by William Urban

"Wyatt Earp was born March 19, 1848, in Monmouth, Illinois. That fact is undisputed. However, the location of his birthplace inside the city has been the subject of heated discussion for years.....

Over the years two houses have been championed as Wyatt's birthplace. Neither was the home of Nicholas Earp (1813-1907), Wyatt's father, who was believed to have been away in service in the Mexican War until mid-1848. As one variation of the local legend ran, Wyatt's mother, Virginia, moved into the home of a relative, 'Aunt Betsy', who was also expecting a child, and bore her child there. The problem, as it was perceived at that time, was 'which relative?' If 'Aunt Betsy', which Aunt Betsy?....

The week before Wyatt died in 1929, an Associated Press reporter making a tour of Illinois towns prepared a story which appeared on page eight of the Review-Atlas on January 16. He mentioned only Ralph Greenleaf, the billiards champion, and the Great Nicola, the magician, as prominent former citizens. The Review-Atlas did have a story on page one about Wyatt's death on January 13 but did not mention the birthplace. The editor noted Wyatt's efforts to get into the movies but gave more prominence to the scandal at the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons fight, when Wyatt, acting as referee, had declared the fight forfeited for a low blow no one else had seen. Suspicions were voiced that Wyatt had protected the interests of his many gambling friends. It seemed that the boxing term, a "Wyatt Earp" (referring to a phantom low blow) was going to be the "gunman's" enduring contribution to American culture.

This anonymity changed radically in 1931 after the publication of Stuart Lake's best-selling Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. Hugh Moffett noted in the Review-Atlas on May 5, 1944, that he had a copy of the book and recommended it. Frank Phillips, Dean of Men at Monmouth College, used it as the basis for a popular after-dinner lecture. Even so, the quest for Wyatt's birthplace did not become a matter of controversy until 1956, after Stuart Lake's television series had made Wyatt Earp into a household name. Almost immediately people began to ask, "wasn't Wyatt Earp born in Monmouth?" The search for the birthplace began. Ralph Eckley, a reporter and columnist for the Review-Atlas caused attention to be focused on a house which had stood at 213 S. 3rd but was moved sometime after 1852 to the southeast corner of 6th street and First Avenue, then later to its present location at 913 South 6th Street.... [This structure has since been torn down.]

...There are three problems to [connecting Wyatt's birth to 406 S. 3rd], which of which merits extensive investigation.

First, Nicholas had returned to Monmouth before Wyatt's birth. Confusion regarding Nicholas' service in the Mexican War has arisen as the result of no one having read the Monmouth Atlas carefully enough. This newspaper shows that the Earps were originally opposed to the war. As Whigs they believed that the war was unjust and illegal (a position held by Abraham Lincoln). Walter and Lorenzo signed a Whig anti-war statement printed in the Atlas January 29, 1847. In the spring, however, the recently widowed Wyatt Berry Stapp began to raise a company of volunteers for the Monmouth Dragoons. The Atlas of June 11 described a proposed Fourth of July picnic which was to be an occasion for recruiting men. Nicholas Earp was on the planning committee....

Nicholas' pension application said that his unit "was sent to Madicane to brake up a band of gurillas had a skermish with them on our Return back to Vera Cruz." He was discharged in the port city of Vera Cruz on December 24, 1847. He had gone by ship to New Orleans, then come north by steamboat to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis.... Nicholas arrived in Monmouth just as the February 11th issue was going to press. Thus he was home to name his son Wyatt Stapp Earp in honor of his captain. What was his injury? In 1877 Nicholas sought a disability pension for a mule kick in the groin. The petition was denied, but he received an additional three month's pay. Nicholas was not permanently incapacitated (he had four more children), but he was not interviewed by the editor about his experiences nor active in recruiting replacements. A year later he left Monmouth for  Pella, Iowa, a community only recently founded by 800 Dutch immigrants. [note from August 2007: In the spring of 1849 he announced that he was leaving for California, but he only made it to Iowa.]

Nicholas' presence in Monmouth would not necessarily prove that Virginia had her child at her own home. It may provide an argument that Virginia felt it necessary to go elsewhere to bear her child in order not to disturb her invalid husband. However, the traditional story (which has her living with relatives during Nicholas' absence) is clearly in error about Nicholas being in Mexico. Furthermore, the walk to the birthplace is a recent innovation. [Note from August 2007: this was probably based on the Flood manuscript, not oral history.]

