Virgil Earp was the second child of Nicholas and Virginia Ann (Cooksey) Earp. He was born on July 18, 1843 in Hartford Kentucky. Named as Virgil Walter Earp. The family moved to Monmouth, Illinois. Then to Pella Iowa in 1850, when Virgil was 7 years old. That's really where he spent his childhood. There his father had the family farm.
When 16 years old, Virgil met Magdalena C. Rysdam. A Dutch immigrant from Utrecht, Netherlands, she was nicknamed Ellen. Eight months older than Virgil, she was born October 25, 1842. The two of them eloped. It's believed they were in either Oskaloosa or Knoxville Iowa to get married on September 21, 1861.1-6 The marriage is unconfirmed by documentation. It's possible it was never legal. There's some evidence they gave false names of Walter Earp and Ellen Donahoo.7
During Virgil Earp's time at the war, about midway in his service, rumor reached home. That he'd been injured and killed. When Ellen heard this, she believed she was now a war widow. She likely felt it would be difficult on her own, with a child. It's felt her father, along with Virgil's father, approved of her believing this hearsay.
In early 1864 Ellen married a Pella immigrant Dutchman named John Van Rossum. Soon thereafter they joined a wagon-train trek bound for the Pacific Northwest. Many Dutch immigrants headed there to retreat from the war. They wanted to avoid subjugation to the draft and its problems. Her husband, John, was a trek leader for this nearly 2000 mile trip. She helped by driving one of the wagons over the Oregon Trail. They arrived in Oregon City six months and many dangers later.5
Virgil Earp, alive and well, received his army discharge on June 26, 1865. He went back to Pella Iowa to return family. But found they were gone. He probably heard why they left, and didn't pursue them. The Earps had also left, trekking by wagon train to San Bernardino California in 1864. Father Nicholas Earp rented a farm there, on the Santa Ana River.
Virgil traveled to reunite with his parents and siblings. He noticed younger brother Wyatt was restless, not wanting to help with farm-work. He took Wyatt and they both began teamster work for a local company.8
Virgil drove the stagecoach. He taught 17-year-old Wyatt the business, as a helper, a "swamper." Wyatt rode the shot-gun seat, helped with loads, and gave relieved Virgil in driving. Their route was Los Angeles to Prescott AZ, sometimes to Salt Lake City.7 A while later, they went to Wyoming to build the railroad.
At some point Virgil and Wyatt went their separate ways. Wyatt continued on his own adventures. Virgil went back to Pella Iowa. He stayed in Pella awhile, working a few jobs.
Virgil's father moved the family again in 1868. Farming wasn't working out. None of the sons were interested in it. Nicholas moved the family to Lamar Missouri. He became the Justice of the Peace in Lamar.
Virgil Earp joined his father and the family in Missouri. There he met a French immigrant 10 years his junior. Nicholas officiated the ceremony between Virgil Earp and 17 year-old Rosella Dragoo on May 30, 1870. There's no further word of Rosella. It's possible her parents objected to the marriage. Maybe annulled? Or possibly she succumbed to a deadly illness of the day. We don't know, since no records citing her have been located.
In the 1870s, Virgil left Lamar MO. Ending up in Council Bluffs Iowa. He met a waitress named Alvira Packingham Sullivan. She was called "Allie." They were meant to be: they stayed together for life.
Allie was born in 1874 in Florence Nebraska. She was 25 when Virgil came to town. Soon they began traveling around together.11 Mid 1876 they were in Dodge City, Kansas. Wyatt Earp was in town there, as assistant Marshall. Virgil went to hook up with Wyatt. The Earp brothers often tried to stay near each other. Virgil was deputized by Wyatt for a short time.
Virgil Earp moved with Allie to the Village of Prescott AZ in July 1877.9 He worked a few jobs while living there. A job as a mail carrier, and then worked in a sawmill. An incident gave Virgil an opportunity to be immediately deputized as a lawman.
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Because of this incident, Virgil became well known in the Village of Prescott. In early March 1878, the Village Council met. They gave Virgil a position of authority, close to law enforcement, as Night Watchman.
Patterson, Caldwell & Levally, Prescott freight company, offered him a job as driver. He made stagecoach runs for them. This job enabled his meeting Arizona Territory Secretary of State, John J. Gosper. Another notable passenger was Crawley P. Dake.11 These meetings eventually brought him to Tombstone AZ.
On November 1, 1878, Virgil Earp announced his candidacy for Prescott Village Constable. Noted in the local paper, the Arizona Weekly Miner of Prescott supported his election.
