I think it's fair to assume that most people are somewhat familiar with the legacy of Wyatt Earp. He might be the most famous lawman of the Wild West, famed in pop culture with stories of his life, but there was an alternate side to his life of law and order.

Before starting his brief career as a larger-than-life lawman in Dodge City, Kansas, Wyatt's life was somewhat tragic on the prairie. Through heartbreak and love lost, he once turned to crime as a way to deal with his own pain.

In the beginning.

Wyatt Earp had the typical upbringing of his day. Born in 1848 to an Illinois lawyer in a town on the edge of an expanding country. The sixth child out of nine or ten in total, his mother and father were always looking for a place to dig roots and raise their children.

Wyatt experienced childhood across the west. From farming corn in Iowa to defending the family wagon train on the trail to California. When he finally reached adulthood, Wyatt set back out across the plains in search of a life of his own.

The buffalo hunter.

Public Domain

After the Civil War, the American government returned its disdain toward the native people of this country. The country was expanding and prime lands belonged to various tribes. Since they had no interest in the technology settlers had to offer, a plan was developed to force natives from their land via the extermination of the buffalo.

Having an incredible talent for accuracy under fire, Wyatt Earp fit right in as a buffalo hunter in the 1870s. He worked his way back across the plains until he met a girl and settled in Missouri, but his happiness wouldn't last long.

The history books say Wyatt's marriage to his first wife Urilla lasted less than a year. Scholars can't agree on how she died. Some sources cite complications during childbirth, others credit typhoid fever, but she passed within that first year. It left Wyatt heartbroken and likely in a deep-seated depression that set him on a path to being an outlaw.

Desperate men often turn to theft.

Buffalo Shoot
Getty Images

Living miserably in Missouri, Wyatt's life seemingly spiraled out of control. He was narrowly elected as the constable in Lamar but was later accused of stealing money he was supposed to be collecting for the local school. His honesty and character under attack from lawsuits, he absconded into Indian Territory to escape the allegations.

He took the jobs he could find while in the territory. His skill as a buffalo hunter was once again put to good use, but he later settled on being a talented Teamster driving a wagon with a few fellows he met along the way. Things seemed to be going rather well until the rustling accusations were levied against him.

Wyatt Earp was arrested for stealing horses in Indian Territory.

On the run from the law.

After his arraignment Earp quickly made bail, but the temporary freedom didn't last long. Within days he was indicted for horse theft and thrown back in jail. Seeing the writing on the wall, he opted for the outlaw option rather than pleading his case in court.

Wyatt Earp busted out of jail before his trial was to begin and traveled as far from Indian Territory as he could, ending up back in Illinois before the law caught up to him.

Oddly enough, while he was a wanted outlaw in Indian Territory for horse theft, his legal troubles became entwined with prostitution and pimping. Earp was arrested a handful of times over the next few years for what we now call human trafficking.


The story we're all familiar with in regard to Wyatt Earp starts with his move to Dodge City, Kansas in 1876. He fell in love and married one of his prostitutes, turned to a life of law and order, made a name for himself as a lawman, and retired to a life of booms and busts starting with the family's move to Tombstone in 1879, but his legal issues were far from over.

In the years after the famed thirty-second gunfight at the OK Corral, Wyatt had been charged with murder. He was deputized but later considered an outlaw on his vendetta ride to ride the world of sash-wearing cowboys. Accused of stealing land in mining camps, fixing fights in California, and labeled a cheat in both gambling and real estate.

Public Domain

In modern times, what we're now familiar with, the timeline of outlaw and ill-reputed pimp to Wild West folk hero took just nine years. If anything else, it really speaks to how the writers of history have the privilege of editing history to frame popular opinion.

It's almost hard to believe America's most famous lawman was a career criminal.

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