The second point to investigate is when the house at 406 S.3rd (lot 4, Block 39) was built. Courthouse records show that Ivory Quinby bought lots 3 and 4 for $250 in September of 1846 (Vol. 11, p. 473) and sold them to Thompson Chapman on March 4, 1853, for $200. These prices are too low for two lots and a two-story house. (No one who dealt with Ivory Quinby would ever accuse him of not knowing the value of property.) It was also the case that local prices were rising, causing one to expect an increase in value during these years, not a decrease. In 1851 a group of Monmouth citizens had arranged for the railroad line west from Peoria to pass through Monmouth. When the track reached Monmouth in 1855, a new commercial center sprang up around the loading yard, raising the value of property in the area. The storage buildings buildings, mercantile offices, and drinking establishments can be clearly seen on the 1869 "birdseye view" of Monmouth along the 500 and 600 blocks of South 3rd street.

....the increase in the assessment of lot 3 between 1853 and 1857 and the $600 price that William Smith paid for the property in 1858 (Deed Book, vol 29, p. 274) are two dependable indications that Thompson Chapman had built a house on that property. Similarly, the tax records for lot 4 show that he had made an even more substantial improvement there. Without question, he needed a bigger house: census records show that Thompson Chapman had seven children in 1860. Mrs. Martha Chapman Lentz, one of the principal figures in the oral testimony, wrote Weldon Earp in 1972, saying that her grandfather, Thompson Chapman, "built the house that I believe still stands in Monmouth." While this seems to indicate that William Chapman (b. 1840) assisted his father in building the two-story house, it would be very easy to confuse this with the house he later built on lot 2.

On April 9, 1864, Thompson Chapman sold lot 4 to David Van Winkle for $950 (Deed book, vol. 40, p. 2) and moved to lot 2 of Block 41 (assessed value 1867, $190). Van Winkle, a thirty-year-old liveryman, assumed a $2000 mortgage, then bought lot 1 for $3000 (vol. 36, p. 512). In 1865 he sold lots 1 and 4 together for $4500 to his father-in-law, Wilson Sheldon (vol. 43, p.133....)

[The Atlas of August 2, 1866, noted "a very pleasant social gathering at the home of D. Van Winkle." "The ice cream was excellent," the editor wrote, and the company "in excellent humor." On August 17th another story made it clear that Van Winkle was in the business of selling ice.]

....Thus, tax records suggest that the two story part of the house was built in 1864-1865. The southern one-story structure was built 1853-57; the smallish bedroom attached to this structure--long off-limits to visitors--is clearly older. Any visitor looking at the floor boards of that bedroom will recognize planking common in the 1840s, say, in New Salem.  

This gives us a clear evolution of the house: a small building from 1841-2, a larger addition about 1856, with period door and window frames; and the two story house in 1864-5. The two story house is similar to other houses constructed in the last year of the war when local wages were good and grain prices high. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that Wyatt could be born on the second floor of the two story house. Nor did Nicholas Earp live there in 1850. He had taken his family to Iowa.

Other sources of information support the legal records. The county histories of 1877, 1886, 1903, and 1927 listed houses in Monmouth then standing which dated from the 1840's and even the early 1850's. Although Wilson Sheldon had been a prominent man, his house was never included in these lists.

Stylistic analysis yields mixed results.... State officials who inspected the building in 1986 declined to date it from the decade of Wyatt's birth.

The third point to investigate is whether the Ezell family rented a house on lot 4 in 1848. No one knows where the Ezells lived before 1849. The chain of logic ran like this: the Ezells must have been renting; Wyatt was born at his aunt's; 406 S. 3rd has been identified as the birthplace; hence, the house standing there now MUST have been the birthplace. There is an important variation of this story told by descendants of Susan Francis Ezell and William Chapman, who were married in 1863. Their story is that Thompson Chapman purchased the birthplace and that William Chapman helped build a house on that site. (Perhaps he helped build it 1853-57?) As we have seen (ft. 11), the oral tradition here is probably confusing two houses. However, the tradition is important because William Chapman moved west and, consequently, his descendants' story was not influenced by the local debate over the birthplace....

[Note from August 2000: It is quite possible that Wyatt's aunt became linked to this house after after Elizabeth sold her home in 1857 and presumably moved into a rental property, or after Susan Ezell married William Chapman in 1863. One can conceive the widowed mother renting that modest house during the years 1856-1859 when Wyatt was back in Monmouth, living only a few blocks away, or moving in with the young couple in 1863-1864.]

