Not exactly outlaws, but less than heroes, many of the more famous characters of the old west were less than perfect. Real people are like that; here are some examples to prove it.
William Barclay Masterson was born on 1853 in Iroquois County, Illinois. As a young man, he worked as a buffalo hunter, a railroad worker, an army scout, and a gold prospector. At age 24 he was elected sheriff of Ford County, Kansas with Dodge City as his headquarters. He worked with Wyatt Earp in 1880-81 in Tombstone, Arizona.
The next 20 years of his life Masterson spent wandering the West gambling. In 1902 he moved to New York City. Within a year he gained employment as a sportswriter for the Morning Telegraph daily newspaper and continued as a journalist until his death in 1921.
Legends about Bat include one that he notched his gun 26 times: one for each man he killed. When someone asked him about the story he exclaimed, "My God! Is anyone fool enough to believe a man would make a mark on his gun to show he had killed another man?"
Patrick Floyd Garrett was born in 1850 in Alabama. His careers included buffalo hunter, cowboy, horse rancher, Texas Ranger, and sheriff of New Mexico in 1880 and again in 1897. In 1881, he tracked down and fatally shot Billy the Kid. In 1908 Garrett died in still unclear circumstances.
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born on March 19, 1848 in Monmouth, Illinois. According to the many books, T.V. shows, and movies about his life, Earp was a hero. But like many myths of the Old West, that wasn't necessarily true. The people who knew him were more likely to describe him as a tough sharp-shooter who lived off his wits and guns, rather than a hero who lived for upholding the law. At the time of the O.K. Corral battle, he wasn't yet deputy U.S. marshal. He was just a normal citizen temporarily deputized by his brother Virgil, the city marshal. Although famous as a law-enforcer, throughout his life he also stole horses and made most of his money by gambling. Wyatt owned a quarter of Tombstone's Oriental Saloon (and the whole faro concession there). And he was a silent partner of the Alahambra Saloon where buddy Doc Holliday dealt faro.
When he was a kid, Wyatt's family traveled to California in a covered wagon. Later he and his brothers wandered east, but always stuck close together. In 1870, at age 22, Wyatt was elected town constable of Lamar, Missouri, beating his half-brother Newton. A year later Wyatt left town when his wife died, maybe because of problems with his in-laws. The records place him next in Fort Smith, Arkansas where he was accused of horse theft. After jumping bail he headed to a buffalo hunting camp by Dodge City, where he met Bat Masterson.
After being fired as a Wichita policeman for beating up one of his critics and then kicked out on a vagrancy law, Wyatt with brother Jim headed to Dodge City, the ultimate boom cow town. Jim started bar tending and Wyatt became assistant marshal while polishing his gambling skills. Bat Masterson came along within a month and became a deputy sheriff. Soon two more Masterson brothers and three more Earp brothers followed suit.
After the big cattle herds left Dodge, the Earps headed to Arizona planning to make money staking silver claims and selling or leasing them to others. And, of course, by gambling. In 1879, Wyatt arrived in Tombstone. Brothers Virgil and Morgan came a little later. Warren showed up after the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.
Later in life he refereed heavy-weight boxing (making sure his friends made money off taking bets) and wandered the West looking after his real estate and silver and gold mining claims.
In the 1920s, Stuart Lake, a freelance writer interviewed Wyatt and his friends and relatives that were still alive. He read the old newspapers and visited Wyatt's old hang-outs. Saturday Evening Post published his series Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. It turned into a book and the legend lives on today. It sold newspapers because it gave the sleazy Old West an honest and courageous hero. But as William Weir (Legendary American Gunfights & Gunfighters, 1992) said, it's "as historical as The Wizard of Oz."
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