GROUNDS FOR CAUTION
Twenty-one years ago  I attempted to resolve a dispute among a handful of Monmouth, Illinois’s 10,000 citizens over Wyatt Earp’s birthplace. I summarized the public controversy dating from 1956 in “Wyatt Earp was born here: Monmouth and the Earps, 1845-1859,” Western Illinois Regional Studies, 3(Fall, 1980), 154-67; later I published “The Birthplace of Wyatt Earp,” Ibid., 12/1(Spring 1989), 20-43. I remember some of my questions: Why did some members of the Earp family remember Wyatt’s birth, but most did not? And why did they remember different houses? Why didn’t the debate start in 1931, when Stuart Lake’s book, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, came out? There were people alive then who could have heard family folklore from relatives who remembered 1848 well. Similarly, in 1881, when the Gunfight at the OK Corral made local newspapers, nothing was said; nor in 1911, when Wyatt was accused of having been involved in an illegal bunco game in Los Angeles; nor in 1929, when Wyatt’s death was reported. No controversy arose even in 1953, when a house at 213 S. 3rd was named the birthplace. (Quad Cities Times Democrat, March 1, 1953, 3D) Why the fury in 1956?
I tried to discover who had heard the family stories, who had told them, and whether the tales could be confirmed. What I have found is:
1) Oral history evolves. Lawyers and historians are trained to mistrust memories, especially when the teller has an emotional or monetary stake in the tale; and recent “recovered memory” cases demonstrate how easily even honest and intelligent people, once they have heard a plausible suggestion, can remember as fact events which could not have happened. Readers interested in the pitfalls associated with oral history should consult Steve Gatto, The Real Wyatt Earp: a Documentary Biography (2000), 2-3; those who trust eyewitness reports might well reread the Spicer testimony about the gunfight at the OK Corral. In the case of Wyatt’s birth, contemporaries told a few younger relatives conflicting stories that they passed on to a third generation which is today at retirement age or, in some cases, recently deceased. Most Earp descendants heard no story at all.
The birthplace site became a community issue only after the TV show starring Hugh O’Brian as Wyatt Earp became wildly popular. When inquiries arrived at the Daily Review Atlas in early 1956, local newspaperman Ralph Eckley attempted to provide answers. The first letters asked when Wyatt married a Monmouth girl (Jan. 28, he didn’t) and about the location of the Earp farm (Feb. 8, no record). Then came a claim by William Stratton (Feb. 9) that his house at 406 S. 3rd Street “might be the early house of the Nicholas Earp family.” Immediately (Feb. 10), Roy Buckley called to say that George B. Earp (1849-1937) had said a house once at 213 S. 3rd was the birthplace site, though it had been moved to
913 South 6th; and (Feb 13) B.L. Gillette said that Frank Earp (1880-1956) had stood right at its original site and pointed to where it had been. That summer the promoters of the Prime Beef Festival (an early September celebration similar to a county fair) proposed that a monument be placed at the Stratton home. When Eckley’s stories demonstrated that, although the preponderance of oral history favored the house on South 6th over the other sites, the evidence was not conclusive, the state decided to place the monument in the city park (Aug. 18), where it was dedicated September 5.
2) Hoaxers have been at work. Many Monmouth citizens have regarded the dispute over the birthplace as a joke. In August of 1957, one year after Eckley’s newspaper series, some local figures perpetrated a hoax prompted, most likely, by a story based on a San Francisco Chronicle article of July 8th of that year. Someone left a simple marker (W. Earp 1848-1929, J Earp, 1861-1944) weighing twenty-five pounds near Lake Warren. It was discovered by some young man who did not want to be identified, brought to town, and, after purportedly being insured for $10,000 by the Prime Beef Festival Committee, was displayed in the window of Monmouth’s most prominent restaurant, Hedrick’s, on South Main. Gerald Swisher of Davenport discovered it in the back seat of his car after returning from an evening visit to Monmouth. Then a stranger appeared, identified himself as a San Francisco detective and took the stone away. (Peoria Journal Star, Sept 1, 1957, C-7) This was clearly not the California headstone stolen by vandals, though that marker had been carried away repeatedly by pranksters. (San Diego Evening Tribune, March 20, 1981, p. 20) In 1995 jokers stole the newest Wyatt Earp marker from the park and dumped it on the golf course, where it lay undiscovered for a year.
LOCAL EXPERTS said nothing in 1956. Hugh Moffet never mentioned it in his Old Timer columns. Frank Phillips, a long-time principal of the high school, drew his knowledge from Lake’s book. Judge Max Kidder, a prominent musician who had an interest in local history, had died in 1955.
