The Other Side of Wyatt Earp

The legend of Wyatt Earp conjures up images of muddy Kansas cowtowns and dusty Tombstone streets. What's often forgotten is his brief entanglement with law enforcement in Indian Territory and Van Buren, Arkansas. Maybe that's because Wyatt wasn't a lawman here; he was an alleged horse thief.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois in 1848. At the age of 22, he entered the law enforcement profession by beating his half-brother Newton in a race for constable of Lamar Township, thirty-five miles north of Joplin, Missouri. Shortly after that election his young wife, Urilla Sutherland, died. This apparently had a devastating affect on Wyatt because he abandoned his new job and disappeared. It was four months later, in March of 1871, that he resurfaced in Indian Territory. On the 28th of March, it was alleged that Wyatt and an Edward Kennedy got one John Shown drunk and talked him into stealing two horses from one James Keyes. Shown was to take the horses 50 miles north where the others would meet him.

The scheme apparently progressed as planned until Keyes, not giving up on his horses, caught up with the thieves three days later. He recovered his stock and subsequently filed charges against Earp, Kennedy and Shown in federal court in Van Buren, Arkansas. It should be remembered that between 1851 and 1871, the seat of the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas was located at Van Buren, not Fort Smith. It wasn't until March of 1871 that Congress passed an act moving the federal court seat and it was another three months after that before court opened in Fort Smith.

On April 6, Deputy Marshal J.G. Owens took Kennedy and Wyatt into custody in the Cherokee Nation. They arrived at Van Buren on April 13 and Wyatt was released after posting a $500.00 bond.

The grand jury returned the indictments against Kennedy and Wyatt in May. In June, a trial date of November 13 was set. The trial would have occurred in the courthouse at Fort Smith but Wyatt took this opportunity to jump bail and again disappeared. He never did face the charges in court.

Wyatt reappeared later that winter in the buffalo hunter's camps on the Kansas prairies where he met up with a fellow hunter named Bat Masterson. From there it was on to Dodge City where he achieved fame in 1875. Four years later, he arrived in Tombstone, Arizona, and in 1881 Wyatt Earp gained immortality at the gunfight at the OK Corral.

Bill Black
February 1995

This sketch is part of a series, “Fort Smith Minutes,” originally developed by the park staff to provide one minute long public service announcements for local radio stations. These sketches provide a light and entertaining glimpse into the complex history of Fort Smith.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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