan were arrested in May and convicted of being brothel keepers. Each were sentenced to thirty days in the Peoria jail. Upon release Morgan left town and Wyatt took employment on the "Beardstown Gunboat" (actually a floating brothel), for which he was arrested in September .
Did Wyatt visit Monmouth in 1868-1869, or perhaps 1871-1872? Harry Giles reported to the Daily Review Atlas (July 24, 1956) that his father Isaac Giles had said that he had hauled goods to the Slabtown mill with Wyatt Earp in 1868. Stabtown was a lumber mill just north of the Monmouth Park; presumably the name came from the 'slabs' (the discarded outer cut of the logs that were used as siding on the cabins). On February 10, 2003, I made thorough search of Warren County newspapers and judicial records for 1868-1869 and 1871-1872; if Wyatt visited Monmouth in this period, he escaped public notice. But it was not wasted time: Monmouth and Wyatt Earp in 1872
Frustratingly, some male Earps who remembered well differing versions of Wyatt's birth (an event that occurred before they were born) did not remember the 1868 visit of the exotic relatives from California, which occurred when they were teen-agers. Clearly, these were not ordinary boys.
Wyatt's 150th Birthday Celebration (March 19, 1848-March 25, 1998)
Virginia Earp signatures these are xerox copies from deed books from 1856 and 1859, augmented by digital photos and commentary. This does not completely answer the question as to whether or not she could sign her name. In 1856 and 1859, in Iowa and Illinois, she used a + on three deeds.
The 1848 newspaper showing that Nicholas Earp had returned home before Wyatt's birth.
The Milligan letter from a local boy who claims to have met Wyatt in 1926. According to the Census of 1930, he was born in 1905, his brother James in 1908 (called Kenneth in Census of 1920); they were living with their mother, Maude Milligan, in Ellison township.
A highly recommended review of two new Wyatt Earp books is by Larry McMurty, "Back to the O.K. Corral" in The New York Review of Books (March 24, 2005), 31-33. He concludes, "After visiting Tombstone I realized that the reason the O.K. Corral is so persistent in our culture is really quite simple: it's one of those lucky places where history is instantly converted into money. Much of the history may be ersatz, but all the money is real."
Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: the Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Athenaeum, 1992) in [Monmouth, IL] Review Atlas (3 Feb 1994), 2.
Inventing Wyatt Earp. Favorable review of Allen Barra's book, in the Monmouth College Courier, Feb. 4, 2000.
American Experience 2010. Comments on the PBS production. Text: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/wyatt/transcript/
Other western writings:
Karl May, the Zane Grey of Germany. This writer had a significant influence on the ways we see the West. Why was this so?
Buffalo Bill in Florence. An article from Illinois Quarterly (1978).