What Was Wyatt Earp's Childhood Really Like?

Wyatt Earp is remembered as a pioneering lawman of the Wild West, but before actors like Burt Lancaster and Kurt Russell played Earp in movies like 1957's Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and 1993's Tombstone, he had a life filled with the stuff of American legend and lore. 

Legends of America reported that he'd been a buffalo hunter, a stagecoach driver, a wagon train scout, a miner, a card dealer, and a saloon owner, just to name a few. But before he was any of those things, he was just a kid growing up in the American Midwest in the mid-1800s.

Earp was born on March 19, 1848, in Monmouth, Illinois, to Nicholas Earp and Victoria Ann Cooksey, per the website Wyatt Earp. His family moved to Pella, Iowa, when Earp was 2 years old after Nicholas received a land grant there of 160 acres for his efforts in the Mexican-American war. 

Earp was the fourth-born child of eight siblings, and while some of his brothers would remain close to him throughout their lives, two of his sisters died in childhood. His older sister, Martha, died at 10 years old, according to Wyatt Earp, and a younger sister, Virginia Ann, died at just 3 years old in 1861, per Geni.

With that much tragedy in one family, it's perhaps no wonder why Earp reportedly ran away around 1861-1862 at 13 years old to join the Union Army during in the Civil War, per PBS's American Experience.

Wyatt Earp was eager to join the ranks of grown men

Wyatt Earp's dad wasn't ready to send his son off to war yet. He tracked Wyatt down, brought him home, and put him in charge of the family farm crop harvest, per American Experience

Regardless of being gifted 160 acres in Iowa, there was still much to explore in the American West, so around 1864 Earp's family loaded up and braved the journey to California. It was on that journey that Earp received his first gun. 

According to Legends of America, young Earp was to use the combination shotgun and rifle to protect the family against possible Indian raids. During that trip Earp also saw his first gunfight, per History. Shortly after, he got himself a six-gun pistol and dedicated himself to becoming a proficient marksman, Legends of America reported. 

By now he was encroaching on manhood. In his later teen years, he reportedly worked as a teamster and a railroad worker in California, per Legends of America, but he also hauled freight between California and Arizona Territory, exploring cities like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, American Experience reported. 

In 1870, Earp was 22 when he married Urilla Sutherland, but she died within their first year of marriage. American Experience reported the reason for her death is "speculative, but most likely caused by typhus or from complications during childbirth."

In his early years, Earp seemed to embrace family, freedom, and exploration, but he also experienced tragic losses at a young age.