WYATT EARP WAS BORN HERE: MONMOUTH AND THE EARPS, 1845-1859
by William Urban
Almost every town has a story of someone famous, or near famous, or infamous, who was born or lived there. It was the fortune of Monmouth that one of the legends of the Wild West--Wyatt Earp--was born there in 1848. The town's connection with him was short, but the legend as told by his biographer, Stuart Lake made it clear that Wyatt was but continuing a family tradition of taming the West:
"Western Illinois, in 1843, was raw frontier, overrun by border ruffians, renegades, and stockthieves who made life hazardous for the peaceably inclined. Insistence that Warren County could rid itself of undesireables, if the law and order faction would show as much spirit as the outlaws, was speedily exemplified by Walter and Nicholas Earp in protecting their own property, and in a fashion which led neighbors to dependence upon them in matters of this kind. Walter was elected Judge of the Illinois Circuit Court; Nicholas was commissioned a deputy sheriff to serve without pay. It has been recorded that Nicholas Earp as a volunteer peace officer established a precedent for fearless efficiency which might well have motivated his more famous son."
The legend of Wyatt Earp, as portrayed in books and on film, was subsequently demolished by Frank Waters, who described Wyatt as "an itinerant saloonkeeper, cardsharp, gunman, bigamist, church deacon, policeman, bunco artist, and a supreme confidence man." The stunning expose, however, did not tell much about Western Illinois and the relationship of the Earp family to Monmouth. Were they pillars of the "law and order" establishment? Or on the other side?
Between 1845 and 1850 Monmouth was a typical prairie town of the era. It was a young community, not yet incorporated. Two main streets crossed at the square. The third courthouse in the history of the county was the principal building. There was a newspaper, a couple stores, a few blacksmiths and livery stables, and some hotels and lodging houses. The lawyers, who were fairly numerous because of the need for clear title to the farms, had offices on the second floors of the principal buildings. The Census of 1850 listed Monmouth's population at 780, a good portion of which were minors. In 1849 the editor of the Atlas wrote the following description:
"The prospects for building up a town at the county seat of Warren county, were never more flattering than at present. Monmouth is now fast recovering from a too rapid progress which her citizens made some ten years ago, when the town was being built up in advance of the country. Speculation is now gone, and the idea of building up towns in a day is gone with it. During the past summer, several buildings of the most substantial kind have been erected--many of these built several years since have been thoroughly repaired and painted and there is every appearance of a more rapid improvement the coming spring. Heretofore merchants have been much cramped for want of storage room, and a convenient place for packing pork, etc. Two large and commodious buildings for that purpose have just been finished
Besides these improvements, we may mention that two of the religious societies have each in contemplation the building of a church this coming season. We truly hope they will receive such encouragement from their several denominations and our citizens will warrant them in the undertaking. A good church is an ornament to any town--it gives dignity and character to a place; and if those who are assembled in it are christians, their example will be an incentive to others to live virtuous and exemplary lives. We would have no one give for the erection of churches, to their own disadvantage, or to the injury of their families, but we hope every one will throw in his mite until the work is done. Let all do something, and the houses will go up. They are needed."
A few months later he complained that the public square was a "nuisance" and recommended that it be enclosed with a fence and seeded with grass or clover .
Wyatt's father was a cooper, probably employed in making barrels for the slaughtered hogs that were sent downriver from Oquawka after being hauled overland from Monmouth .
Walter Earp had attained a post of some small distinction in the community, being one of the three men elected Justice of the Peace. His duties were minor, and rarely made their way to public notice. Periodically there was a short marriage announcement in the Atlas--such as "MARRIED. On the 15th inst. two miles North of Monmouth, by Walter Earp, esq.
Presumably he also participated in the popular outcry against liquor shops: "A large and respectable meeting of the citizens of Monmouth, held at the courthouse for the purpose of taking into consideration the propriety of granting a license to sell ardent spirits by the dram ." After this resolution was passed, arrests for violation of the drinking ordnance became common, and may have given the impression that a crime spree had begun.
Monmouth residents were already upset by what they considered a high degree of lawbreaking. Although the number of crimes reported is quite small, farmers were very concerned about horsetheft. Already in Knox and Henderson counties protective societies had been formed, and there had been a small civil war in Massac county between "Regulators" and "Flatheads", won by the former through the combined uses of trials, whipping, and tar and feathers. In Monmouth, however, the crime wave was mostly psychological. Josiah Whitman, discovering his horse missing, hurried into town to order handbills describing the animal and offering a reward for the thief, only to return to his farm and discover his horse had hidden itself in some timber. The warning, HORSETHIEVES TAKE CARE, was only an indication that people were upset. And when a protective society was organized nearby, the Earps were not mentioned as either organizers or members. To the embarrassment of the community, when a horsethief was finally arrested, tried, and convicted, he promptly escaped from the jail.
Crime was not the problem of the period, and the Earps had no opportunity to become famous lawmen in western Illinois. The principal problem was to build a community while California and Oregon lured away numerous young people. The Atlas editor must have been a frustrated man, on the one hand running story after story about gold fields and fertile farms, which was necessary to sell papers, and at the same time attempting to discourage emigration. Nicholas reputedly longed to go to the West, but the trip was too long and too expensive. However, he did move a little further in that direction, to Iowa, in 1849.
..Walter Earp merited a respectable obituary at his death on January 30, 1853 . Walter and Martha Earp were buried in the pioneer cemetery near Monmouth College. The small headstone that marked the plot was stolen in 1960. Only the fragment of a child's marker remains at the site.
Nicholas returned to Monmouth in early 1856 . He was not prominent in the community, although he was one of the founders of the Republican Party in Monmouth, joining with the leading former Whigs to organize a Fremont Club on September 13, 1856 . In early 1859 he returned to Iowa with his family .
[T]he community has occasionally suffered some ridicule, as from Life's full page ad for Wells Fargo: "If Wyatt Earp had been less of a rugged individualist, he would have stayed in Monmouth, Illinois." But on the whole the citizens take it well. For better or worse, outsiders have at least heard of Wyatt Earp, and that forms an instant bond between Monmouth residents and the rest of America.
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