Who Were the Earps?

Nicholas P Earp

Nicholas Porter Earp

The Patriarchs

Walter Earp (born in 1787) grew up to marry Martha Ann Early (born in 1790).  Together, they had a son whom they named Nicholas.  By the time Nicolas was born, Walter and Martha were living in Lincoln County, North Carolina.  Of Scotch-Irish descent, Nicholas’ parents provided ample instruction to him about the benefits of hard work.

Walter was a fifth-generation Marylander and the fourth great-grandson of Thomas Earp, who came to America in 1674.  An educated man, Walter served as a schoolmaster, justice of the peace, and Methodist Episcopal preacher.  Martha delivered ten children: seven boys (one set of twins) and three girls.  Nicholas was the eldest child.

Not long after Nicolas was born, Walter and Martha relocated to Hartford, Kentucky.  Nicholas grew up there.  When he reached adulthood, he served in the Black Hawk War of 1831 and served as a sergeant in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).  In the latter conflict, Nicholas served under Captain Wyatt Berry Stapp of the Illinois Mounted Volunteers.  Nicolas would name his fourth son after Captain Stapp.  During the Civil War, Nicholas served as a Union provost marshal for recruitment.  By then, the family had moved to Iowa; his recruiting effort included three of his own sons, Newton, James, and Virgil, who fought for the Union Army.

When Nicholas was young, he fully intended to become a lawyer, like his father, but he had to settle for other things: soldier, farmer, constable, sheriff, cooper, wagon master, and at one time, a bootlegger.  Nicholas was not an entirely honest or good man.  He bullied his children and had the reputation of a man with no real ambition.  As we look at the rest of the family, we should wonder how Earp’s sons turned out as well as they did.

Nicholas married three times.  His first wife was Abigail Storm, whom he married in 1836.  They had two children: Newton (born in 1837), and Mariah (1839).  Abigail died that same year —perhaps from complications of childbirth.

His second wife was Virginia Cooksey, whom he married in 1840.  They had eight children: James (1841), Virgil (1843), Martha (1845), Wyatt (1848), Morgan (1851), Baxter (a.k.a. Warren) (1855), Virginia (1858), and Adelia (1861).  In 1849 Nicholas left Virginia’s side to travel to California.  He was looking for good farmland, and he decided to move his family to San Bernardino.  He returned to Illinois, packed up the family, and off they went.  En route, Martha became sick and died.  Martha’s death caused Nicholas to change his plans, and he moved to Iowa instead.

In Pelia, Iowa, Nicholas’ farm consisted of 160 acres about seven miles outside of town.  He worked that acreage for eight years and then sold it.  Nicolas then moved back to Illinois only to learn that no one needed a cooper or a farmer.  Unable to find work, he ran for election as a town constable and won.  In 1859, Nicholas was charged and convicted of bootlegging whiskey.  Unable to pay the fines and legal expenses of trial, a levy was placed against his property.  The property was sold at auction, and two days later, the family began a journey to return to Iowa.

Nicholas’ three oldest boys fought in the Civil War, with James being severely wounded.  Wyatt was only thirteen years old but tried to enlist anyway.  He ran away several times to enlist, but each time Nicholas found him and brought him back home.  Newton and Virgil participated in several battles before returning home.

In 1864, Nicholas packed up his family again and, joining several other families, moved to San Bernardino.  He found land to rent on the banks of the Santa Ana River near present-day Redlands.  When Virgil joined his family, he found a job driving a freight wagon to Utah.  Wyatt joined him in this endeavor.  Virgil and Wyatt later took jobs with the Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha.  Virgil worked as a teamster; Wyatt used a pick and shovel.

In 1868 the Earps returned to the mid-west, settling in Lamar, Missouri.  Nicholas became a constable, and in the following year, he was elected as Justice of the Peace.  Wyatt, who had been studying the law with his grandfather Walter, replaced his father as town constable.

Sometime prior to 1880, Nicholas and Virginia Earp moved back to San Bernardino; at this time, his household included Warren, Morgan, and Morgan’s wife Louisa.  Census records reflect that Nicolas was a farmer once more.

Virginia died in January 1883, and Nicholas married Annie Elizabeth Cadd on October 14 of the same year.  Annie was the widow of Ambrose Pack Alexander, born in England in 1842.  Nicholas Earp passed away at the Soldier’s Home in the Sawtelle District of Los Angeles, California, on February 12, 1907, outliving six of his ten children.  Annie passed away in 1931.

