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Wyatt Earp in San Bernardino County: The Early Years


Wyatt Earp

He spent more of his life in San Bernardino County, California, than anywhere else, but if the man had to depend on his exploits here to justify his claim to fame. He’d be remembered only as a citizen who preferred the solitude of the desert, to the bustle of the gambling halls and saloons of Kansas and Arizona, where he drew more attention. The fact is, Wyatt Earp, whose name has been immortalized for his exploits in Tombstone and other wild camps, spent five times as much of his life as a mine developer in San Bernardino County than he did as a frontier lawman.
Plans for moving the Earp family out west from their home in Pella, Iowa, began shortly after his brother Jim’s discharge from active duty, as a Union soldier in the Civil War in 1863 (because of a severely wounded shoulder). While brothers Newton and Virgil were still fighting in the raging conflict, Wyatt’s father, Nick, quit his job as assistant provost marshal and pulled up stakes for a move out to the beautiful Southern California valley he briefly passed through on his way home from prospecting back in 1851. This valley, so impressive with its fertile fields, boundless timberlands and deep clear water streams, was called San Bernardino.
In 1864 Nick Earp organized a wagon train made up of three other Pella families: the Rousseau’s, the Hamilton’s, and the Curtis’s, and on May 12, 1864, they embarked for the trip out west. According to Jesse Curtis, great- grandson of one of the party, the train started out with 30 people, including Wyatt, his parents, older brother Jim and younger siblings Morgan, Warren, and Adelia. Three children were born to the other families later on during the journey. Mrs. Sarah Jane Rousseau, who kept a diary of the trip, mentioned that after they made their first night’s camp, seven more wagons straggled in late. By the time the wagon train reached its destination there were about a dozen wagons in all.
The caravan reached San Bernardino on December 17, 1864, and according to Holman Curtis, one of the young children in the party, the families set up camp just east of what is today Sierra Way and Court Street. Soon afterward, the Earps rented a farm on the Carpenter Ranch, in what is now in the city of Redlands. Two years later they would move a few miles further east along Cottonwood Row in Old San Bernardino (known today as Mission Road in Loma Linda). Earp historian Glenn Boyer recalled in his True West biography (1993), an interview with Estelle Miller, daughter of Adelia. Mrs. Miller told him that shortly after arriving in San Bernardino, young Wyatt made it known that he wasn’t cut out to be a farmer.


Nicholas Earp

In fact, one day he decided to run away for a few days of “vacation” only to return home from a whipping from the old man, who then kicked him off the farm. Information on Wyatt during the next few years is somewhat sketchy and much of it comes from Stuart N. Lake’s often questioned biography, “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal”. Lake corresponded with Wyatt several times during the late 1920’s with the purpose of writing an accurate biography. But when “Frontier Marshal” came out in 1931–two years after his death in 1929–Wyatt came out looking like a knight on a white horse combating enemies of law and order. This “paladin” image inspired numerous movies, a television show–and ultimately, the Wyatt Earp legend.
According to Lake’s book, at the at the age of 17, Wyatt began driving stage coaches for General Phineas Banning between Los Angeles and San Bernardino during the summer of 1865 as an emergency replacement for Banning’s regular driver, who had broken his leg. Then, during the winter of 1865-1866, he drove freight wagons for Frank Binkley from the port of San Pedro, California, through San Bernardino, across the desert and past the Colorado River on to Prescott, Arizona.
Lake recorded more Wyatt Earp “heroics”–which may or may not be true. One portrays Wyatt driving a 16 animal freighting outfit for Chris Taylor between San Bernardino and Salt Lake City, Utah, during the spring of 1866. The author wrote: “The Salt Lake trace traversed seven hundred miles of the most difficult desert and mountain wilderness, through a territory infested by the Paiutes.” Lake also notes that when Wyatt returned from the Salt Lake trek, he was chosen as one of a select group of freighters by San Bernardino County Sheriff, John King, to go on a rescue of a small detachment of U.S. soldiers surrounded and trapped by several hundred Paiute Indians in the Mojave Desert at Camp Cadiz.

Virgil Earp

Virgil Earp

No research has proven that a “Camp Cadiz” ever existed. However, noted Mojave Desert historian, Dennis G. Casebier, came up with something interesting when he wrote a small booklet in 1972 entitled The Battle of Camp Cady. He mentioned that the army camp, which was located on the banks of the Mojave River, was involved in a skirmish between soldiers and Indians on June 29, 1866. On that day, Second Lieutenant James R. Hardenbergh, who was in charge of Camp Cady, led a platoon of six men in an attack on a band of Paiutes who was passing by. The soldiers were no match for the Indians who, by the lieutenants’ estimation, were 36 in numbers and were soundly beaten. Three of his men were killed and at the conclusion of the fight, there were only eight men left at the fort, Hardenbergh, the camp doctor, a sergeant and three privates.
Hardenbergh thought for sure that he and his surviving men would be annihilated. Help was coming from the army and even a company of civilians from San Bernardino was put together but the Paiutes had no intention of keeping the fight going. It is possible that Wyatt was involved somehow in the anticipated retaliation effort at Camp “Cady” and Lake’s Camp “Cadiz” may have simply been a misspelling. In any event, the Paiutes were not the aggressors during this incident and a battle with the troops was not in their plans, they had fought an unwanted battle.
The controversial Stuart Lake notes in “Frontier Marshal” that Wyatt went into partnership with Charles Chrisman in the spring of 1867, hauling freight to Salt Lake City. This was also noted in the in the Flood Manuscript. Glenn Boyer, though, states in his True West biography of Wyatt Earp, that it was older brother Virgil who did the actual driving while the younger Wyatt did menial work for the freighters as a “swamper”.
Lee A. Silva, author of the epic Wyatt Earp–A biography of the Legend: Vol. 1, The Cow town Years (2002), clearly mentions that there was an early San Bernardino pioneer during that time by the name of Charles “Crisman”. Silva’s contention is that Wyatt obviously knew about Crisman, aware of the time and places he was talking about, and the misspelling by Lake was a phonetical error. Therefore, Wyatt’s involvement with Crisman was probably true although he may not have been actually a “partner” with Crisman. Virgil and Wyatt later worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, which was building west. Both brothers started out as shovel men, but eventually Virgil worked as a teamster and while Wyatt continued as a pick and shovel man.
In the fall of 1868, Nick Earp, frustrated that none of the boys were home to help out on the farm (Jim and Morgan headed for the mining towns of Montana), left California and traveled back to the Midwest by wagon and then caught a train at the Union Pacific railhead in Wyoming.
Somewhat cooled off by now, he looked up his boys near the railhead, and they had all made the trip back as well. Little did young Wyatt realize at this time, of the exploits he would encounter in places like Dodge City and Tombstone. Wyatt had only stayed in San Bernardino for four short years and he had not seen the last of the valley his father loved so well….


Story courtesy of Nick Cataldo