Almost everyone has heard of Wyatt Earp and his brothers, and his adventures in Dodge City, Kansas and Tombstone, Arizona. One of the reasons for the rift between he and sheriff Johnny Behan of Tombstone was a romatic triangle involving Behan, Wyatt, and Sadie Marcus.
After the events of Tombstone Wyatt and Sadie settled in Gunnison, Kansas where Wyatt continued to run a faro bank, when the call came for him to leave. Luke Short, Wyatt's old friend from Dodge City and early on in Tombstone, had run into trouble back in Dodge. This is the time of the so-called Dodge City War, filled with bluster, bluff, and braggadocio, but fortunately free of bullets.
Upon its demise Wyatt left Kansas behind for a life of a sport and sometimes celebrity. With Sadie at his side, he spent much of the next decade running saloons and gambling concessions and investing in mines in Colorado and Idaho, with stops in various boomtowns. He would spend far more of his life as a saloonman and a gambler than he had as a lawman.
Early in 1884, Wyatt arrived in northern Idaho with Sadie and his brother Jim for the short-lived Coeur d'Alene rush. The Earps landed in the snowy little town of Eagle City, a flat spot where a small creek ran into Eagle Gulch. Newly thrown-up tents and fresly hewn log cabins filled quickly with miners who arrived almost daily. The Earps purchased a round circus tent, 45 feet high and 50 feet in diameter, for $2,250 and started a dance hall. Later, they opened the White Elephant Saloon, which as advertisement in the Coeur d'Alene Weekly called
"The largest and finest saloon in the Coeur d'Alenes."
It had almost become a pattern in Earp's life that he came to town to make a fortune but instead would find himself in the middle of trouble. In Idaho, it happened again.
A. J. Pritchard discovered gold in the Coeur d'Alene region in the fall of 1882 and set about filing claims to tie up much of the land. This was always a touchy situation in mining boomtowns: local courts had to determine just how many claims one miner could file. Local mining law also dictated it illegal to file by proxy for someone living outside the region, which Pritchard had done. The Earps, along with partners Danny Ferguson, John Hardy, Jack Enright, and Alfred Holman, formed their own land syndicate and set about locating claims and challenging Pritchard's right to tie up extensive holding. Wyatt and his associates wound up as regular defendants in the Eagle City courts, battle claim-jumping charges and arguing miners' rights.
Pritchard sued and won on a mining lot he claimed the Earps jumped. William S. Payne sued Earp and associates over possession of some town land in Eagle, alleging that two men armed with revolvers had forcibly taken possession of the land. Payne received a $25 judgment, which the judge trebled, and regained possession of the land. Oddly, Payne showed up in another legal suit siding with Wyatt. The Earps also won a suit for a mining claim they had allegedly jumped. Wyatt Earp was listed as locator on four mines--the Consolidated Grizzly Bear, the Dividend, the Dead Scratch, and the Golden Gate, while Jim located the Jesse Jay.
Between running a saloon, bringing legal actions, and locating claims, Wyatt Earp took another job. The exiled U. S. marshal became deputy sheriff of Kootenai County. The new mining territory was on land claimed by both Shoshone and Kootenai counties, and the legislature had not yet determined the proper authority. Shoshone County stationed both the sheriff and a deputy in Eagle City, while Kootenai was represented only by part-time deputy Earp. [Research and analysis on Earp in Idaho provided by Judge Richard G. Magnuson who scoured Shoshone County records to gain an understanding of Earps dealings in the Coeur d'Alene rush.]
A lot in the tiny downtown of Eagle City became the site of gunplay. Property rights in the area were determined by who made a legitimate claim to a parcel, then made improvements. Enright, Payne, Ferguson, and Holman, but not Earp, claimed to have legally purchased the lot from a Philip Wyman, who had built a foundation on the front of the property. William Buzzard said that he bought the same lot from Sam Black, and he erected his own cabin. To further confuse the situation, Enright claimed Buzzard's cabin was not on the same lot and that the holdings were separate properties.
