Nicholas Earp’s Iowa Land

by William Urban

Wyatt Earp said that his family always owned land, never rented. Indeed, in his day land ownership proved that one belonged to a superior class on the supposedly egalitarian frontier; Protestant theology further emphasized the gap between landowners and those whose habits held them back from the prosperity that hard work and quick wits inevitably brought God’s elect. Wyatt’s father, Nicholas Porter Earp, was raised in a strongly Methodist family. In fact, his middle name honored an early circuit rider in Kentucky. Therefore, it is no surprise that Nicholas Earp had ambitions to become a prominent landowner. It was clearly one reason that he, his parents, and his brothers and sisters moved to western Illinois in 1845.

Nicholas Earp worked as a cooper and farmer in Warren County, Illinois, for four years. He only owned one lot in the county seat, Monmouth, but he held the title to empty lots across the street, paying with promissory notes. He volunteered for the Mexican War in 1847, but was invalided home after a mule kicked him in the groin. He arrived back in Monmouth a month before the birth of his son, Wyatt, March 19, 1848. In March of 1849, as gold fever was raging in the community, he sold his property and hurried away with his family, leaving his creditors with the impression that he was on his way to California. However, he made it no farther than Pella, in central Iowa. This was beautiful land, not yet settled. Neighbors became numerous only in 1853-1855.

It is difficult to establish when Nicholas Earp acquired 160 acres seven miles northeast of Pella. We know from the Census of 1850 that he was a cooper and a farmer, but there is no record in the courthouse of his registering land. Moreover, the National Archives and Records Administration has no record of Nicholas Earp in the Iowa tract books. A reverse search, backward from the land Nicholas sold March 17, 1856, indicates that two different men held the southern 80 acres (N ½ of SE 1/4 of Section One) and two others each held forty acres just to the north (S ½ of NE 1/4 of Section One) before him. The Bureau of Land Management records show that southern eighty (together with an equal acreage in Sec 6) was given out as a military grant for service in the War of 1812, to Le Grand Byington on Feb 1, 1853. This land next appears in the possession of Henry Peter Schotte, who paid $1.25 per acre for them on Feb 22, 1855. This was the price of a normal preemption claim. Sometime in the next year Nicholas Earp acquired legal title to this tract and the other eighty acres as well. Clearly these were not given as a grant for service in the Mexican War, as is sometimes believed.

Since he did not record any land transaction, it is impossible to say whether Earp had purchased these parcels with a quit claim and never bothered to go to the county seat or whether he had simply squatted on good land until the rush of settlers began. Squatting on land was not uncommon on the frontier. At the least the squatter could get in some good crops, perhaps making enough money to preempt the land. Alternatively, he could force the legal owner to pay for improvements. The owner might have the law on his side, but the squatter usually had the judges (elected) and juries (his neighbors) ready to rule in his favor. Since Schotte was accumulating land in the neighborhood of Pella, he might have been a speculator who came to some accommodation with Earp. Further answers may lie in long-forgotten court records of Marion county. Suits for trespass were common in days before fences could be build, when cattle and horses strayed onto neighbors’ fields, and sometimes trespass meant squatting. Suits were also common for non-payment of debts and obligations.

Earp sold the 160 acres on March 4, 1856, for $2050 to Aquillin W. Noe, who passed it on that same day to Hiram Webster for $1600. This is the same A.W. Noe who sold Earp Lot 3 on Block 35 and Lots 3 and 6 in Block 33 of Monmouth, Illinois, on March 10, 1856, for $2050.

Aquillin Waters Noe was born in Kentucky, like Nicholas Earp, and was also a neighbor of Lorenzo Earp. He was then fifty-six years of age, with a wife he had married in Monmouth (Martha Ridlon, Feb. 24, 1847) and a small daughter, Fedelia. Soon after the Iowa transaction, Noe returned to Monmouth, where on June 19, 1856, he bought 44 acres in the NW quarter of Section 17 of Lenox township, from Matthew Armsby for $250. In 1857 the newspaper noted a wedding at his home in Monmouth. He does not appear in the census in 1860, but he sold his 44 acres to Hiram C. Mark that year on October 29; in 1861 he joined other patriots in calling for a public meeting to raise troops for the war. He was not in the special census of 1865 (though Virgil Earp was) or the census of 1870. Nevertheless, he is listed as a taxpayer in Past and Present of Warren County, Illinois (1877), working as a gardener. He died in Monmouth May 4, 1880, but was not considered worth an obituary.