Today, we mostly know about the famous Earp brothers, Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan.  It is time we learned about the others, as well.

Jennie-Newton EarpNewton Jasper Earp

Newton was the eldest and only surviving child of Nicolas and Abigail Earp.  Born in 1837, he always remained close to the rest of the family, residing with or near them in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, California, Nevada, and Arizona.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, Newton enlisted in the Union Army with brothers James and Virgil serving with mounted troops.

After the war, Newton married Jennie and moved to California, where Newton worked as a saloonkeeper, farmer, and carpenter. Newton and Jennie had 5 children: Effie (1870-1919), Wyatt Clyde (1872-1937), Mary Elizabeth (1875-1885), Alice Abigail (1878-1957), and Virgil Edwin (1879-1959).

Newton had no interest in the law.  He was a homebuilder in Northern California and Northwestern Nevada.  Jennie died in 1898, but Newton lived another thirty years, passing away on December 18, 1928.  He was laid to rest in Sacramento.

James C EarpJames Cooksey Earp

James was the eldest child of Nicholas and Virginia, born on June 28, 1841.  He is perhaps the least well-known brother of the Old West Earp lawmen.  He enlisted in the Union Army at the age of 19, serving as mounted infantry with the 17th Illinois Regiment.  Within a year, James had received a serious wound to his left shoulder at a battle near Fredericktown, Missouri; he was returned home after medical discharge.  James had lost the full use of his arm.

After the war, James moved around quite frequently.  He lived in Colton, California, Helena, Montana, Pineswell, Missouri, and Birmingham and Newton, Kansas.  James married a former prostitute [1] by the name of Nellie Bartlett “Bessie” Ketchum in April 1873.  For some time after that, James worked as a saloonkeeper in Wichita, Kansas, and then as a deputy town marshal in Dodge City, Kansas, under Charlie Bassett.  Bassett was hired to replace Marshal Ed Masterson after he was murdered.

James and Nellie, traveling with brother Wyatt and his common-law wife and John H. Holliday and his woman, arrived in Tombstone, Arizona, in December 1879.  Virgil Earp arrived the month before, and brothers Warren and Morgan (and his wife, Louisa) soon joined them.  While the three younger brothers became lawmen, James managed a saloon and worked in the gambling houses.  James did not participate in the now-famed Gunfight at O. K. Corral on October 26, 1881.

The New Mexico and Arizona Railroad ended in Benson, Arizona, about 25 miles away from Tombstone.  On Sunday, March 19, 1882, Wyatt and James accompanied Morgan’s body in a wagon to Benson, where it was loaded onto a freight car for transportation to Colton.  James and two close friends accompanied Morgan’s body to California; Virgil and his wife Addie followed the next day on a passenger train.  Wyatt, Warren, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, Sherman McMaster, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, and Texas Jack Vermillion continued their war with the Cochise County Cowboys.

After Morgan’s burial, James lived for a time in Shoshone County, Idaho, until settling permanently in California after Nellie’s death in 1887.  James died of natural causes on January 25, 1926.  He was laid to rest at the Mountain View Cemetery.

Virgil Earp

Virgil W. Earp

Virgil Walter Earp

Virgil was born in Hartford, Kentucky, the second eldest son in 1843.  A sixteen-year-old Virgil eloped with Ellen Rysdam in 1859 —a marriage that was not approved by either the Earps or Ellen’s parents.  To put it mildly, they were furious, but Virgil refused to agree to an annulment.  A year later, Virgil enlisted in the Union Army and spent the next four years on the line.  When he returned home after the war, Ellen was nowhere to be found.  Ellen’s father had informed her that Virgil had been killed in action, and Ellen moved on with her life.

Virgil worked as a store clerk and a farmhand after the war.  He later joined his family in California, where he married a French woman named Rosella Dragoo in 1870, but beyond the record of their marriage, we know nothing more of their marriage, divorce, or her death.  In 1874, Virgil met Alvira “Allie” Sullivan from Florence, Nebraska.  They never married, but they remained together for the rest of his life.