RALPH ECKLEY lived his entire life (1901-1989) in Monmouth. A reporter for the Daily Review Atlas, he became well-known for his local history columns. Eckley’s critics claimed that he chose the 6th street house because another reporter scooped him on the birthplace museum site. (Daily Review Atlas, March 29, 1988, p. 1) His response was, “I won the battle. We no longer call it the birthplace museum in the newspaper. It’s just a museum.” (Larry Fruhling, “Earp’s birth site has town in a quandary,” Des Moines Sunday Register, April 10,1988, pp. 1, 10.) About that same time he told a geology professor organizing a walking tour to take the group by the birthplace museum--a logical thing to do, since any local museum should be of interest to visitors willing to take a walking tour.
Ralph Eckley’s June 28, 1956, Article
This Daily Review Atlas article is cited in the Birthplace Association’s National Registry application as proof that Nicholas Earp had lived in the house at 406 S. 3rd. It reads as follows:
This Daily Review Atlas article is cited in the Birthplace Association’s National Registry application as proof that Nicholas Earp had lived in the house at 406 S. 3rd. It reads as follows:
The Earp story lost some of its vagueness today when Mrs. J. S. Clark, one-time Monmouth resident, wrote the Review Atlas to relate some of the things she had heard from her grandmother, a resident of Monmouth 110 years ago.
The grandmother, whose name was Patterson, came to Monmouth in the early 1840's, she explained, and knew the Earps well. Mrs. Clark said that there were two Earp families who lived on South Third Street and she used to have to listen to her grandmother tell about who lived in different houses which she would point out to her as a child.
In the pioneer days when Wyatt Earp was born March 19, 1848, her grandmother related, the city of Monmouth ended only a few blocks south of Broadway, the original town went only to Fifth avenue.
Mrs Clark said there was a Joseph or a Joshua Earp (she could not remember which) who lived on South Third street (the county records showed Josiah Earp owned the property at 213 South Third street now owned by Edward Collins). Mrs. Clark further stated that further down the street lived the Nicholas Earp family, which was that of Wyatt Earp, as Nicholas was his father. Mrs. Clark said that she could not remember the street numbers but Nicholas Earp lived in the block north of old Commercial Row and on the west side of the street.
The grandmother, Mrs Clark continued, said she had visited in that house many times. It had been remodeled and more built on, since the Earp days. She said that she believed the entrance was on the north in the early days. She remembered the Josiah Earp house was two or three blocks farther north and said that it had been built over, also Mrs Clark remembered her grandmother telling about a "Grandma" Earp who smoked a pipe.
She told Mrs Clark that the Nicholas Earp family only lived in Monmouth a few years and moved on west. She said she was sorry she could not remember where she said they went (the records show the family moved to Pella, [Iowa], in 1850, when Wyatt Earp was two years old.) She said she believed the Josiah Earp family stayed around Monmouth (the records show he died here in 1901).
Mrs. Clark wrote from Davenport, [Iowa], and said she wanted to come to Monmouth for a day but she hadn’t been too well and said her eyesight was failing, and her family thought she should go back to Washington. She said she lived in and around Monmouth as a child and she and her first husband (not named in the letter) lived here for over 40 years. She pointed out that there were a lot of Earps around Monmouth, mentioning George Earp, Frank Earp, Alfred Earp and Dow Earp.
The letter from Mrs. Clark appeared to put the home of W. J. Stratton, 406 S. Third street, back into the running as a likely birthplace of Wyatt Earp. The Review Atlas printed a story February 9,1956, saying this residence might have been the early home of the Nicholas Earp family which came to Monmouth about 1847 from a farm nearby and left here in 1850 for Pella, [Iowa].
A search of the records, however, failed to show the Earps owned the property. It was owned by Ivory Quinby from 1846 to 1853, during the period when Wyatt was born, but it now seems possible the Earps simply rented a small house--since enlarged--which stood on the site.
Mr and Mrs Stratton bought the old house in 1931, and since 1938 have operated Stratton’s grocery on South Third street in Commercial Row. The old part of the house (the north side) consists of two rooms down and two rooms up, and is a story and a half structure.
Asked today if there was any evidence of an entrance on the north, as related in Mrs Clark’s letter, Mrs. Stratton recalled that when new siding was put on the house a few years ago they found an old doorway about halfway between the kitchen window and a bedroom window. The south part of the house was built years later, they believe.