The election results were published on November 8, 1878. Virgil Earp beat the closest of two competitors by just over 100 votes. He resigned his position as Night Watchman. Virgil and Allie seemed to settle in to their life in Prescott Arizona.
Virgil Earp's brothers were scattered about the West at 1878's end. They wrote each other, discussing possibilities as the year 1879 progressed. Virgil noticed the action in Tombstone, Arizona: the silver discovery. This new southern Arizona town was on the move!
Crawley P. Dake was Arizona Territory U.S. Marshal. Stage robberies in southern Arizona were becoming a problem. Dake wasn't getting much requested Federal help with solving the problem. Essentially being ignored, he began doing things his own way. In the Autumn of 1879, he offered Virgil Earp the job of Deputy United States Marshal.12
Virgil was ready for this move, if Allie wasn't quite. Some of these bothersome issues were reported in Prescott's local newspaper, the Arizona Weekly Miner:
Virgil informed his brothers he was moving to Tombstone AZ. James and his wife Bessie came to Virgil's home. Also arriving there that autumn were Wyatt with Mattie Blaylock, and Doc Holliday with Big Nose Kate. All the brothers looked forward to new opportunities in Tombstone.
Virgil Earp accepted the appointment for the position of Deputy U.S. Marshal on November 27, 1879. In an interview, Virgil himself said, "I went from Prescott to Tombstone as Deputy United States Marshal."9 The Earp group left Prescott, arriving in Tombstone the first part of December. Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate didn't travel with them. They stayed behind for local gambling opportunity.
Virgil and Allie found a house on the Southwest corner of Fremont and 1st Street. Wyatt found a location next to them, slightly West [Read More>]. Virgil busied himself getting settled in town.
He had tasks as Deputy U.S. Marshal, none too serious at first. In July 1880, an anti-Chinese mob roamed town. He notified Dake of a possible riot occurring.16
Dake asked him to handle problems with marauding Cochise County Cow-boys. In the late 1800s the word "cow-boy" applied to ranch-hands who roamed the range. They grabbed cattle, especially those nearby, and just across the border. They were accused of changing brands and then selling them. Virgil anticipated working to solve this problem.
But Virgil wasn't paid very well. Officially, he worked intermittently helping county and city administrators. An incident in late October 1880 helped Virgil try expanding his law opportunity.
City Marshal Fred White was shot by Curly Bill Brocius. White admitted before he died that it was accidental. He expired a few days later from his gut wound.
Virgil was immediately appointed to fill in as acting Tombstone City Marshal. A much better financial position for him.13 Virgil decided to run for the office. They held a special election on November 13th. Ben Sippy was his opponent. Virgil lost by 52 votes.
Although Sippy won, seven months later he requested a Leave of Absence! Suspiciously, he never returned! Hmmm: he left some fishy financial circumstances behind.
So Mayor John Clum appointed Virgil Earp as the acting City Marshal. Then a serious fire scorched much of Tombstone's business area. [Read More>] Virgil's popularity soared as he patrolled the streets with his Winchester. He prevented lot jumpers from illegally taking land. Virgil Earp was promoted to Tombstone's Chief of Police on June 28, 1881. His pay was now a reliable $150/month.11
Virgil's first actions were investigating stage robberies. One in particular happened on March 15, 1881. A well-known freight employee and passenger were shot dead. The strong-box was stolen.
The suspects were some cow-boys. Virgil gathered a posse, including his brothers and Doc Holliday. They secured some clues, going after the offenders. They were never able to make an arrest.11
In April 1881, Tombstone city fathers enacted a new ordinance. It prohibited deadly weapons in town, except for law officers. To be fair, the original law's wording was confusing. And difficult to enforce as written, and not particularly popular. It was one contributing factor to the enmity between the Earps and the Cow-boys.
Virgil mentioned his first encounter with the Cow-boys. He said it "was when they stole a band of government mules from Camp Ruckner" [sic]. Virgil got a posse, went to the McLaury ranch where they saw the suspected mules. Tense words were exchanged there, but no arrests made.9
When in town, Cow-boys often had conflicts with the law. They were blowing off steam, drinking heavily. Behavior like that can irritate citizens, and law enforcement. The Earps became well known to the cow-boys, and vice-versa. In late October 1881, irritation between these two factions headed to a deadly duel.
Cow-boys Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton came into town on Tuesday, October 25, 1881. They were taking care of errands. They planned to have a meal, gamble, drink, stay over. They got a room at the Grand Hotel.