In 1877, Virgil worked in Dodge City, Kansas, with James and Wyatt.  From Dodge City, Virgil and Allie moved to Prescott, Arizona Territory.  Soon after arriving, US Marshal “Little Bill” Standifer and Yavapai County Sheriff Ed Bowers were attempting to arrest John Tallos for robbery along with an accused murderer at large named Wilson.  Bowers’ posse pursued the two men to the outskirts of town, with Virgil Earp running on foot after them.  A gunfight erupted at the edge of town, and Virgil was credited with shooting one of the men through the head with a Henry rifle.

After this event, Patterson, Caldwell & Levally, a local freight company, offered Virgil a job as a driver.  During this employment, Virgil met John J. Gosper, Secretary of the Arizona Territory, who was acting as temporary governor in the absence of John C. Fremont[2].  Virgil also became good friends with Crawley Dake, who in 1878 received the appointment as US Marshal for the Arizona Territory.  Because of Virgil’s public service, he was appointed night watchman for Prescott, which paid a monthly salary of $75.00.  In November 1878, Virgil was elected as town constable for Prescott, which authorized him to collect fees for issuing licenses, collecting revenue, and serving court summons.

It was while serving as constable that Virgil wrote to James and Wyatt about the opportunities in the silver-mining boomtown of Tombstone.  Unknown to Virgil at the time, he and his family were about to step into a deeply corrupt Democratic hornet’s nest.  In 1881 with the organization of Cochise County from the vast expanse of Pima County, Sheriff Johnny Behan was appointed county sheriff, the chief law enforcement officer in the county.  Behan was in league with the Cowboys, a gang of murdering, cattle stealing, stage robbing terrorists determined to see Cochise County remain free and clear of “Yankee carpetbaggers.”  Tombstone violence and corruption were stifling business in Southeastern Arizona, and conservative-minded business leaders used the Earp brothers to help stamp it out.

Crawley Dake appointed Virgil Earp as the Deputy US Marshall for Pima (and later, Cochise) County.  Virgil also served as town marshal in Tombstone.  Frequently assisting him in his duties were assistant marshals Morgan and Wyatt Earp.  Doc Holliday was also deputized during the now-famous gunfight at O.K. Corral.

After the corral gunfight, Virgil Earp was shot and seriously wounded while making his late-night rounds.  Afterward, Morgan was shot and killed while playing billiards.  While James and a few friends helped to transport Morgan’s body to the rail depot in Benson, Virgil and Addie prepared to leave for California the next day on a passenger train out of Tucson.  Virgil’s recovery from his wounds took two years.  During this time, he stayed with his parents in Colton, California.  Virgil’s first-hand account of what transpired in Tombstone appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on May 27, 1882.

In 1886, Virgil opened a private detective agency, which he abandoned the same year after being elected to serve as the village constable.  When Colton was incorporated as a city, Virgil became its first elected city marshal.  Virgil and Allie’s home still stands at 528 West “H” Street in Colton.

Between 1888 and 1895, Virgil and Allie lived in Colton, San Bernardino, and Vanderbilt, California, and in Cripple Creek, Colorado.  Virgil eventually returned to Prescott, Arizona Territory, where he engaged in mining interests and established a ranch in the Kirkland Valley.

In 1898, Virgil received a letter from a woman named Mrs. Levi Law.  Mrs. Law was Virgil’s daughter with Ellen Rysdam.  In the next year, with the encouragement of Allie, Virgil traveled to Portland, Oregon, and was reunited with Ellen and Nellie Jane Law.  Nellie visited her father in Arizona in the following year.

In 1904, Virgil rejoined Wyatt in Goldfield, Nevada, where he became a deputy sheriff for Esmeralda County.  After suffering from the effects of pneumonia for six months, Virgil passed away on October 19, 1905 —leaving Wyatt as the last surviving participant in the famous gunfight at O. K. Corral.  Virgil was survived by his wife Allie, his daughter Nellie, and brothers James, Newton, and Wyatt.  At the request of his daughter, Allie sent Virgil’s remains to Portland, Oregon, where he was interred at the River View Cemetery.

Morgan EarpMorgan Seth Earp

Morgan was born in Pella, Iowa, on April 24, 1851.  Like the other Earp brothers, Morgan had a penchant for an adventurous life and very little interest in farming.  Morgan spent time with James in Montana and took his first law enforcement position in 1875 as a deputy under Charlie Bassett in Dodge City, Kansas.  In 1887, Morgan and his common-law wife Louisa A. Houston returned to Montana, where they lived until 1880.