Mrs Stratton is a native of this community, the former Miss Ann Oswald (her grandfather, Peter Oswald, ran Oswald’s Mill, northwest of Monmouth), and she first heard the house linked with Wyatt Earp soon after she and her husband opened the stored about 18 years ago.
An old man, and she did not ever learn his name, came into the store and related what seemed to be a fantastic story about Wyatt Earp and his exploits, and later he related that Earp had been born in the house where the Strattons lived. She more or less dismissed the story from her mind, but later told it at home and heard Charles Sullivan, now 80 years old, confirm what the old man had said. Still later Earl McBride told her the same story but she had not mentioned it since then, because of her inability to recall who first told her the story, but who seemed to know what he was talking about.
A further instance, linking the house with the earliest days in Monmouth, was when the Strattons decided to put a new concrete porch on the east and discovered an old native rock entrance to the cellar beneath the wooden porch.
The story has been current along Commercial Row, since the Earp series of articles began, that the Stratton home was Wyatt Earp’s birthplace, or at least the home of his parents at the time of his birth. Some have placed it a couple of blocks further north, back of the Josiah Earp home in a house, now gone but possibly that owned by Elmer Thomas at 913 South Third [sic. Should be Sixth] street, known to have been owned by the Earp family long ago. The task of "sorting" out a birthplace, however, seems close to decision.
What particularly struck me about this story was that Ralph Eckley did not digress to tell readers who Mrs. Clark was, as he did with Anna Stratton. My feeling is that he didn’t know her. This was strange indeed. Ralph Eckley knew everybody.
WHO WAS MRS. J. S. CLARK? She was supposed to have lived sixty years in Monmouth, but gave no first name or the name of her first husband. There was no J. S. Clark of the right age in the local marriage records, probate records, or obituaries. She was elderly in 1956 and had failing eyesight. She was in Davenport at the time, but her relatives wanted her to go back to Washington. Washington, Iowa? Many Monmouth Presbyterians spent their last years in the United Presbyterian Home there. The director, Michael Moore, had no record of a Mr or Mrs J. S. Clark. The only Clark in the records was a Washington, Iowa, native. Moreover, the Monmouth community at the home speaks about everyone they know, and in his twenty-five years there, he has never heard the name Clark. Wilma Atkinson of the Washington County Genealogical Society checked the local records. No J. S. Clark or Mrs Clark. In the fall of 2001 George Morris and I contacted some well-informed older citizens. None remember a Mrs. J. S. Clark.
Who was the Grandmother Patterson who came to Monmouth in the early 1840s, visited the Earps often in 1849, and in her old age took her granddaughter around and told her who lived where in the old days? Just as we did with Mrs Clark, the staff of the Warren County genealogical library and I looked up every Patterson in the 1850 census, then 1860, 1870, 1880, the old settlers’ association, the city directories and the obituaries. Nobody fit the description completely. But it really makes little difference whether she exists or not, since her information is inaccurate.
WHY MRS CLARK’S INFORMATION IS WRONG.
1. Although in 1956 everyone assumed that Josiah Earp lived at 213 S. 3rd in 1849, we know only that he was a farmer who owned no property (Census of 1850). Moreover, that lot was empty in 1849 (tax value $20). Apparently seeing that the owner had gone back east after his wife died, Josiah filed on the lot on May 15, 1851, paying $12.50. In 1852 the owner’s lawyer appeared, and on October 20 Josiah sold his improvements for $250 (an amount appropriate for a small house, perhaps the one which later ended up on North 6th) and moved to Henderson County.
2. In 1956 no one remembered that Nicholas owned a house in town, nor that Nicholas Earp returned to Monmouth 1856-1859. Grandmother Patterson didn’t know that, either.
3. Nicholas Earp paid personal property taxes from 1845-1848, but not in 1849 or 1850. (Collectors’ Books, Western Illinois University Archives)
4. Nicholas sold his home March 1, 1849. (Recorder’s Office, Warren County courthouse. Entry book 13, p. 474) This was an appropriate time of the year either to join the hundred or so local citizens heading for California (only the leaders’ names were given in the Atlas) or go to Iowa in time to put in a crop; he also sold at a loss, suggesting haste.
