Deadwood Magazine

Wyatt Earp spent a winter in Deadwood

 Researched by Jeannine Guern                                                             

            Wild Bill Hickok wasn’t the only famous gunslinger who walked down Deadwood city streets in 1876. Although they were short-term visitors, two of the fearless Earp brothers were also drawn to the gold rush camp of Dakota Territory.

            Wyatt and Morgan Earp arrived in Deadwood several weeks too late to renew acquaintance with their old friend, James Butler Hickok. Wild Bill was murdered by Jack McCall in a Deadwood saloon on August 2. The Earp brothers arrived later that fall.

            They left Dodge for Deadwood on September 9, 1876, in a wagon drawn by the best four-horse hitch money could buy, heading for new adventures and a possible prospecting fortune in the Black Hills.

At Sidney, Nebraska, they met up with a friend from buffalo hunting days on the Kansas prairie, Bat Masterson, who caught gold fever when news of the Deadwood strike reached Dodge in July. Resigning his position as Wyatt’s deputy in Dodge City, Bat was replaced by Morgan. The Earp brothers continued to maintain law in Dodge for another few months before they too succumbed to the lure of the latest gold rush. 

When they met Bat in Sidney, he was heading back to Dodge with a pocketful of cash won at Cheyenne gaming tables. Masterson warned the Earps that Deadwood was overcrowded with prospectors. Every claim for miles around had already been staked, he told them.

            “I’ve started for Deadwood and I’m going in,” insisted Wyatt. “I may strike something the rest have overlooked.”

            Pointing horses northward, Wyatt and Morgan headed for the hills. After building his reputation in the wild and wooly cattle shipping towns of Kansas – Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City, Wyatt swore he had washed his hands of the law enforcement business. But he might have given some thought to the possibility of being called on to tame the newest and wildest town of Dakota Territory.

            The brothers arrived in Deadwood to find the situation exactly as described by Masterson, who once characterized Wyatt as “a shy young man” who did not drink liquor, “… more intelligent, better educated and far better mannered than the majority of his associates.”

            “I have been with him in more than one all night session where whiskey was consumed as rapidly as drinks could be drawn from the barrel, but Wyatt did his tanking up on coffee,” said another Kansas City associate.

Deadwood gulch was jammed with prospectors, miners, promoters and fortune hunters. After looking over the situation, Morgan decided to return to Dodge before winter closed in. Wyatt, customarily a winning gambler, was confident a sober man could prospect for gold dust at the gaming tables of Deadwood saloons.

            A different opportunity presented itself, however, when Wyatt realized his horses would be one of the few teams left in Deadwood that winter. The narrow gulch had no room for grazing; no farmers to put up hay. Feed prices were prohibitive and stock was driven over the mountains to winter pasturage on the flats. Wyatt recognized the approaching winter would create a big demand for fuel for wood-burning stoves. Fallen trees, the “dead wood” the gulch was named for, covered the surrounding hills, but the only means of transporting firewood to town was on the backs of enterprising Chinese or on hand-drawn sleds.

            Many years later Wyatt described his winter in Deadwood for biographer Stuart N. Lake:

             The man from whom I rented a stable had filed on a timbered hillside a few miles from town where he had been cutting and piling wood during the fall, expecting to sell it when winter set in. But, like the rest of the camp, he had forgotten all about transportation. I had a hunch that a fuel shortage was coming, so I tied up that wood supply with a contract to pay the owner two dollars a cord, at his property. As it was mostly deadfall, he made a fine profit. I rigged a wagon box for use on wheels or runners that would carry two cords to the load, and hired a man to help me load and throw off at two dollars a trip. Buyers did their own piling. I could haul four loads a day, sometimes five, which meant eight or ten cords daily. I sold it in Deadwood at twelve dollars a cord, cash in hand before unloading. Every haul was contracted for in advance, and many a time I have driven down the main street of the camp with men running alongside bidding twenty, thirty and even fifty dollars a cord for what I was obligated to sell at my regular price to someone to whom I had promised delivery. For special night hauls I charged stiff premiums. Once a man routed me out of my blankets for wood to keep a big poker game going until morning. He paid one hundred dollars a cord and ten dollars for my helper – the thermometer was at forty below zero that night and there was a forty-mile northwest wind howling.

            I didn’t gamble much that winter. I delivered wood seven days a week and when night came I wanted to sleep. But I was young and tough, so were my horses, and we came through to spring in fine shape physically, with a profit of about five thousand dollars.

 

Earp said gunmen in Deadwood were as proficient as in any Western community, except possibly Tombstone. He described watching the outcome of an argument that started in the Montana Saloon between Turkey Creek Jack Johnson and two partners. In a two-against-one duel, Turkey Creek faced them off, standing in the road that ran beside the cemetery at the edge of camp. Johnson killed both men and suffered only minor flesh wounds.