The controversy over the two potential birthplaces had come to a standstill by 1980 when William Urban located Nicholas' home at the corner of Archer and First Street. Nicholas had bought this property for $450 in 1845 and sold it for $300 in March of 1849. Until this time Josiah's home had been the most prominently mentioned birthplace. Urban suggested that it was not logical for Virginia to move into Josiah's crowded household with her already numerous family when she had a house of her own. This house also appears on the 1869 map, a tiny two-story structure seemingly smaller than either of the two still existing birthplace homes [though it was twice as expensive as either]. The intent of the article, however, was not so much to locate Wyatt's birthplace as to demonstrate that Nicholas Earp had brought his family back to Monmouth in 1856 and did not return to Pella until late 1859. This article clarified numerous problems about the family, such as how Nicholas' daughter Martha could have died in Monmouth May 26, 1856, how Virginia could be born in Illinois February 28, 1858, and why two sons returned to Monmouth in 1861 to enlist in Civil War units. Urban also showed that Nicholas was among the founders of the Republican Party in Monmouth. Urban's article did not offer proof of the location of Wyatt's birth, but it offered reasons for skepticism regarding the local oral tradition: if no one could remember that Nicholas had returned to Monmouth in 1856 and that Wyatt had probably attended school with his cousins and his friends from age eight to eleven, then why should anyone remember the house of his birth?...

Although interest in the birthplace was moribund during the Sesquicentennial and the subsequent formation of a group to look into historic preservation, in March of 1985, a Western Illinois Regional Studies Conference held at Monmouth College featured a talk on the Wyatt Earp legend by Knox professor Rodney Davis. When reporters asked local citizens for reactions to the talk, they discovered that people were more interested in the location of the birthplace than in the wisdom of representing Wyatt Earp as a role model for youth. Public debate began not long afterward, when Robert and Melba Matson bought the house at 406 S. 3rd and began to publicize it as the birthplace and museum.

What is the true history of Wyatt Earp's birthplace? Unfortunately, as is so often the case in historical controversies, one story balances out another, one believer confronts another, and conclusive proof remains out of reach. This much is fact.

1. Wyatt may have been born at his Aunt Lizzie's in a house later owned by Thompson Chapman. However, Nicholas Earp's return from Mexico in February 1848 undermines the tradition that Virginia was living with relatives during his absence. [Clearly the oral history's central point that Nicholas Earp was still in Mexico when Wyatt was born suggests that other "facts" in the story are similarly incorrect.]

2. [the italizied text of this paragraph was revised in August 2000]: The one story part of the house now standing at 406 S. 3rd Street was probably built between 1853 and 1857, while the two story section dates from 1864-65. The price Van Winkle received for the house may be a reflection of a father-in-law's generosity, but it was also an appropriate sum for a retirement home of a man like Wilson Sheldon.

3. Until recently no one ever claimed that anything other than the birth of Wyatt Earp happened at either 213 or 406 S. 3rd. As an infant his home would have been that of his parents at Archer and 1st Street. Between 1856 and early 1859 he would have lived in one of the houses standing today at 409 or 411 South B Street. (Since his father was a Republican, he probably heard Abraham Lincoln speak on South 1st Street in 1858, and possible Stephen Douglas as well)....

[Note from August 2000: A quote that the birthplace museum was Wyatt's "boyhood home", as published in a newspaper article in August and September of 1999, has no historical foundation.]

4. Research on Nicholas' life indicates that Stuart Lake's history is unreliable. Local memory regarding him is practically non-existent beyond the dispute over Wyatt's birthplace.

5. The personal lives of Nicholas Earp's sons were extremely tangled and unconventional. Their marital complications were such as to lend credence even to malicious gossip about them. Some of the stories about Wyatt and his brothers reflect interfamily quarrels. Similarly, the local differences of opinion about Wyatt's authentic birthplace reflect, in part, disputes among relatives.

The situation does not lend itself to dispassionate analysis. Some local residents yearn for authentic national heroes. They believe that Wyatt Earp is one who should be honored by his home town. Others believe that the reputation of the Earps should be exploited for tourist dollars. In short, there are valid reasons for individuals to be concerned about where Wyatt was born.

This article should not discourage anyone from participating in activities or supporting institutions honoring Wyatt Earp. That is a matter of personal choice. Just as theater groups, softball leagues, the city band and ice cream socials enliven summer evenings in Monmouth, so Wyatt Earp activities offer diversion and entertainment to citizens and visitors. Moreover, the Birthplace Museum has potential educational value as well. It compliments the outstanding displays of the historical museum in Roseville and, in contrast to the restored mansions originally erected by very wealthy Monmouth citizens, illustrates how the solid middle-class lived a century and a quarter earlier. On the other hand, individuals should be free to criticize whatever they feel lacks taste or historical accuracy. In the best of all possible worlds this would lead to compromises which satisfy all parties.

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