5. The Commissioner’s book 1848-1853 (Warren County courthouse, p. 3) indicates that on March 15, 1849, the commissioner cancelled the sale of three lots (2, 3 & 6 of Block 5) that Nicholas had bought December 11, 1846, on three interest-free promissory notes of $50 with due dates in one, two and three years. He did this “in case that the said Earp shall go to California.” The three properties lay immediately to the north of his home on Block 12, lot 2, and was probably where he kept his three horses and four cows. He apparently bought the lots from Wyatt B. Stapp (his Mexican war commander, for whom Nicholas named the son born soon after he returned home in 1848). With two others Stapp had acquired the lots in 1841 for $249 and was cited for back taxes in 1845 and 1848. (Entry Book 13, p. 360) The next entries are 1852 and 1853. (Entry Books 17, p. 912, and 18, p. 589) Land transfers were obviously rarely registered, perhaps to avoid paying the fees. In 1859 Nicholas Earp similarly walked away from debts in Monmouth to return to Iowa; apparently local officials had sized him up well as early as 1849.
6. Scholars disagree on the date Nicholas went to Iowa. Allen Barra wrote in Inventing Wyatt Earp: “A little more than a year after his return [from Mexico] Nick was on the move again.” (p. 21) Stuart Lake said 1850 (p. 5); as does Steve Gatto (p. 6). We know Nicholas was in Pella at least by late 1850, because he was listed in the census, working as a cooper and farmer. Helen Severns of the Marion County Genealogical Society could find no record of when Nicholas Earp acquired his 160 acres of farmland. Apparently Nicholas did not register either a purchase or a land patent. He first entered the public record March 27, 1856, when his $2050 sale of March 4 was recorded. (Deed Book G, p. 350) Mrs Earp signed the document with her usual X.
Was the Clark letter a practical joke concocted on Commercial Row (the Stratton grocery on the corner and the taverns down the street), or a publicity stunt by someone on the Prime Beef festival committee? Every fact was public knowledge, right down to the door on the north side of the house. Alfred Levi Earp (1852-1942) shopped along Commercial Row, and in the Stratton’s grocery store at 502 South 3rd. It is likely that it was his story that was remembered, somewhat unclearly, in 1956.
Is there a connection between Clark’s letter from Davenport and the tombstone-detective story the next year? It is significant that Gerald Swisher was the Associated Press representative for this region. (Davenport City Directory, 1957)
PROBLEMS WITH THE STRATTON STORY. The argument here is that Nicholas, having sold his house and then changed his mind about moving west, might have rented his sister’s place when she moved out. However, it was only on October 25, 1849, that Greenberry and Elizabeth Ezell bought a property on Block 29, #2. They paid $25, the price of an empty lot. Alternatively, Nicholas moved his family into an already crowded four-room house where Greenberry was dying of tuberculosis.
Anna Stratton (1904-1986) described an unnamed informant who spoke about an event ninety years in the past. Since the Strattons owned the property, their interest in the controversy was greater than for those who remembered Wyatt being born elsewhere. George Morris says that her brother, Henry Oswald (1901-1986), told him in October of 1980 or thereabout that he thought it was a family hoax and that the story grew better every time it was told. (Morris is the director of pharmacy at Zeller Mental Health Center, an antique dealer and licensed appraiser--these all require an extraordinary memory and the ability to recall details exactly.) Coincidentally, Anna Stratton’s grandfather, Peter Oswald, married an Ann Elizabeth Patterson on June 10, 1862; she came to Illinois in the late 1840s.
It was Anna Stratton’s husband, William Stratton (1894-1957) who claimed that Nicholas Earp had once lived in the house they owned. Charles Sullivan (1876-1961) ran a cigar store on Commercial Row and had roomed with the Strattons since 1934; Earl McBride (1881-1965) had similar neighborhood connections. Interestingly, there was hardly an issue of the Daily Review Atlas in early 1956 that did not have an article on Illinois governor William Stratton’s run for the White House.
Shortly before her death Mrs Stratton told me much the same story that she had told Eckley. However, she did not claim that Nicholas Earp lived in the house, only that Wyatt was born there--a significant change from the 1956 story. Mrs Effie Earp Cramer, a key figure in collecting the family’s oral history, added to Anna Stratton’s story in a letter to the Daily Review Atlas, May 11, 1989, noting that Mrs. Stratton was a cousin. Mrs. Cramer had written me, February 20, 1986: “I still believe Wyatt was born there and assumed, of course, Nicholas lived there also.” In short, her point was that Wyatt was born on the site, not necessarily at his aunt’s, but where his parents lived. She held firmly to the family story about Nicholas being in Mexico when Wyatt was born. (The Atlas of February 11, 1848, says that Nicholas had returned to Monmouth. Mrs. Cramer’s counter-arguments are in her May 11th letter.)