In March, Buzzard hauled logs on the site to begin construction of a hotel, and Enright protested. Both declared they would hold their land in any way necessary. On March 29, Buzzard pointed a Winchester in Enright's face and ordered him off the property. Enright said he would return. He did, and he was not alone. Enright, Payne, Holman, and Ferguson marched up the main street of Eagle City, carrying Winchesters, revolvers, and shotguns, making a show of force. Buzzard and three associates readied their weaponry for the arrival as spectators scampered out of the way. Buzzard stepped onto the log foundation and fired two quick shots, then ducked down as bullets began flying in all directions.
About fifty shots were fired in rapid succession, according to a newspaper report. Enright's party began to advance as the besieged fought back for about ten minutes before retreating into the cabin in the rear of the property. Buzzard, the last to enter the cabin, had two bullets pass through the crown of his hat. A bullet closely missed Enright's face as he continued his advance into the gunfire from Buzzard's cabin.
With bullets flying in both directions, Wyatt and Jim Earp stepped into the middle of the fray. The report said they took a prominent role as peacemakers, and
"with characteristic coolness, they stood where the bullets from both parties flew about them, joked with the participants upon their poor marksmanship, and although they pronounced the affair a fine picture, used their best endeavors to stop the shooting."
Shoshone County deputy sheriff W. F. Hunt arrived to order both sides to stop shooting. Hunt entered the cabin and disarmed Buzzard's band, and the Earps ordered Enright and his shooters to put up their guns. With the shooting finished, Enright and Buzzard met and smoked together, complimenting each other on their courage. The only casualty was an onlooker who took a shot through the fleshy part of his leg. [Spokane Falls Review, April 5,1884]
The papers of the day referred to Earp as a peacemaker, not a warrior. A little more than a decade later, when Earp found himself in a bigger mess, a reporter hunted up Buzzard and quoted him as saying that Wyatt was the brains of a lot-jumping and real-estate fraud scheme; that he sat in his saloon while his henchmen went out and did the dirty work. Buzzard's version of events would gain the attention of the West and again tarnish Earps reputation. [San Francisco Examiner, August 16, 1896]
Problems in the mining camp continued. On June 19, Danny Ferguson, a 23-year-old Nebraska native and Earp's partner in the land syndicate, found himself in serious trouble for, by his version, playing good Samaritan. Thomas Steele, the son of an Omaha doctor, went drinking with a prostitute who drank beyond her limit. She dropped down in the muddy street and announced that she planned to spend the night there, prompting Steele to slap her on the face several times. According to Ferguson, he came out of Johnning Donnoly's saloon and saw the battering. Another bystander told Steele not to hurt the woman, and Steele jumped to his feet and mistakenly confronted Ferguson.
Ferguson said that Steele approached within six feet of him when he heard the familiar clicks of a Colt six-shooter. Ferguson stepped back at the sound and Steele stepped up and slapped him across the nose and said,
"Now what have you got to do with this?"
"Nothing," Ferguson answered, "only I wouldn't hurt a wo- . . ."
Ferguson did not complete the sentence when Steele knocked a gun against his left temple. The pistol discharged, tearing off some flesh and hair. The blow knocked Ferguson backward so hard against a tent wall that he bounded off, drawing his gun and firing. Two shots went off instantaneously. Ferguson missed; Steele's return shot zinged next to Danny's face and grazed his ear. Ferguson fired again into the night, directly at the spot where Steele's gun had flashed. Ferguson ducked his head below the haze of gunsmoke and saw nothing. Then he heard footsteps running down the sidewalk and muttered,
"Is it possible I missed him?"
From not far away a weakened voice called, asking for a doctor. Steele, mortally wounded, had fallen between two pine trees, out of sight. Ferguson went to see Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Earp standing in his long underclothes at the door of his cabin. Ferguson recalled the conversation.
"Those pistol shots sounded like there was a fight up the street," Earp said
"Yes, I had one," Ferguson answered.
"Did you win it?"