At different times, Wyatt and Morgan worked for Wells Fargo & Company as shotgun messengers [3], as deputy sheriffs for Pima County, Arizona Territory, and as deputies under Tombstone City Marshal Virgil Earp.  In early 1882, Morgan was appointed to serve as a deputy US marshal under Wyatt Earp after Virgil had been shot.  In her book The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, Allie Sullivan described her husband’s brother Morgan as a hot-tempered man.  Others writing of Morgan describe him as even-tempered, a man who acted coolly under pressure and with resolve.  Allie’s book has been largely discredited for containing fabrications of actual events.

Two months after the shootout at O.K. Corral, in December 1881, a would-be assassin seriously wounded Virgil Earp while he was making his late-night rounds in Tombstone.  Then, in February 1882, Morgan grew wary of the danger to his family and sent Louisa to live with his parents in Colton, California.

At around 10:50 pm on Saturday, March 18, 1882, Morgan was playing a game of billiards at Campbell’s Parlor.  An assailant shot Morgan through the upper half of a four-pane door window.  The door opened into a dark alley between Allen and Fremont Streets.  The bullet struck Morgan on his right side, shattered his spine, passed through his left side, and entered the thigh of mining foreman George Berry.  Several men rushed into the alley, but the assailant had already escaped.

Three doctors soon arrived to examine Morgan, all agreeing that his wound was fatal.  Morgan died within the hour.

Warren Earp 001Warren Baxter Earp

Warren was the youngest of the Earp brothers, born on 9 March 1855 in Pella, Iowa.  Too young to participate in the Civil War, Warren helped Wyatt and Morgan on their father’s farm while his father Nicholas was occupied as a recruiter and training officer for the Union Army.

Warren joined his brothers in Tombstone, Arizona, working occasionally for Virgil, along with James, as an assistant town marshal.  At the time of the gunfight at O.K. Corral, Warren was at his parent’s home in Colton, California.  After Virgil was ambushed on 28 December 1881, Warren returned to Tombstone and accepted Wyatt’s appointment as a deputy US Marshal.  Then, on 18 March 1882, Morgan was assassinated.  Warren joined the posse guarding Virgil and Allie as they were transported to Tucson for a connecting train to California.  Warren was named in the arrest warrant issued by Justice of the Peace Charles Meyer for Wyatt, Doc Holliday, Jack Johnson, and Sherman McMaster.  Eventually, these men were indicted by a Tucson grand jury, but none of them ever went to trial.

Subsequent to Wyatt’s vendetta ride, Warren left Arizona but returned sometime in 1891 and worked as a stagecoach driver between Wilcox and Fort Grant.  He may have also worked for rancher Henry Hooker in Cochise County as a range detective.  Conventionally, there are two opposing characterizations of Warren.  On the one hand, he was noted for being naïve and youthful; on the other, somewhat of a bully, playing off the reputation of his older brothers.  Of course, both descriptions could be true.  Virgil’s daughter Nellie once recalled that her father was concerned about Warren getting shot because of his quick temper and quarrelsome nature.

On 6 July 1900, Warren argued with Hooker’s range boss, a man named Johnny Boyett, in a Wilcox saloon.  The issue may have been that they shared affection for the same woman, although the two men were known for bickering with one another.  Late this night, Earp and Boyett … both drunk, took their arguing to the next level.  Warren suggested that they arm themselves and settle the matter once and for all.  When Boyett returned well-armed, he called Warren out.  Earp calmly stepped into the saloon from another doorway, and Boyett fired two rounds, both missing Warren Earp.  Without producing a weapon, Warren stepped back outside the saloon; Boyett fired two more rounds—and they also missed Earp.  Warren Earp stepped back into the saloon, opened his coat, and said, “I have no arms.”  Earp continued walking toward Boyett, talking to him all the while.  Boyett warned him at least twice to halt, his voice sounding panicked and angry.  When Earp did not “halt,” Boyett fired a fifth round striking Warren Earp in the chest, killing him.  Earp was unarmed, but while arrested after the shooting, Boyett never went to trial.

“Warren Earp, the youngest of the four Earp brothers whose names twenty years ago were synonymous with gun fighting on the Arizona frontier, died with his boots on here.  He was shot through the heart in a saloon by Cowboy Johnny Boyett and died almost instantly.”

