Family Keeps Up the Brave, Courageous and Bold Earp Legacy
The Earp brothers get out of the saddle of a white Ford pickup and saunter down the dusty road in their long black coats and wide-brim hats, hands resting on their holsters.
Heads turn and low whispers can be heard as the brothers, sporting silver marshal stars, pass by a pizzeria.
“Where’s the gunfight?” cracks an observer.
The fight for these Earps is with history, maintaining the legacy and philosophy of their famous lawmen cousins--Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp--whose showdown at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., became the stuff of Wild West legend.
The modern-day Earp brothers work to keep the story alive, dressing the part and making appearances at county fairs, fund-raising events and historical society meetings.
Don, Cliff and Zack Earp grew up in nearby Riverside hearing the story of the Oct. 26, 1881, gunfight between the Earps and Doc Holliday and the Cowboy gang, led by Ike Clanton, that left three people dead and two of the Earp brothers wounded. They heard how Morgan Earp was gunned down in a saloon in the months after the shootout and how Wyatt Earp took revenge for the death.
“Growing up, we just took it for granted--part of the family history,” said Don Earp, a sixth cousin to the three legendary brothers. “It wasn’t until this group wanted to use the Earp family name in a wild West show that this all started.”
“We wanted to make sure it was handled appropriately,” he said. “We wanted to make sure the right story was told. . . . The Clantons have relatives too.”
Today they also use their public-speaking opportunities to dispel myths.
For example, they tell listeners that the Earp brothers didn’t leave Tombstone immediately after the shootout as Hollywood movies have portrayed. They were arrested and charged with murder for the deaths of Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury. After a three-month trial, they were acquitted.
After the shootout and trial, Virgil brought Morgan’s body to San Bernardino County and buried him in Colton. Virgil eventually served as sheriff. Wyatt occasionally came to visit.
“Our family and the history of this area are tied together,” said Cliff Earp, standing a few hundred yards from where Morgan was buried.
The brothers also tell people it wasn’t until a book about the gunfight was published in the early 1900s that the gunfight became part of the American memory.
“Wyatt was sort of well known at the time. But it wasn’t until that book was written that he enjoyed a second round of fame,” Don Earp said.
Since then, dozens of books have been written and movies made about the brothers. There was even a television show, “Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” that ran from 1955 to 1961, starring Hugh O’Brian.
“I think the gunfight was the culmination of everything that happened in the old West--the violence, the romance, the loyalty of the time,” said Cliff Earp. “Sometimes I think we spend a lot of time looking back at that stuff because there isn’t anything like it now. Today we have basketball players and celebrities.”
To emphasize the point, the three brothers say they have adopted the philosophy of their famous cousins, who when asked by one of their wives shortly after the gunfight why they weren’t included in life-and-death decisions was reportedly told: “This is between family.”
“No matter if they are wrong, they will stand side by side,” said Livia Earp, Don Earp’s wife.
Although none of the brothers pursued law enforcement careers like their famous cousins, each has a history of public service, serving on local school boards.
“That’s part of the Earp family philosophy--give back to the community,” Cliff Earp said. “That’s what Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan did, if you think about it. They gave back to their community, making it a safer place.”
Of the three, Zack Earp, 51, is the historian, answering dozens of letters and e-mails requesting information about the family history. He is also the only brother to adopt the identity of their famous cousins during re-creations of the shootout, held annually at Wyatt Earp’s Old West Days in Moreno Valley.
Cliff Earp, 57, and Don Earp, 55, say they just play themselves.
“We got in the game a little late, and there are already people who have taken on the role,” Don said.
They also admit to having some fun with their cousins’ personas.
Cliff Earp, dressed as Wyatt, once presented the Razzie Award for worst actor to Kevin Costner for “Wyatt Earp.” Costner didn’t show up at the awards ceremony.
The brothers also have found another way to pass on the family name. Zack Earp’s grandson was named after Wyatt, and Don’s grandson was named Morgan.
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