is abundant. Thanks to the internet, it is easy to find out all you
want about a historical figure's life if you are willing to put in
the time and cross check for accuracy. In researching Old West figures,
birth dates, death dates, life events, and brushes with the law are
all quite available. And, should that historical figure have ever
gotten into a gunfight, well then, you can find an abundance of details
and often many colorful versions of the event to feed your cravings.
Because the Old West characters are long gone and we can't possibly
ever know them, researchers have used their words and actions to try
to establish a personality for them because, I guess, we tend to crave
to truly know our heroes and villains. Most of the time, this is for
portrayal purposes, and everyone who loves or loves to hate that personality
will have an opinion about the portrayer's accuracy. But, should a
historical figure be more obscure, it can be difficult to discern
what that person was like just based on raw historical data.
The historical figure being featured in this article is James Earp.
I've done a fair amount of research into James' life, and I have to
admit that I was a little stumped about how to present him and make
it entertaining. James is certainly not the most exciting of the Earp
brothers. He didn't do what his brother's did. He didn't make a habit
of being in law enforcement, he rarely handled a gun, he didn't get
involved in gunfights, and he didn't make headlines. But, I will tell
you what he did do.
Cooksey Earp was born in June of 1841 while the Earp family was still
living in Kentucky. The Earp family would move around the country
a great deal, settling in Pella, Iowa for several years. It was while
living in Pella that James enlisted to fight on the Union side in
the Civil War. But, unlike the older Earp brothers who were also fighting,
James' service was cut short. He was wounded in a battle near Fredericktown,
Missouri, and he lost some of the use of his left arm as a result.
James joined his family as they traveled to California but split off
from them and did some major traveling of his own. He was known to
have been in Idaho City, Boise, Walla Walla, Cheyenne, Helena, Deer
Lodge, Butte, Deadwood, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Leadville, Colorado.
By 1872, James was in Peoria, Illinois where he was running a brothel
with Bessie (Nellie "Bessie" Bartlett Catchim), who he would marry
the following year. Bessie was born around 1841 in New York, and had
two children from a previous relationship, Frank and Hattie (short
for Harriett). It was at this point in his life that James became
very predictable and there was a definite pattern to his choice of
James and Bessie moved to Wichita in 1874 where they were soon joined
by James' brother Wyatt. Bessie would be fined by the court several
times for being involved with prostitution. By 1876, James and Bessie
were in Dodge City running another brothel. For a very short period
of time, James worked as a deputy marshal under Charlie Bassett. But,
during 1877-1878, James was again bartending, but this time in Fort
Worth. By 1879, the Earp's were moving southwesterly and headed
to Tombstone. James, yet again, worked as a bartender.
James was not involved with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. When
Morgan Earp was shot to death in March of 1882 in retaliation for
that gunfight, James accompanied his brother's body on a train to
Colton, California. Predictably, James then became a bartender in
For comparison purposes, the photo on the left is of James Earp courtesy
of Wikipedia. The photo on the right (oval) is James Earp from the
|In 1884, James
and Bessie joined Wyatt and Josephine Earp in Eagle City, Idaho on
another mining venture. By 1886, James and Bessie were in San Bernardino,
California where Bessie would die just a year later. By 1888, James
was again running a saloon. James Earp lived a long life, and died
at the age of 85 in 1926 in California.
When I look into the eyes of James Earp, I don't see the determination
that Wyatt Earp had, I don't see the confidence and steadfastness
of Virgil Earp, and I don't see the spark and the twinkle of Morgan
Earp. I see a different man altogether. Further, I've read about a
man who was different from his brothers. Maybe I'm drawing too many
conclusions, but I see a man who is more thoughtful. Yes, James has
been portrayed in the movies as the happy-go-lucky bartender who not
only allowed his wife to be involved in prostitution, but seemed to
have promoted her lifestyle. Quite contrary to that persona, I see
a man who may have been a little tortured. He must have suffered severely.
He enlisted in May of 1861 in the Union Arm and was wounded in October
of 1862 when a bullet entered his left shoulder and existed through
his breastbone. His recovery time must have been lengthy, and I have
to assume that the wounds and death that he witnessed during his fighting
time and his recovery time before he went back home must have been
I might be seeing a more contemplative man when I look at James Earp
because maybe he was tired of guns and bloodshed. Maybe he wanted
a less stressful lifestyle. Maybe his focus was to be with Bessie,
the woman he seemed to have loved dearly and accepted for just who
she was. Maybe he didn't need or want any sort of spotlight. Maybe
he just wanted to live his life his way. No, James didn't have a fiery
personality to write about, but that was no failure of his, it was
my failing not to see him as an individual. I was, in the beginnings
of my research, disappointed because he didn't live up to my expectations
of what it means to be an Earp. But, I was very wrong.
Mrs. Earp, The Wives and Lovers of the Earp Brothers, by Sherry Monahan,
Twodot, Guilford, Connecticut, 2013.
James Earp. (2015, August 25). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved 15:03, August 27, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=James_Earp&oldid=677712904
September 18, 2015
Wyatt Earp, The Life Behind the Legend, by Casey Tefertiller, John
Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997