—Tombstone Epitaph, 9 July 1900.

P.S.  I’ve received a comment from Effie Wyatt’s great-granddaughter, Ms. Kim Silletti, stating that Effie died in 1919.  She asked that I correct my previous erroneous information.  That has been accomplished with gratitude to Ms. Silletti for taking the time to highlight the misinformation.  24 Jan 2023 – Mustang.

Next week:  Wyatt Earp


  1. The Eastern Earps, Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun, 10 May 2005.
  2. Isenberg, A. C.Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life.  Macmillan, 2013.
  3. Eppinga, J.  Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
  4. Guinn, J.The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at O.K. Corral and How it Change the American West.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011
  5. Marks, P.M.And Die in the West.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1996
  6. Johnson, D.John Ringo.  Stillwater, OK.  Barbed Wire Press, 1996.
  7. Tefertiller, C.Wyatt Earp: the Life behind the Legend.  New York, Wiley Press, 1999


[1] It was not uncommon for women to work as a prostitute in the American west, most of them forced into the “oldest profession” by dire circumstances.  Some of these women were widows, their men taken from them at an early age.  Other women were runaways from abusive husbands or fathers.  No matter what their circumstances, working in saloons or social clubs was about the only work that a single woman could find.  With this understanding, we should not judge these women too harshly.  And, while some of these ladies became millionaires in their own time, most ended up marrying frontiersmen (there was a significant shortage of women in the Old West) or dying of venereal diseases.

[2] Fremont was an explorer, politician, and major general who, in 1856, became the first Republican candidate for the presidency.  He was a Democrat before 1854, a Republican until 1864, and a radical Democrat afterward.  He was the 5th governor of the Arizona Territory (1878-1881), a US Senator from California (1850-1851), and military governor of California (1847).  Fremont was frequently absent from his post as Arizona’s territorial governor, hence Gosper’s stint as acting governor.

[3] A shotgun messenger was someone who worked as a private armed guard on stagecoaches and trains.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in HISTORY. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Who Were the Earps?

  1. kidme37 says:

    Makes me wonder how the Millennials and Gen-Zers would fare in the late 1800’s 🙂

    I’ve been told I’m related to Bat Masterson, 3rd separation from immediate.


    • Mustang says:

      My theory is that if one of these modern-day mouthy kids gave grown-ups in the late 1800s a hard time, they’d likely get cuffed on the side of their head with a revolver. That was one of Virgil and Wyatt’s favorite thing to do —because ammo was expensive. And maybe a boot up their butt for good measure. I remember a time when people learned how to be polite from their parents, and if not from them, then from some guy in school who wouldn’t hesitate punching a wiseass in the snout. Technology allows people to mouth off without fearing any consequences (other than maybe a time out on Twitter).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. kidme37 says:

    An old adage comes to mind – “An armed society is a polite society”.

    Hell yea, if you don’t know whether some person might draw on you and kill you, you are going to be careful with your tongue.


    • Mustang says:

      I remember in California in the 1980s, drivers were rude maniacs until a few people started shooting at drivers who cut in front of them without giving a turn signal, flipping people off that honked at them, stuff like that. Quite suddenly, everyone came to the conclusion that they ought to share the highway with others and be polite about it.


  3. Good stuff as usual.
    I’m always rewarded by reading your stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Andy says:

    Excellent work. Took me a while to get through it because I kept going back and rereading and re- rereading parts. It was that interesting. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Andy says:

    I was reading your comment about today’s mouthy kids when I got a news alert that Melania, for the first time, was booed by kids at some youth event she was attending. That’s outrageous. She hasn’t done anything to warrant being booed by brats. If kids disagree with her, they should withhold their applause and remain silent. Like everyone else, I have my own opinions about the First Lady. And kids are entitled to their opinions as well. But that does not mean they are allowed to be rude and undignified. Just sayin’.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: U.S. Marshal C. P. Dake | Old West Tales

  7. Pingback: Tombstone Judge | Old West Tales

  8. Pingback: In Search of Justice | Old West Tales

  9. Kim Silletti says:

    Effie May Earp was my great grandmother. You state she died with her mother in 1898, this is false. She died in Northport, Wa. in 1919 at the age of 49. I would appreciate it if you would correct this error. Thank you!


Leave a Reply to kidme37 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.