If one believed all the legends regarding Old West lawmen Wyatt and Virgil Earp in Nevada, he or she might think the pair personally tamed the wild and wooly mining towns of Tonopah and Goldfield and fought every outlaw in the state.
The reality, however, is that the Earps played a fairly minor role in the history and development of the twin Central Nevada communities and only one, Virgil, was ever involved in law enforcement in Nevada.
In January 1902, Wyatt Earp, fresh from Alaska’s mining boom, arrived in Tonopah with his wife, Josie. Within a few months, he and a partner had opened the Northern Saloon and Earp was working for the Tonopah Mining Company hauling ore and supplies.
For a very short time, he apparently worked as an appointed deputy U.S. Marshal in Tonopah, mostly serving papers to defendants in federal court cases—but never engaged with any shootouts with desperados.
In the late summer of 1903, the restless Earp and his wife decided to leave Tonopah. He sold his investments and headed to Los Angeles to live. The two, however, returned several times to prospect around Silver Peak and other parts of Esmeralda County.
And that’s about it for Wyatt Earp in Nevada.
As for Virgil Earp, Wyatt’s older brother, he and his wife, Allie, arrived in Goldfield sometime in the latter part of 1904. Down on his luck and nearly broke, he took a job as deputy sheriff of Esmeralda County and also provided security at the National Club.
Sadly, a few months after settling in Goldfield, Virgil Earp contracted a bad case of pneumonia, which he was unable to shake. On October 19, 1905, Virgil Earp died in Goldfield at age 62. At the request of his daughter, his remains were sent to Portland, Oregon and he was buried at the Riverview Cemetery.
It is believed that Wyatt and Josie Earp may have visited Virgil and Allie in Goldfield sometime during the summer of 1904, but there is no official record of such a visit.
Nevada State Archivist Guy Louis Rocha, who has co-authored a book on the Earp brothers in Nevada, has written: “As for Wyatt Earp, there is no end to the list of things he didn’t do in Goldfield. He didn’t tend bar there, he didn’t own a hotel or saloon there, and in fact he didn’t do much of anything there.”
In total, the two Earp brothers spent about eight and 11 months, respectively, in Nevada — hardly enough time to accomplish everything that has been attributed to them.
Still, the apocryphal stories about Wyatt Earp in Tonopah make for fun reading. For instance, one of the most often repeated stories involves him coming to the rescue of Tonopah attorney Tasker Oddie, who later served as Nevada’s Governor and U.S. Senator.
In the tale, claim jumpers were digging a shaft on land owned by Oddie’s clients. In order to stop the men from continuing, the unarmed Oddie jumped into the hole. The men allegedly pulled their guns on Oddie and ordered him to leave.
At that moment, Wyatt Earp and his saloon partner, Al Martin, came along in a wagon. The famous former lawman, who sometimes worked for Oddie, quickly sized up the situation and jumped into the hole beside his friend.
When the claim jumpers asked who he thought he was, Earp reportedly said, “I’m Wyatt Earp,” then pointed at Martin, who had a shotgun aimed at the mine thieves. The men lowered their guns and quickly scrambled out of the hole, but not before following Earp’s orders to replace the mine location stakes they’d knocked over.
The great Nevada mythmakers, Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, wrote about a remarkably similar episode occurring on a train ride. Allegedly, union thugs decided to shoot Oddie, who worked for the mining companies.
“A walrus mustached individual in a slouch hat and neat dark suit who was lounging in the smoking room overheard two characters in an adjacent compartment planning to shoot Oddie through the partition as soon as the train got under way,” Beebe and Clegg wrote.
“Unceremoniously, he kicked open the door of their bedroom and told them the project was ill-advised and they had better leave the train while the going was good. To their inquiry as to just who the hell he thought he was, the answer was simply, ‘Wyatt Earp.’ The assassins left.”
To find out what really is known about the Earps in Nevada, pick up a copy of “The Earps’ Las Frontier,” by Jeffrey M. Kintop and Guy Louis Rocha or read “Wyatt Earp: Law, Order, and a Game of Chance,” which appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Nevada Magazine.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.