Recently when talkative Ike was in town, he'd been spouting his dislike of the Earps. That included this day. The more he drank, the more intense were his complaints.
That evening Ike went to eat at a saloon. Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil Earp, plus Doc Holliday came in. Doc began arguing with Ike. Doc told Ike to get armed, since he wasn't. The Earps broke up the fight. Wyatt escorted Doc to his room at Fly's Photography Studio.
An odd combination of men played poker: Ike Clanton, Virgil Earp, Tom McLaury, John Behan, and one other guy. They played until about 7 a.m. As Virgil left, Ike told him Doc was going to have to fight.
Virgil was trying to keep things calm in most interactions. Always the one who tried reasoning as a first tactic.11 As Virgil headed home to get some sleep, Ike was still irate. He told Virgil how he aimed to kill Doc Holliday. Virgil felt it was just drunk talk. He told Ike to go home, sleep it off. He didn't want to hear anymore talk like that, after all he was the law.
But Ike didn't stop. He continued around town, barking his dislike of the Earps and Doc Holliday. Lots of town-folk heard his rantings, his threats against their lives.
When Virgil woke up, he heard from friends about Ike's doings. He felt it necessary to locate Ike, be sure he wasn't armed, disarm him if needed.
Eventually Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil Earp encountered the Clantons and McLaury brothers. They all gathered in a lot next to the O.K. Corral. Who began the shooting? History cannot say! But it was all over very quickly. Ike Clanton ran off, unharmed. But his brother Billy was dead. The McLaurys were dead. Wyatt wasn't hit. Doc Holliday was barely grazed. Morgan was shot into his shoulder and upper back. Virgil got it in his upper leg. When over: 3 were dead, 3 injured in less than a minute.
The town of Tombstone split over who was at fault. The funeral for the three Cow-boys drew about 3000 people from the Tombstone District. A procession with the coffin carriage followed the Tombstone Brass Band. The coffins held a banner: "Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone." About 300 people, wagons and horses followed behind as part of the cortege in support. They made their way to Boot Hill Cemetery for burial.11
While Virgil recuperated, Ike Clanton filed murder charges against him, Wyatt, Morgan and Doc. Wyatt and Doc were jailed, Virgil was suspended as Police Chief. The initial hearing by Judge Spicer determined the Earps and Holliday acted justifiably within the law, if maybe unwisely. In two more weeks a grand jury had a similar outcome. They dropped the charges against Virgil Earp, his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and on Doc Holliday.
Judge Spicer received an anonymous threatening letter. He responded to the threat with a letter in the Tombstone Epitaph. The Epitaph's editor, John Clum, was then shot at by some unknown person!
Virgil was in the Oriental Saloon. A heated discussion developed between Oriental manager, Milton Joyce and Virgil. Joyce worked with the Earps before, especially Wyatt. But he definitely didn't like Doc Holliday. Lately he'd had some touchy situations with the Earps.
Joyce said he thought Virgil was behind the attack on John Clum. Virgil became incensed and slapped Milton Joyce! Joyce then backed out of the barroom, saying to Virgil sarcastically, he didn't want to end up in the usual Earp doom situation: shot in the back.11
The Earps knew their dislike throughout town had heightened. The danger to their lives had increased. They moved into the Cosmopolitan Hotel. On December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was on Allen Street, walking there.
Virgil was between the Oriental and the Crystal Palace Saloons. Shots rang out, coming from a second story area under construction. This was above the Bucket of Blood Saloon (present day: Longhorn Restaurant). The gunfire got him, severely injuring his left arm. Its usage was severely hampered the rest of his life.
On March 18, 1882 Morgan and Wyatt Earp went for a game of pool at Campbell & Hatch's on Allen Street. Two bullets sped through the back door from an alley. The first bullet hit Morgan: fatal shot. The second shot came close to Wyatt's head, but entered a wall. Morgan's wounding was very severe. He died a little later, with family members by his side.
Morgan's body was shipped back to Colton California. Virgil and Allie knew it was time to leave town. They accompanied the remaining Earp women and boarded the train to Colton.