Hiram Zenas Webster was a twenty-six-year-old native of Illinois. He had married Elizabeth Root, daughter of Brainard Root, Dec. 30, 1852, in a Presbyterian ceremony. She was just eighteen at the time, but the slapdash record keeping of the time does not tell us what happened to her, except that they moved to Ogle County and when Webster returned to Young America (Kirkwood), he was single. Webster married Mary McQuire July 22, 1855, at nearby Lenox. At that time and in 1856 he owned 44 acres in the NW corner of Sec 17, valued at $534. These were the acres that Noe purchased in June of 1856. Clearly the $250 that Noe paid Armsby was the balance that Webster owed on the land, and equally clearly Webster had never filed the deed at the courthouse. He probably did not do so now in order to avoid paying the recording fee.

Webster moved his family to the Iowa farm in 1856 and lived there until about 1872. A descendant wrote: "It was known that he had many Clydesdale Horses that he had acquired from the former owner of the property, and from whom he had acquired the knowledge of Clydesdale breeding." This previous owner was, of course, Nicholas Earp.

Thus, there was a three-way swap of property between Earp, Noe and Webster. This gives a time line for some of Earp’s travels. On March 4, 1856, Nicholas and Virginia Earp and Noe and Webster were in Iowa, presumably in Pella. On March 10 Earp and Noe were in Monmouth. On March 17 Noe and Webster filed their papers at the courthouse in Knoxville, Iowa, and by June they had returned to Monmouth, quite possibly traveling with Earp and his family.

In early July the Monmouth Atlas reported: "Died here on the 26th ult., Mary Elizabeth, only d/o of Mr. N. P. Earp, in the eleventh year of her age." Wyatt was eight years old. Nicholas, unable to find suitable work as a cooper or farmer, became one of several municipal constables, serving warrants and assisting court officers.

Earp’s property, according to the 1855 and 1856 tax rolls, had some improvements on the two lots on block 33 (valued at $75 and $100), and the house must have been on lot 3 of block 35 (tax value $400). The house was of modest size, even though the family was large. The fruits of his hard labors in Iowa, which we had once believed to have been considerable, were few. He ended up without significantly more property than he had owned in Monmouth in 1849, before he had gone west with high hopes of becoming rich.

Three years later, after Nicholas had been convicted in the spring and fall of 1859 of selling liquor, humiliated in court in front of the entire community, and the judge ordered his property sold at public auction on November 11 to pay his fines, he left Monmouth. He was in Pella on November 17, 1859, buying lot 2 in block 64 for $500 and assuming the $200 mortgage payable to the school district in five years (10% interest). Earp was back in Monmouth on December 13th, threatening to sue the high bidder on his property. On January 11, 1860, he was in Pella, recording the purchase made in November. On March 19 Earp was back in Monmouth to conclude the sale of his properties there, but had hardly left town before more suits were filed against him. Being listed as a delinquent tax payer was a minor civic sin—everyone paid late, but not everyone left town without paying anything. Eventually one suit for $142.71 was dropped about 1864 because nobody knew where Earp was to be found. We know that he had left for California.

Thus it was that Nicholas was in Iowa in time for the census of 1860, just as he had been there ten years before. This had led earlier generations of scholars to conclude that Nicholas Earp and his family had been continuously in Iowa, or in Missouri. In reality, the Monmouth connection remained strong through all these years. This should not be surprising, since that was where his mother, sisters and brothers were, and the Earps were a close-knit family. In 1868, when Nicholas brought his family back east, they went to a family reunion in Monmouth. If they stopped in Pella, as would have been easily done, no one remembered it.


No family member in Monmouth remembered the 1868 visit, either; and only one person, Isaac Giles, remembers Wyatt being there somewhat later. It is odd that the two newspapers, the Review and the Atlas, did not comment on the visitors either.

Even odder is the failure of Nicholas and his sons to mention having heard Abraham Lincoln speak in Monmouth in 1858. Nicholas was a stalwart of the new Republican Party. Was he and his family out of town?