WHAT DID RALPH ECKLEY CONCLUDE? In his next story (July 24, 1956), Eckley wrote: “A twice-moved house, now standing at 913 South Sixth street, today moved into a top contender position as the home where Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born March 19, 1848.” He quoted Harry Giles, who used to listen to his father and George Earp talk about the Earp family. The house was a story and a half, with siding running up and down, and a stairway that had to be entered by a separate door. The last paragraph reads in part: “Isaac Giles’ knowledge of Wyatt dates from the time, in 1868, when Wyatt returned to Monmouth to study law and worked around here for a time. Mr Giles recalled having hauled to the Slabtown mill with Earp and spoke with authority as to the various Earp homes. He told that the Stratton home at 406 South Third was an Earp home, but not the birthplace of Wyatt Earp, although the family may have lived there for a time with relatives.” Ralph’s view thereafter of the homes was: “no clear-cut proof that Wyatt was born in any of them.” But he always believed that the house at 913 South 6th had the somewhat better claim.
MY CONCLUSIONS: The oral testimony is too contradictory and contains too many inaccuracies to be conclusive. Moreover, I find the birthplace dispute much less interesting than Nicholas Earp. I have written about Nicholas’ Mexican War experience (“Wyatt Earp’s Father,” True West, May 1989, 30-32, 37-39) and his 1859 convictions for selling liquor (“The People versus Nicholas P. Earp,” Illinois Historical Review, 90 [Fall 1997], 173-190). This second article received the Harry E. Pratt Memorial Award from the Illinois Historical Society.
Nicholas is significant because the Earps were a close-knit family, and he was its patriarch. To understand his boys, we really have to know more about the old man. However, to the extent this means knowing what kind of houses he lived in while a resident of Monmouth, it helps little to know in which of three similar houses Wyatt may have been born. (see photos below)
SUMMARY Conflicting and inaccurate stories, and perhaps practical jokes, too, have confused this issue from its beginnings. Emotions have run higher than the importance of the dispute justifies. When the Birthplace Association obtained recognition of the house from the National Registry for its architectural value, that was not an endorsement of the contention that Wyatt was born there. As Historic Preservation officer Theodore Hild wrote to George Morris: “In 1986 we determined that one property locally identified as the Wyatt Earp birthplace or childhood home was not a likely candidate for the National Registry because the building had undergone several changes, and because birthplaces are normally not eligible for listing on the National Register, especially if the birthplace is not associated with the individual’s major accomplishments or productive years.” (Carol Clark, “Earp question still unsettled,” Galesburg Register Mail, March 18,1988, C1) I have no complaint about the National Registry’s recognizing the site’s architectural value. My concern is that, before repeating as fact any one oral tradition concerning Wyatt Earp’s birth, we should remember that there are grounds for caution.
I suspect that a hoaxer has been leading us down the garden path from Commercial Row for forty-five years. If so, he is probably now in the eighth circle of Dante’s hell. This goes far beyond what may originally have been a publicity stunt by someone on the Prime Beef Festival committee. However, if someone can identify Mrs Clark, or if individual scholars choose to accept the authenticity of her letter, we won’t be any the worse off than if they believe that Nicholas was in Mexico on March 19, 1848. It won’t make good books bad or bad ones good.
THE REAL BOTTOM LINE is that little in this controversy advances our knowledge of Wyatt Earp significantly. Wyatt’s reputation rests or falls on what he did later, not on where he was born or where his parents lived when he was an infant.
Old West Chronicle (April, May, June 2002) http://www.geocities.com/owcversion
The house at 213 S. 3rd; the right hand part is a later addition.
The house, now demolished, that reputedly once stood at 213 S. 3rd, then later at 913 S. 6th. More information.
The house at 406 S. 3rd, now the Wyatt Earp Birthplace Museum (right) and a rental property (left).
Postscript: There is a old lawyer's rule: If you have the facts, stress the facts; if you don't have the facts, attack the person.
Space limitations for the OWC required me to omit some information which might have been pertinent. For instance, that J. S. Clark (1819-1899) was the publisher of the Atlas in its early years. Was this another sly hint by the writer that something was fishy about the article? Or merely a coincidence?
Also I disagree strongly with any statements that Ralph Eckley was dishonest. He was a very interesting character whose opening line to many stories on local history--"Old Timers will remember"--was an invitation to parody, but he loved looking into historical puzzles and telling about what he had found. He may not have always remembered the stories right, but he knew how to find information in the courthouse or in his many boxes of clippings, and write it up. He was extremely generous in sharing his information with everyone who inquired. Every community should be so lucky as to have a Ralph Eckley in it.
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