Virgil and Allie stayed in Colton with the family. During this time Virgil began getting treatment for his arm. For two years he traveled to San Francisco to get specialized medical care.11
Virgil obtained a private security guard job with the Southern Pacific Railroad. They had a territory battle with a division of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. With gun ready in the engineer's cab. He was there to prevent forward track by their competitor. That was until the courts ruled.1
Next he opened a detective agency in early 1886. In his spare time, he also gambled.1 He and Allie moved into their own home on West H Street (it's still there).11
Virgil's father, Nicholas Earp was well known in the area by then. He managed the Gem Saloon. In 1884 he was elected Colton's Justice of the Peace.11 With the local Earp reputation, Virgil was elected as Colton city constable on July 2, 1886. With that, he disbanded the detective agency. In the next year's election he became City Marshal.11
Soon apparent, that position wasn't what he was used to. It paid $75/month. He mostly dealt with drunks and vagrants. He used his own funds to pay for needed repairs and materials. He even had to dig and clear the jail's sewer line himself! He gave his resignation in March 1889.1
To make money at first Virgil arranged boxing matches in San Bernardino. He'd had some experience doing that with Wyatt in their early days.11 He applied for a pension per the chronic problems from his work injuries. When approved he received $12/month. For steady work, he managed a gambling hall in 1890.11
They next moved to San Luis Obispo. Virgil and Allie followed horse racing. He started betting at the track there.11 It wasn't as good as they thought it would be, so they moved on.
Next, to Vanderbilt California in April 1893.11 A gold camp close to the Nevada state line. He opened a saloon, calling it Earp's Hall. Upstairs was a large room for dances, boxing matches, and even Sunday church services. People took to him, liking his quiet, friendly personality. Yet when he ran for their constable position in 1894, he didn't win.1
Wyatt and his wife Josie headed to the gold-mining town, Cripple Creek Colorado. Virgil and Allie left to meet up with them. They planned to open a saloon.
But Cripple Creek already met its hey-day and was booming. With countless saloons already. Did it need another? No!11 Virgil soon realized this. So he took Allie and they moved to Arizona again. They remembered how they liked it there.
Virgil and Allie went where they'd first resided: Prescott, AZ. They settled on a ranch in Kirkland Valley, south of town.1 This time Virgil thought he'd try mining.
He talked to W.H. Harlon. Together they leased the Grizzly Mine. They worked the mine, looking for gold ore one day. It was November 7, 1896. Suddenly there was a cave-in! Virgil was knocked out. Rock and dirt fell on top of him. He was badly injured with a hip dislocation, contusions and lacerations all over. Plus a large, bleeding head wound. He needed crutches for some time.11
As he recovered, he focused on his ranch. He also helped with Prescott's law work in town. When needed, they'd deputize him.11
In late 1898 Virgil received a letter in the mail. Coming from Oregon, from a woman. She'd read in newspapers about the O.K. Corral shootout. Of course it mentioned Virgil Earp, stating his current location.
The letter was from Mrs. Levi Law. Her letter asked: was he the Virgil Earp who'd married Ellen Rysdam in 1861 in Iowa? She said if true, then she was Nellie Jane, his now grown daughter!1
Virgil and Allie were amazed and thrilled! They began corresponding. Nellie Jane planned to visit them in Arizona. But her daughter got pneumonia, making the trip impossible.
Instead, in April 1899 Virgil traveled to Portland OR to see his daughter and granddaughter. He stayed two weeks.14 Virgil discovered he had two other grandchildren, and a great-grandchild on the way.11 The following year Nellie Jane got to visit Arizona.1
Virgil was still popular enough in Prescott to get nominated for Sheriff in 1900. The Republican nominee for Yavapai County. But before the election, he withdrew for some reason.1
Virgil often returned to Colton to visit family. He began selling his farm animals in 1902. He also began selling off his Prescott properties.11 He probably thought of returning to live in Colton.
The problem with Colton was that small town had an ordinance which only allowed one saloon. Virgil got involved in petitioning to repeal that law. The churches were against that. The council did repeal it. Only the replacement just allowed one more saloon, for a total of two! That liquor license went to T.J. Tuschman.1 This outcome didn't align with Virgil's plans. Seemed it wasn't worth another battle. So instead he and Allie moved to Goldfield Nevada in 1904.11
Why Goldfield now? A new, booming gold-mining town. Virgil Earp was in no shape at this time in life to go into mining. He didn't have much for investment into business ventures. He had his reliable pension. Allie could earn money with sewing.
He got a job as an enforcer. Some called the position a special officer. Maybe it was a bouncer, really, at a local casino: the National Club.11 Somewhat related to his prior law positions, if you stretch it. After all, he wasn't in the best shape of his life, plus all his injuries. It was a limited area to cover.