"Well, wait until I get my clothes on, and I'll go up and look over the battleground."
Earp left Ferguson in his cabin and went up to confer with the Shoshone County sheriff. Steele had died moments after Ferguson's departure. Earp told the sheriff that Ferguson would not surrender until the coroner's inquest the next morning. When he returned to his cabin Earp asked Ferguson,
"Now what are you going to do, ride or stay?"
"Stick," Ferguson answered, then returned to his cabin.
The coroner's jury did not recommend charges against Ferguson, but the grand jury was to meet in July, and charges could then be brought against him for Steele's murder. Ferguson went south to the Wood River area.
"Wyatt Earp's loyalty to a friend now enters into the story," Ferguson wrote.
Ferguson said that the grand jury would convene in a few weeks, and Wyatt expected his friend to be indicted. Earp went to the telegraph office and asked the operator, named Toplitz, if anyone had contacted Ferguson to warn him of impending trouble.
"No, and if they do we will indict them," Toplitz responded, according to Ferguson.
Wyatt tried to grab the operator, but he ducked under Earp's arm and darted outside. Knowing he could not catch him, Earp fired a rock past Toplitz's head, causing him to trip and fall. Wyatt grabbed him around the neck and dragged him back to the office to send a telegram warning Ferguson of the approaching danger.
"Now send that telegram or I'll beat you to death," Wyatt said, according to Ferguson.
Toplitz sent the telegram, giving Ferguson warning that he could expect to be indicted. Ferguson skipped out before the indictment was completed. He would live out his life under the name of Danny Miller. [Ferguson's acount of the incident is from a letter he wrote to Lee J. Rose signed Danny Miller. In a subsequent letter Miller identifies himself as Ferguson. Rose sent the letters to Stuart Lake, and they are included in the Lake Collection (box 11, F.55) at the Huntington Library. Ferguson's account of the events is supported by Spokane Falls Review, June 20, 1884]
Earp apparently played no role in another gun battle a few weeks later. Enright, who had eluded Buzzard's bullets, could not survive his next quarrel. On July 2, Enright argued with Henry Bernard, manager of the Eagle City Pioneer.
"You have been trying to make me suck the hind teat, and I will make you suck the bung hole," Enright shouted in the newspaper office.
As the shouting continued Bernard grabbed a gun and fired. Enright took a bullet in the ribs and died. [Idaho Sun, July 8, 1884]
The Coeur d'Alene gold rush petered out quickly, and many of the hard fought claims that were the subject of court challenges for the Earps were sold at taxes. Again, the Earps came up losers.
The Earps were in El Paso in '85.
Later two newspapers in San Francisco, the San Francisco Call and the San Francisco Examiner took opposite sides in the Wyatt Earp saga. According to author Casey Tefertiller:
Relentlessly, the Call continued its Earp bashing. A correspondent dug up Bill Buzzard, Earp's old enemy from the Coeur d'Alene country, who told a very odd story of the events in Eagle City. Buzzard said Earp was the head of a gang of lot-jumpers who plotted the assault on his cabin. According to the report, Buzzard said:
"Of course, I don't know if Earp shot at me, or, if he did, how many times, but I do known that he engineered the scheme and was in the gang. Earp was considered a bad and unscrupulous man. He was not particularly brave in gun plays, but he was always considered out for the dough."
The reporter said he interviewed several early miners from the Coeur d'Alenes, and none had anything good to say about Earp. "He was generally regarded as a bad man at that time, and in that camp," the story said. [San Francisco Call, Dec. 7, 1896]
Buzzard's purported view of the events in Idaho certainly differed from the newspaper accounts of twelve years earlier hailing Earp as a peacemaker. The Call had succeeded in finding Earp's worst enemy in Idaho, who presented a most distorted version of the truth.
Wyatt Earp died on Janurary 13, 1929.
Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp died on December 20, 1944.
Doc Holliday died on November 8, 1887.
Tefertiller, Casey; Wyatt Earp The Life Behind The Legend, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1997.