Raymond G. Starr, Book Review Editor
Virgil Earp: Western Peace Officer.
By Donald Chaput, Encampment, Wyoming: Affiliated Writers of America, 1994. Reprint, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. Photos, maps, notes, x +255. $14.95 paper.
Reviewed by Alexander D. Bevil, Historian, California State Parks, San Diego, and author of several award-winning articles on San Diego’s local history.
Donald Chaput subtitles his book “Western Peace Officer,” yet he devotes almost the same number of pages toward Virgil Earp’s exploits during the Southern California land boom of the late 1880s as he does to his peace officer career. Chaput does not misrepresent his book; those Southern California years were merely one chapter in the long career of one of the West’s most dedicated pioneer lawman.
The author of numerous publications on Western frontier and mining history, Chaput takes Virgil Earp out from under the shadow of his more famous younger brother Wyatt. His well-supported thesis is that many of the exploits popularly attributed to Wyatt should instead be attributed to his older brother Virgil. For example, as Tombstone’s city marshal, or chief of police, it was Virgil, not Wyatt, who led his brothers and Doc Holliday during the famous gunfight. Nonetheless, it is Wyatt, not Virgil’s story that has been retold in print and on the silver screen. Several years before his death on January 13, 1929, Wyatt became a consultant on a number of nascent Hollywood westerns. Soon screenwriters and directors would expand his legend, as his life became the basis of a number of Hollywood westerns, notably John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and a popular mid-1950s television series.
Chaput’s entertaining narrative enlightens readers to one of the West’s most dedicated career lawmen. Besides serving as Tombstone’s city marshal, Virgil Earp went on to serve as the first constable, and subsequent city marshal for the newly created town, and later city of Colton, California.
It is this phase of his career that would be of interest to local San Diego historians. Chaput successfully weaves the exploits of Virgil Earp as Colton’s pioneer lawman into the town’s development. During this time, 1883 to 1889, Colton, which lay along the boundary between San Bernardino and San Diego counties, “was one of the busiest little towns in the West.” Its importance was the result of its geography. Colton was the nexus for two key transcontinental rail lines coming into Southern California: the Southern Pacific and the California Southern railroads. Both passed through Colton, the only place where two transcontinental rail lines crossed each other’s tracks in the entire United States. The completion of the California Southern, a subsidiary of the Santa Fe Railway, in 1885 resulted in a price war that contributed to the land boom throughout Southern California. Colton, like San Diego, was destined for greater things, according to local boosters.
According to Chaput, Wyatt Earp had first traveled to Colton, before settling in San Diego. He had accompanied his brother Virgil to their parent’s home to bury their brother Morgan, who had been bushwhacked and killed in Tombstone some time after the gunfight. Virgil was recuperating from both an injury sustained at the O.K. Corral shootout and a later attempt on his life, which left his left arm useless. Both Wyatt and Virgil were wanted men, having been implicated in the subsequent murder of the alleged attacker.
Like his younger brother, Virgil was one of thousands of newcomers who hoped to make a new life for himself in Southern California. Like his brother, that meant doing what he did best: opening and operating gambling parlors. Although he only had the use of his right arm, Virgil, according to Chaput, “remained dedicated to the green cloth.”
Unlike his brother, Virgil Earp continued his career in law enforcement while in Southern California. In 1886 he opened a detective agency based in Colton. Later on, he was elected constable, alongside his father Nicholas, who served as justice of the peace. After Colton’s incorporation the following year, the town elected Virgil as its first city marshal, a position he held until 1889. Later he tried his hand at a number of businesses, mostly saloons and gambling halls, in nearby San Bernardino.
Chaput reveals other parallels in the lives of Virgil and Wyatt Earp. Like his brother in San Diego, Virgil was involved in local boxing, having officiated as referee during San Bernardino’s first professional fight in December 1889. Virgil continued to arrange and referee matches throughout his career. Virgil, like his brother Wyatt, apparently suffered from wanderlust. Feeling that Colton and San Bernardino were both becoming “too civilized,” he left for the frontier mining community of Vanderbilt, north of Needles, California, in 1893. Here, almost as a force of habit, Virgil built Vanderbilt’s first and only two-story building. “Earp’s Hall” offered a saloon, dance hall, and the ubiquitous gaming tables. Incongruously, the hall became Vanderbilt’s social center and was used to house both church services and local court proceedings. Chaput states that “the idea of combining church services with a gambling hall is the sort of thing that only someone of Virgil’s reputation could arrange.”
Perhaps finding that Vanderbilt was becoming “too civilized” for his tastes, Virgil soon left. This is the extent of Virgil’s presence in Southern California. In 1895 he and his brother Wyatt operated a saloon and did some mining in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Later on, Virgil would gravitate to Prescott, Arizona, where he became involved in mining and stock raising. Ever the itinerant lawman, Virgil was appointed special court constable in 1898, but failed in his bid for election as county sheriff. In 1904 Virgil’s wanderlust sent him to another mining boomtown, Goldfield, Nevada. At 61 years of age, Virgil perhaps didn’t have the energy to establish a grubstake or open a saloon or gambling hall. However, the aging lawman found work as deputy sheriff of Esmeralda County, a position he held until his death in 1905.
Unlike the work of amateurish Earp historians, Chaput’s book is informative, interesting, and a good read. He portrays Virgil Earp, as well as his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, as highly visible players who took an active part in taming the west. From cow town to railroad or mining boomtown, the Earp’s reputation usually preceded them, which greatly assisted Virgil in the performance of his duties. His chapter on Virgil’s career in Colton offers an important insight into pioneer law enforcement in one of Southern California boomtowns during the 1880s, placing it in the larger context of the shifting frontier that was the American West. For this the book is valuable in itself.