He had his notable experience, though. He soon got back into true law enforcement. He became the Deputy Sheriff of Esmeralda County on January 26, 1905. He served under Sheriff J.F. Bradley.11
Virgil began serving as Deputy Sheriff. But within a few months he was feeling ill. What was it that was leading to his death? It was pneumonia. He tried fighting it, using treatments of the time. He seemed better for a while, but then had a set-back. In October 1905 it was serious. He went into St. Mary's County Hospital, on Euclid Avenue in Goldfield.15
That's where he succumbed to pneumonia on October 19, 1905. Virgil Earp was 63 years old when he died.11 Allie was at his side, holding his hand in his last moments.15
Allie sent a telegram informing Virgil's daughter, Nellie Jane. Saying her father had passed on. She advised if she wanted to have him, she should act fast. Because Wyatt would claim his body.
Nellie Jane's son-in-law, Alex Bertrand, went to Goldfield. He acted in her behalf to bring back Virgil Earp in his coffin. Virgil was buried in the Bertrand family plot. That's located in River View Cemetery in Portland Oregon. It's the state of Oregon's oldest non-profit cemetery, originating in 1882.14
Allie returned to the Colton California home that she and Virgil owned. There she spent the rest of her days. She lived to be 98 years old.11
As a lawman Virgil Earp normally tried reason first, then using force only when necessary. And deadly action only as a last resort. Through the years many people commented on his personality. They usually had kind or admirable things to say. In the Tombstone area, many held bitter opinions of the Earps, including Virgil.
Now it's difficult to know how to judge someone who has been dead many years. There are always two sides to a story. Surely Virgil Earp had some faults. Yet, he was probably trying to do his best in law enforcement. Everyone who reads his story, and studies his history will make their own conclusions.
1 Paul, J.S. & Carlisle, G. (2002, February). Frontier lawman Virgil Earp. Wild West. Retrieved from www.historynet.com/frontier-lawman-virgil-earp.htm
2 Simkin, J. (2014, August). Virgil Earp. Spartus Educational Ltd. Retrieved from spartacus-educational.com/WWearpV.htm
3 Friedman, R. (1997). Tracking down Oregon. Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers Ltd.
4 Ganstra, P. (2010, July 25). Earps were shooting long before the OK corral. Civil War Primer retrieved from www.civilwarprimer.com/2010/07/earps-were-shooting-long-before-the-ok-corral/
5 Beltman, B.W. (December 1997). Nineteenth century Dutch migrants extraordinaire on the prairie-plains. Retrieved from www.aadas.nl/sites/default/files/proceedings/1997_12_Beltman.pdf
6 Hopper, P. (n.d.). Of Roseville, CA. Via San Bernardino County Archives. 777 East Rialto Ave, San Bernardino, CA
7 Clavin, T. (2017). Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the wickedest town in the American West. New York: St. Martin's Press.
8 Cataldo, N.R. (n.d.). The Earp clan: The Southern California years. As re-edited on the City of San Bernardino History Index page: Wyatt Earp in San Bernardino. Retrieved from www.ci.san-bernardino.ca.us/about/history/wyatt_earp.asp
9 Palmquist, R.F. (1982, May). Arizona affairs: An interview with Virgil Earp. Real West Magazine. Retrieved from web.archive.org/web/20090423122018/http://www.angelfire.com/co4/earpgang/interviewtwo.html
10 The Weekly Arizona Miner (Friday, 19 October, 1877). The victims of their own folly. Prescott, Arizona. Retrieved from www.newspapers.com/image/49592834
11 Charles River Editors (n.d.) Legends of the West: Virgil Earp and Morgan Earp. Harvard and MIT Alumni.
12 Ball, L. D. (Autumn 1973). Pioneer Lawman: Crawley P. Dake and law enforcement on the Southwestern frontier. The Journal of Arizona History. Arizona Historical Society. 14 (3), pp 243–256. JSTOR 41695121.
13 Marks, P. M. (1996). And die in the West: The story of O.K. Corral gunfight. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-2888-7.
14 John, F.J.D. (2010, September 27). Why legendary Old West lawman Virgil Earp is buried in Oregon. Offbeat Oregon History. Retrieved at offbeatoregon.com/H1009d_virgil-earp-buried-in-portland.html
15 Goldfield Historic Walking Tour Booklet (2013, August). The Goldfield Historical Society, a 501c.3 Non Profit organization. 4th Edition. Retrieved from goldfieldhistoricalsociety.com/Goldfield_2013_Booklet_Web.pdf
16 The Weekly Arizona Miner (1880, July 30). The Chinese Must Go, p3; Prescott AZ.
17 Williams, R. & Courtney, B. (2019, March 7). Event Lecture: Virgil Earp: Toughest of the Earps? Schieffelin Hall, Tombstone AZ.