When spring arrived and wood was no longer in demand, Wyatt explored the hills and confirmed that all likely looking gold claims were already staked. By June he was ready to leave Deadwood. He sold his team and went to the stage office to reserve a seat on the Cheyenne stage. Wells-Fargo Agent Gray, who saw Wyatt’s departure as an answer to his problem of safely shipping out the spring cleanup of the gold mines, posted a bulletin on the Wells-Fargo office door:

 

NOTICE TO BULLION SHIPPERS

            The Spring Clean-up will leave for Cheyenne on the Regular Stage  at 7:00 a.m. next Monday. Wyatt Earp, of Dodge, will ride shotgun.

             The shipment of more than $200,000 worth of gold rolled out of Deadwood with Wyatt in the boot. “I was a traveling arsenal that morning,” Wyatt recalled.  “We reached Cheyenne about four o’clock Wednesday afternoon with every ounce of dust intact. We had changed drivers during the three-hundred mile trip, but I was on duty every minute.” Wells-Fargo picked up his fare and paid him $50 for his services.

            From Cheyenne Wyatt Earp returned to his old job as city marshal of Dodge City. Three years later he hired on as a deputy sheriff of Pima County, Arizona. He was later appointed United States Marshal for the Tombstone district, sometimes assisted by Bat Masterson and brothers Virgil, Morgan and James. Morgan, Virgil and Doc Holliday sustained superficial wounds in the much-written-about fight at the O. K. Corral; Wyatt walked away without a scratch.

            Unlike most of the famous western gunslingers, who died young with their boots on, Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp lived 10 months past his 80th birthday. He died quietly and peacefully at his Los Angeles, California home on January 13, 1929, survived by his second wife, Josephine Marcus Earp. (His first marriage ended with the death of his young bride in a typhus epidemic.) There were no children born to either marriage.

 For two years prior to his death, Earp discussed with biographer Lake details of his adventurous life as lawman, buffalo hunter, meat supplier for railroad construction crews, surveyor, stagecoach driver, prospector, business entrepreneur and, eventually, consultant to Hollywood film makers. Lake’s book, Wyatt Earp – Frontier Marshal, was published in 1931.

            It was in interviews with Lake that Wyatt Earp talked about another Deadwood legend.

 “Bill Hickok was regarded as the deadliest pistol-shot alive, as well as a man of great courage,” Earp said. “There was no man in the Kansas City group who was Wild Bill’s equal with a six-gun.”

In an ironic epilogue to the Earp-Deadwood connection, Morgan Earp was shot in the back in Tombstone in 1882, much in the same way Wild Bill was murdered six years earlier. But Morgan’s game was billiards, not poker. He was standing with his back to an alley door, chalking his cue, when shots fired through the door killed Morgan, struck an innocent bystander in the thigh and hit the wall above Wyatt’s head. (1461) 

            

             Lead man portrays Earp  

           When Larry Sollers moved to Lead, South Dakota, four years ago, he hit his stride as a living history actor. Knowing that Wyatt Earp had been one of the thousands who flocked into Deadwood gulch during the 1876 gold rush, Sollers assumed the Earp persona and even persuaded his neighbor, Rick Franco, to portray Wyatt’s brother Virgil.

            Sollers and Franco rode shotgun on a stagecoach during the July Days of ’76 parade. With other re-enactors, they staged a dramatization of the famous gunfight at Tombstone’s O.K. Corral, during Lead’s Labor Day weekend celebration. Three of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday killed several suspected cattle rustlers in the Tombstone fracas.

            Prior to moving to Lead, Sollers lived in Ohio where he participated in Civil War re-enactments. Wyatt Earp’s father, Nicholas, was a Union captain in the War Between the States; three of his older brothers served with the Union forces. As a 13-year-old youngster, Wyatt ran away and attempted to enlist but was foiled by his father.         

Like several generations before him, Sollers began reading western dime novels as a young boy, and then branched out into more authentic western history research, discovering the dime novels he’d read as a boy were more fiction than fact. In researching Earp history, he learned that 16-year-old Wyatt filled the role of a grown man on the 40-wagon immigrant wagon train that took the Earp family west on the Overland Trail to California, ably protecting his father’s stock from Indian raids. “I’m still playing cowboys and Indians,” Soller says.

            The only modern touch in the living room of the Soller home is a big screen television and a chair. The rest of the room is crammed with display cases and cabinets filled with western memorabilia. Walls are plastered with western movie posters, original art and photos of his 19th century heroes. Soller’s personal library of western history includes many books about firearms carried by late 1800s gunslingers.

            Soller presents his Wyatt Earp character neatly dressed in black, western-tailored three-piece suit, broad-brimmed black plush hat, blue silk scarf tied around his neck in lieu of necktie, and of course, the essential ivory-handled six guns. He strives for authenticity in his living history re-enactments and built many of the historically accurate props used in the O.K. Corral scenario.

            Living history acting is a non-paying hobby, so in the real world Sollers works at Karl’s furniture in Spearfish, but in his off-duty hours he’s mentally living back in the era he loves – the old west of the late 1800s.

 

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Deadwood Magazine ©2001